WAVERLY — As Joel Holst looks back on the 2018 Wartburg College baseball season, he sees a number of individuals who performed well.
The longtime Knights head coach also sees a team that as a whole did not achieve to the level of its overall talent as what is traditionally one of the top teams in Division III finished 26-13 overall and 15-6 in the American Rivers Conference.
Wartburg’s team will have a different look this spring.
“We’re very excited about the potential related to our group here this season,” said Holst, who graduated 25 seniors the last two years. “I think as coaches we get excited about the youth component because we know we have guys for an extended period of time. Sometimes it’s difficult with a lot of seniors because they’re dealing with a lot of things that are real related to life.
“Last year the seniors that we had, at least positionally, really kind of struggled. Struggled in different parts of the game ... I think more from an offensive standpoint.”
Holst has 13 juniors and 11 sophomores who have waited for their chance and are the now the nucleus of the squad.
Four of the top six pitchers are back — Dylan Gotto, Darren Kilpatrick, Ben Milewski and Tony Rex. Elsewhere on the field, Emmanual Jeffery (.500), Parker Ridge (.299), JoJo McNair (.288), Adam Sacia, Joseph Baumann, Tyler Hovick, Tyler Nunemaker and Ryan King Jr. have starting experience.
Ridge will move from third to short, McNair will take over in center, Hovick will start at second and Baumann moves into the No. 1 spot at catcher.
“Compared to a little bit of the underachieving we did last year, basically our program right now in our early practices is about overachieving,” Holst noted. “As coaches, that’s our goal. You want a group of kids to overachieve.”
Wartburg has been picked to finish third in the American Rivers Conference behind Dubuque and Coe.
“I really think from top to bottom it’s gonna be a dogfight,” said Holst. “It’ll be interesting to see who can overachieve.”
It’s all about pitching for the Knights as they try to improve on a 17-17 season that included a 5-11 American Rivers Conference record.
Record-setting slugger Mara Forsyth and her nine homers and 31 RBIs are gone, as are Sara Martin’s four homers and 19 RBIs. In fact, the roster returns just one home run.
Seniors Kailee O’Brien (.358) and Liz Roby Miklus (.321) return to lead a team that will be built around speed and execution.
“They both hit at the top of our lineup and they can put a lot of pressure on a defense,” said Wartburg coach Jamie Mueller.
“I’m excited to see what we can do offensively this year because I think individually a lot of our players have grown from last year to this year. Our hope is that between the speed and the contact hitters that we have ... we’re just going to go 60 feet at a time and try to score some runs that way.”
It’ll be up to the defense and pitching staff to keep the games close.
That pitching group includes sophomore lefty Lauren Reicks, sophomore Maddie Rog and senior Brenna Gray, a former Waterloo West standout who is working her way back from a torn labrum. Freshman Madison Hiestand will compete for innings, as well.
Mueller will challenge her team early with a schedule that includes seven top 25 opponents.
If the fall season is an accurate indication, good things await this spring. The Knights were among the leaders in all four fall events, including a victory in a meet they hosted.
True, the program graduated one of the program’s most accomplished players in Tanner Randall, but coach Jason Steege has a mix of proven veterans and talented newcomers eager to hit the links.
Brandon Russell, a sophomore from Ankeny, earned all-confererence honors a year ago. Senior Matt McAleer has been a fixture among the starting five since he arrived on campus.
“Those are two returning guys we’re going to lean on heavily for our spring season,” said Steege.
Freshmen Landen Pace, Micah Harber and Carsen Bellis are among the freshmen who will challenge for spots in the top five.
“We have high expectations for our group,” said Steege. “With that being said, there’s going to be a little bit more inexperience this year than we’ve had in the past but we’re excited about what this group can accomplish and looking forward to competing for a conference championship in the spring of the year.”
Wartburg’s season started in early February and the Knights are off to a 2-1 start.
Coach Chris Gustas has five seniors leading the way and a top six that features freshman Lucas Huffman of Linn-Mar High at the No. 1 spot along with junior Grant Kincaid, sophomore Nate Kolz, senior Will McDonald, senior Sam Nettleton and Ben Mason. Seniors Jonathon Lansink, Eliott Kuchera and Colin Jacobs add quality depth.
Luther and Coe will be tough to beat in the American Rivers Conference, but Gustas expects his Knights to enjoy a successful season, too.
“You don’t necessarily expect that you’ll be the most talented team on the court every single meet, but I think we can have the expectation that we’ll be the most mentally tough team each time,” said Gustas. “I have never seen or been so aware of a team’s mental toughness as I was last weekend with them.”
Coach Anna Meerbach saw signs of growth within her young program a year ago and is looking forward to more during a 2019 season that is scheduled to begin Sunday.
Wartburg, 6-10 overall and 3-8 in conference play last year, has more players than ever — 19 — and returns its three leading scorers and its No. 1 goalkeeper. Sophomore Bri Greiskalns had 44 goals and 13 assists last season, senior Ashlyn Jelinek added 38 goals and two assists and junior Alex Pollock contributed 34 goals and five helpers.
“Overall, we’re making some big changes to our offensive looks and what we’re doing on attacks,” said Meerbach. “As a group they’ve really been pushing themselves outside of their box and outside of their comfort zones.”
The defensive corps could feature as many as three freshmen.