Men’s baseball team gears up for season

Danny Spatchek, Sports Editor

A preseason poll voted on by the Northern Athletic Conference’s (NAC) coaches tabbed the Lakeland baseball team to finish ninth in the league. The poll was released on Friday, Feb. 19.

Rockford, who was one game shy of the 2009 conference crown, was the favorite to win with 131 points, including five first-place votes. Aurora, along with last year’s conference and tournament champion Concordia Chicago, tied for second in the polls by collecting 124 votes apiece.

Lakeland finished 10-12 in NAC play and 13-24 overall en route to a ninth place finish in 2009. The Muskies look to improve on that mark in 2010 as they return all nine starters and their top two pitchers.

“We have certain expectations, and we’re hoping they meet them,” Lakeland coach Chris Thousand said. “Practices have gone well so far. The team is focused on the goals they’ve set for themselves this year, and we think they can accomplish them.”

Junior right-hander Mike Ruzek, first-team All-NAC performer a season ago, leads the Muskie hurlers. The Lakeland ace pitched two shutouts among three complete games in 2009, and finished in the top 10 in a number of statistical categories. Ruzek led the team with his 3.77 earned run average and 62 innings pitched.

Senior pitcher Lee Chepil will be another pitching constant this season. Last season, the right-hander tossed what is believed to be Lakeland baseball’s first-ever perfect game when he struck out eight Maranatha Baptist batters in a 10-run-rule-shortened 18-0 victory on April 4, 2009 in Watertown, Wis.

The remaining seniors, infielder Doug Novak and outfielder Jacob Heinemeyer, look to duplicate stellar seasons from a year ago. Novak’s .314 batting average ranked first among the team’s regulars and he led the team in total bases, doubles, and walks with 54, 13, and 17, respectively. Heinemeyer hit .282 and led the team with eight stolen bases, 131 at-bats, and 29 runs scored.

Sophomore outfielder Mike Huber took Lakeland’s second NAC award, making the All-Freshmen team. Huber posted 11 doubles and 16 RBIs in 2009.

Lakeland will travel to Fort Meyers, Fla. over spring break to play in the Gene Cusic Classic. Thousand named his pitchers for the Classic, a tournament that features many of the country’s top division 3 squads.

“After Mike and Lee, Matt Katzman (junior) and freshman Andy Chitwood will start in Florida. Jeremy Williams, Erik Kozey, Doug Novak and Andrew Schartner will be the relievers,” Thousand said.

Other than Chitwood, Thousand expects contributions from freshmen Kody Riemer, Justin Reminger, and Matt Krueger.

Thousand said he is excited about the progression of this year’s team.

“We’ve been patient for the last 2 years while we’ve been getting guys to this point and now we’re excited to see the outcome,” Thousand said. “The biggest difference is that this year practices are spent less on teaching and more on moving on to the next level faster. People aren’t expecting much from us outside of the program and we want to prove them wrong.”

Lakeland opens the Gene Cusic Classic on March 14 with a doubleheader against Finlandia.


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