ATHENS, Ohio -- For the second time in the last three years, head coach Rob Smith has his Ohio baseball team entering a new season as the reigning Mid-American Conference tournament champions.
Defending a title is not at the forefront of the sixth-year skipper of the Bobcats mind, however.
"It's a clean slate," stated Smith. "In order for any team to win our conference tournament, or even our regular season, is such a challenge. It's a difficult thing to do. You come into the next season understanding how difficult it is to do that. You realize that it's a brand new year and you have a lot of work that you've got to put in and a lot of things that have to fall into place. We know the league is going to be strong again this year. We feel confident that we're going to be a very competitive team within that league. If we can stay healthy and get better as the year goes on, the hope is that you're in a similar as we were a year before."
The Bobcats put together late-season push in 2017 to get themselves in the conference tournament, then went out and won the whole thing.
Ohio finished with 31 wins a year ago -- including 11 in MAC play, which placed Ohio fifth in the overall league standings. No. 5-seeded Ohio capped an improbable league postseason run by defeating No. 3-seeded Eastern Michigan, 7-4, to clinch the 2017 MAC Championship title on May 28 at Sprenger Stadium in Avon, Ohio. Ohio earned its third MAC tournament title (1997, 2015, '17) with the victory. The Bobcats opened 2017 MAC Championship play by beating No. 4-seeded Ball State, 4-3, on May 24. Ohio then advanced to the winner's bracket final thanks to a late-night 5-3 win over No. 1-seeded Kent State the following day. The Bobcats eliminated the Golden Flashes with a 7-2 victory on May 27, marking the fourth time in five tries Ohio emerged victorious over MAC regular season champion Kent State in 2017.
After missing the national postseason tournament 17 years in a row, Ohio punched its second NCAA Regional ticket in the last three years as the MAC's automatic bid with the victory over Eastern Michigan, advancing to the 2017 NCAA Championship Lexington Regional. The No. 4 regionally-seeded Bobcats fell to No. 1 regionally-seeded Kentucky, 6-4, on June 4, then dropped an 11-2 decision to No. 2 regionally-seeded Indiana the following day.
In 2015, the Bobcats won the MAC tournament title and advanced to NCAA regional play for the first time under Smith. Their title defense in 2016 did not go as planned, as the Bobcats went 23-29 and 8-16 in league play.
"It's something that we talked about," said Smith. "I think there were some tough lessons learned in 2016. We got caught up in a lot of different distractions. I think we saw how that made it difficult. Even how we coached the team, I think there were some things that we learned about that season in terms of even how we handled the team coming off of a championship year that I'm certainly going to be aware of as the head coach and how we go about certain things. We've made some points to the players to be aware of some of the things that made that season more challenging than it should have been given the amount of talent that we had. I think it was a good learning opportunity for us, and I think that we were able to take from that year some of the lessons that we learned as coaches and players and maybe avoid some of those mistakes that we made then."
To avoid a repeat of what happened in 2016, Smith will look to his pitching staff to be the strength of the '18 squad. Under the watchful eye of Smith, Ohio established itself as one of the top pitching staffs in the MAC in 2017. The Bobcats owned a 4.42 team ERA, which ranked second-best in the league. Ohio also ranked second in walks allowed per nine innings (4.12), third in strikeouts per nine innings (8.2) and fourth in hits allowed per nine innings (9.12). The Bobcats' pitching staff logged a program-record 483 strikeouts, breaking the previous mark of 420 set in 2003. Ohio's pitching staff recorded five shutout victories in 2017 after posting just one in 52 games in '16.
"A vast majority of our innings are back from last year's pitching staff that set the school record for strikeouts and led the league in ERA for the good portion of the season last year, so we feel confident in their experience," said Smith.
Back in the starting rotation are redshirt senior southpaw Gerry Salisbury (Brunswick, Ohio), redshirt senior right-hander Michael Klein (Highlands Ranch Colo.), who also returns as Ohio's designated hitter, and senior lefty Butch Baird (Big Prairie, Ohio). Salisbury threw a career-high 92.1 innings and struck out a career-high 75 batters to lead the team. Klein made 14 starts on the mound, going 5-3 with a 3.48 ERA and 58 strikeouts over 67.1 innings of work. He led the team in wins and ranked third in both strikeouts and ERA, with his ERA ranking fifth in the MAC. Baird threw 66.2 innings, which ranked third on the team, and struck out 59 batters to rank second on the team.
