GREENWOOD – After a challenging first season in 2017, Lander head baseball coach Jason Burke looks to get the Bearcats back on track in 2018. On the heels of the program's second trip to the College World Series in three years, Lander finished 2017 with a 21-31 overall record, bowing out of the Peach Belt Conference Tournament after a pair of one-run losses.
With eight returning starters and a second-year coaching staff, hopes are high for a return to prominence.
"[This offseason] has been very different," said Burke. "You get the job [last] August, don't know the league, don't know your players, don't have your full coaching staff assembled, and you're kind of in scramble mode. Seeing the level of competition in the Peach Belt opened my eyes. Going into the second year, we're older, we're more experienced, we've got better leadership on the field. I think my coaching staff and I learned a lot, so that means better leadership off the field. We added a lot of pieces and I feel like we're way more equipped to make a run at the Peach Belt title."
The graduations from last year's squad were few, but impactful. The Bearcats lost their two top starting pitchers from last season, Cameron Tekker (5-2, 4.78 ERA) and Colton Rogers (4-0, 3.81 ERA), as well as their top hitter in Reed Gray (.343, nine doubles, 23 RBI).
Lander returns its entire starting infield from a season ago, led by sophomores Colton Yeager (Jacksonville, Fla.) and Nathan Schreckengost (Winter Garden, Fla.). Yeager is Lander's top returning hitter, having posted a .327 batting average during his freshman campaign, while Schreckengost hit a team-high 14 home runs in his first season in Greenwood. The left side of the infield features juniors Bailey Connell (Waxhaw, N.C.) and Mason Dodd (Augusta, Ga.). Connell started all 52 games last season and Dodd led the Bearcats with 39 RBI. Burke can also turn to junior Vincent Addona (Cary, N.C., College of Central Florida) or freshman Tyler Lala (Lutz, Fla.) on the infield. Sophomore BJ Bush (West Columbia, S.C.) provides depth at second base, while sophomore catcher Mike Fitschen (Margate, Fla.) and freshman Jordan Gibert (Anderson, S.C.) can play first base.
"I thought that group did a nice job last year," Burke said. "The challenge for me coming into this year is you've got all those guys back and you've got good players behind them. Vinny Addona had an unbelieveable fall. Tyler Lala had a really, really good fall for a freshman. If you take first base out of the mix, you've got five guys for three spots. I've got a lot of options and five guys that I'm very comfortable with. If they all stay healthy, the job for me will be seeing who fits best where. At first base, you expect Schreck to be your everyday guy there, but you've also got Mike Fitschen, who's transformed himself into a player. If you put him there, that allows Schreck to DH, which might be good for him to keep him fresh. I love our options on the infield.
The Bearcats have two key returnees in the outfield in senior Alex Conaway (Aiken, S.C.) and junior Carson Jones (Asheville, N.C.). Conaway, an everyday starter last season, tallied 11 doubles, five triples, seven home runs and 33 RBI, while Jones led the team in doubles.
"Conaway was our team leader last season and has a had a great career here," said Burke. "I expect nothing less this year, he had a great fall. I don't know if he'll player center of left field. If nobody steps up who can take centerfield, I'll probably move Conaway over. Carson provides a lot of power and spark. Everyone likes Carson's energy and both he and Conaway bring the x-factor that they're both likeable guys that everybody wants to root for. The mindset of this team has been a lot different than last year and I think that has a lot to do with those two guys."
Other options in the outfield for Lander include senior Conner Davis (Irmo, S.C.); sophomores Jacob Childress (Greenwood, S.C.), Cole Weaver (Charlotte, N.C.) and Brice Kriven (Lexington, S.C., USC Sumter); and freshmen Kyle Jenkins (Summerville, S.C.) and Bo Richey (Westfield, Ind.).
Behind the plate, the move of last year's starter Ryan Troutman (St. George, S.C.) to the mound means a three-man race for the starting position. Fitschen appeared in 19 games for Lander last season and is competing with junior Luke Johnson (Jarrettsville, Md., Harford C.C.) and sophomore Zack Moore (Holly Springs, N.C., East Carolina) for the job.
"Trout caught the majority of the games last season," Burke said. "I had a phone call with him this summer and said 'we've got two transfer catchers coming in, what do you think about pitching?' He was super excited about it. I think he knows he can help us out there more than behind the plate. I would say Mike has most advanced approach out of our catchers. Luke, bar none, has the most pop and power and Zack is the best defensive catcher. If the season started today, I'd probably go with Zack because he can also hit. Luke will get time at DH, time at catcher and probably time in the outfield. Mike will get time at catcher, at DH, and probably at first. The cool thing about our catchers is I'd like to have all three of them in the lineup. The bad news is, if all three are in the lineup, no one's catching bullpens."
On the mound, junior Sam Linn (Fletcher, N.C.) and senior JD Cook (Asheville, N.C.) highlight the returners. Linn started a team-high 12 games last season, while Cook sported a 2-1 record and a 2.89 ERA before an injury ended his season early. Juniors Joseph Whitt (Graniteville, S.C.) and Robbie Hoyt (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.) were two of the top bullpen arms last season. Whitt recorded a team-high four saves, while Hoyt led the staff with 25 appearances.
The rest of the pitching staff includes grad students Harper Grier (Spartanburg, S.C.) and Chris Sheehan (Boca Raton, Fla, Wofford); juniors Erik Holton (Irmo, S.C.), Tripper Ergle (Blythewood, S.C.), Tim Kranz (Babylon, N.Y., Harford C.C.), Alex Moore (Sarasota, Fla., Eckard College) and Troutman; sophomores Praise Thorsen (Myrtle Beach, S.C.), Fraser Ellard (Roswell, Ga., Truett McConnell), Ryan Flores (Garner, N.C.) and Marshall Thompson (Juliette, Ga.); and freshmen Nick Clary (North Augusta, S.C.), Cole Phillips (Greenville, S.C.), Carson Schlegel (Clermont, Fla.), Zeke Stephens (Greer, S.C.) and Justin Wager (Orange Park, Fla.) Cook, Ellard, Flores, Holton and Whitt are southpaws.
"The thing I've seen from our pitchers," said Burke, "is that all the guys who came back are better. JD Cook is back healthy, which will help us. Alex Moore transferred in and he's a guy who could help us out a lot. Chris Sheehan comes in and should be able to help us. Fraser Ellard, if he's healthy, is a guy who could help us out a lot, but you also add in the guys who pitched for us last year. Tripper Ergle's in better shape and his stuff's better. Joseph Whitt, better shape and his stuff's better. Praise Thorsen is a guy we get back [from Tommy John surgery] and you're really excited to have him back. Robbie Hoyt had a good year for us last year and his stuff's better. We have a bunch of pieces who have gotten better and can now handle a bigger load."
Having learned plenty in his first season as a head coach, Burke believes he and his staff are ready to help Lander return to the postseason and beyond.
"I think every assistant that gets a head coaching job thinks they're ready", Burke said, "and I was no different. [After last season], I'm better at managing people now, I'm better at managing emotions. I've taken a lot of time this offseason to really make sure these guys understand that even if they're not in the lineup, they can come in and talk to me."
With a team that is itching to experience success on the diamond, Burke says there is no thought of a slow climb back to the top of the league.
"Our message is pretty clear," said Burke. "The top three teams in the Peach Belt will go [to the postseason] every year. We feel like that league is good enough to do that. That is our expectation, we should be there competing for a chance to go to Cary. We're not going to say 'we finished seventh last year, this year it'd be nice to finish sixth or fifth.' We're not trying to do that. We want to win a championship and to win a championship, you've got to put yourself in that situation."