For a New England baseball team, every outdoor practice in February represents a gift from Mother Nature.
“The schedule will never be an excuse for us — whether or not we can get outside — because there are teams that don’t get outside until they play their first game, and they end up having a great year,” said Head Coach Grant Achilles. “It’s really about the method in which we approach every day and go about our business.”
While Brown has benefitted from a relatively mild 2016 winter, the team will open its season with 10 straight road games over the first three weekends of the season. But thanks to a strong core of returning players, the Bears are hoping that the long road stretch will be the start of a successful spring.
Returning from last year’s team that finished the year 11-28 overall and 6-14 in the Ivy League are six position players who were regular starters.
Leading the way is a pair of veteran outfielders: Rob Henry ’17 and Jake Levine ’16, who led the team in batting average, hitting .363 and .331, respectively.
Henry had a standout season as a sophomore: His 58 hits were more than any player in the Ivy League in 2015. His .363 average and 17 doubles were second-best in the league, and he led the team in nearly every other offensive category. Those numbers earned him a place on the all-conference second team. This year, he was Baseball America’s pick for the 2016 preseason player of the year for the Ivy League.
“Rob had a pretty special year last year,” Achilles said. “The notoriety in the media to date is something that shouldn’t bring pressure for him, but it should just bring the expectation of showing up and playing hard every day and then letting the results speak for themselves.”
Henry and Levine will undoubtedly be a force in the Bruno lineup, but the returning four out of five regular infielders from last season are perhaps an even greater source of optimism.
Josh Huntley ’17, Noah Shulman ’16, Tim McKeithan ’16 and Marc Sredojevic ’17 all played significant innings as starters last season and should be mainstays in the lineup once again.
The veteran group emerges as the leadership of the team as it seeks the program’s first Ivy League title since 2007.
“You work hard for the first few years, and you see your hard work pay off,” Shulman said. “Now you’re older and finally getting the chance to know that you are being counted on.”
“The dynamic of the team has changed in that the leaders are more apparent this year than they ever have been in the past,” said Austin French ’16.
Out of the group, Shulman had the best season at the plate, finishing with seven home runs and 28 RBI, the most for any Brown hitter. He should round out Brown’s lineup as one of the team’s more imposing power hitters.
Achilles said he has used better recruiting classes each year to push this group of returning players even harder, adding that they did a lot on their own in the offseason to improve.
“It seemed like every day I would be walking to my car and I’d see guys walking to the field,” he said.
Achilles said he expects all of the team’s freshman to compete for time on the field, but mentioned specifically JJ Sliepka ’19, Matt Beyer ’19, Willy Homza ’19 and Dalton Schroeder ’19 as potential difference-makers.
McKeithan remarked how talented underclassman have had a legitimate effect on the team. “One of the biggest impacts that I’ve seen is just the depth that we’ve gained over the years,” he said. “It has made our practices a lot better, and I think we’re more prepared this year than we ever have been. It makes you more accountable for the work you are putting in.”
Brown’s experienced lineup of position players should have no problem producing runs, but the team will likely live or die based on the success of the pitching staff.
In 2015, the team ranked in the middle of the conference in nearly every offensive statistic and just as consistently at the bottom for every pitching metric. Brown’s 7.14 team-earned run average put them 281st out of 301 NCAA teams.
Luckily, the team isn’t short on experienced pitching. Key returners include French and Reid Anderson ’18. Anderson was second on the team in innings pitched and strikeouts, and posted a team-best three wins in seven starts as a first-year. French pitched 31.1 innings in 2015 over 10 appearances, three of which were starts.
Another huge boost for the Bears is the return of Christian Taugner ’17, who missed the entire 2015 season with a torn UCL. Taugner impressed with a breakout rookie season in 2014, racking up 49 strikeouts in 52.2 innings as a regular starter with a team-best 2.39 ERA.
The team will rely on Taugner, French and Anderson for innings all season, and they should lead the staff barring injury.
Achilles also said that Henry and Sredojevic worked on pitching in the offseason and could see time on the mound away from their normal positions.
French said the pitching staff has been motivated by collective struggles in seasons past.
“After last year, it was kind of a wake-up call that things need to get better,” he said. “What we have been is definitely not where we’re going to go this year.”
“When we look at the depth of our pitching staff, we probably don’t have one of the deepest groups in the league,” Achilles said. “But I’ll put our guys up against anybody else. If we can just keep the rest of the staff healthy, it’s certainly going to be something that works out better for us.”
Brown is especially fortunate to have had competitive preseason practices and good weather as they waste no time squaring off against top competition.
The team opens the season March 4-6 in Cary, N.C., at the USA Baseball-Irish Classic, where they will face Bucknell, Notre Dame and Alabama. The Bears will play a four-game road series at Marshall the next weekend. Before opening their home slate in late March, the team will travel to Orlando to play Central Florida and Bradley.
April will be a busy month for the Bears, as they will play 23 games, including all 20 Ivy League contests.
As for next weekend’s opening games, the team is going with a different mindset than in years past.
“You’re excited to see where you stack up against the best teams in the country,” Shulman said. “Maybe in years past, you’re just hoping for a good game. But this year, we go in thinking we actually have a chance to show the rest of the country what we’re made of.”