Ohio returns one of the best closers in the country in redshirt senior right-handed pitcher Jake Roehn (Sandwich, Ill.), who tallied a program record 15 saves in 2017 to earn First Team All-MAC honors. His career saves total stands at 22 entering the 2018 season, which is tied with Chad Reed (1989-92) for the most in program history. He named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association's 2018 Stopper of the Year Preseason Watch List last week and was also named a 2018 Collegiate Baseball Preseason Third Team All-American in December.
"The reason it's going to be our strength is just the way our entire staff works as a whole on a day-in and day-out basis," said redshirt senior catcher Nick Bredeson (Bloomfield Hills, Mich.), who is intimately familiar with the pitching staff. "The last couple of years I've been really impressed with the pride that the pitchers take in how they go about their business on a day-to-day basis. I think that has a lot to do with their success."
Another strength of the Bobcats in 2017 was their defense, particularly the play of their infield. Ohio finished 2017 ranked 12th in the nation with a .980 fielding percentage. Junior Rudy Rott (Holmen, Wis.) returns to play first base after a sophomore campaign in which he garnered All-MAC Defensive Team selection. Gone, however, are second baseman Ty Black, shortstop Tyler Finkler and third baseman Connor Callery. Finkler was named the 2017 MAC Defensive Player of the Year while Callery reeled in Second Team All-MAC honors. Sophomore Trevor Hafner (Perrysburg, Ohio) is projected to start at shortstop for the Bobcats in 2018 after transferring to Ohio from Sinclair Community College, but the spots at second and third will remain up for grabs in non-conference play.
"We're going to need those guys to continue to get better as the year goes," said Smith of his infield. "It's no secret that our defense was arguably the strongest part of our team last year. We lost some key components to that defense. That's going to have a little bit of a different look, and we're just going to have some patience with it. We understand that we're not going to be as sound defensively probably out of the gate as we were last year. We're just going to have to see improvement. We're going to have to really figure out who is going to settle into what positions, too. There's a lot of question marks that, really, only game play is going to answer for us. As we go through the first five or so weeks prior to conference, that's what we're going to use that time to figure out."
As a veteran catcher, Bredeson is doing his part to help his inexperienced infield grow.
"I think the biggest thing for some is to just stress to the guys in practice that there's a reason that we do the things we do and that there's a reason that we were one of the best defenses in the nation last year," said Bredeson. "It's because we go about the little things every single day, and we take pride in them. It might get monotonous at times, but just reminding them that defense was once in the same boat as them, inexperienced freshmen getting to play every day. Just going about their business the way that they did got them to where they are."
Ohio gets its first opportunity to see how the 2018 version of its program responds to the challenges ahead of it when it takes on Rider this weekend (Feb. 16-18) in a four-game neutral site set in Lexington, S.C. There will be no live scoring or streaming/radio broadcasts of this weekend's games.
Rider is coming off of a 2017 campaign in which it went 24-28-1 -- including 12-12 in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play. Barry Davis is in his 14th year as head coach of the Broncs. Junior designated hitter Riley Mihalik smacked five home runs to go along with a team-high 12 doubles and 28 RBIs. Sophomore infielder Kyle Johnson smacked a team-best 59 hits for Rider a season ago and also led the squad with 13 stolen bases. Rider returns a pair of weekend starters from last year in sophomores Pete Soporowski and John Yocum. Yocum went 4-4 for the team and tossed 69.1 innings while fanning 67 hitters as a freshman while Soporowski went 2-5 in 66 innings.
Every time Ohio takes the field in 2018, be it practice or non-conference or conference games, Smith wants his squad to do so with one objective in mind.
"Our goal is very singular, and that's to make the conference tournament," said Smith. "That's really the only thing that we've talked about. We don't talk about team batting average or team ERA or any of that staff or even an overall win total. It's really about getting into that conference tournament. We feel like our system and how we put our roster together is designed to play well in tournament formats. Any time you base your system on pitching and defense, I think you're always going to be set up to be competitive in a tournament scenario because all those games are typically lower scoring, they typically require quality defense, and that's really what we train for. The biggest thing for us is that we've got to get in there. Two of the last three years that we've gotten into the tournament, we've fared well. But, you have to do enough during the regular season and manage that component properly in order to position yourself to get to Avon. Once you get there, you hope that the things you've put in place and the types of players you've recruited are designed to find success in that format."
Ohio was picked to finish fourth of 10 teams in the MAC's 2018 preseason poll, which was announced on Thursday (Feb. 15).
After playing Rider this weekend in South Carolina, the Bobcats will head to Atlanta to play four games against both Maine (Feb. 23-25) and Omaha (March 2-4) at Perfect Game's LakePoint facility in Emerson, Ga.