Jackrabbits open season in Mississippi
The South Dakota State University baseball team will open the 2014 season this weekend with four games against Southwestern Athletic Conference opponents in Jackson, Miss.
The Jackrabbits, 35-24 a season ago, make their season debut Friday with a 3 p.m. game against Texas Southern. The two squads will meet again at noon on Saturday. In 2013, Texas Southern finished with a 19-26 overall record, including an 11-12 mark in SWAC play.
SDSU will then play a two-game set against host and defending SWAC champion Jackson State, starting with a 6 p.m. game Saturday. The weekend set concludes with a 1 p.m. contest on Sunday. The Tigers completed the 2013 season with a 34-22 overall record, including a 19-5 mark in league play. After sweeping its way to the SWAC Tournament title, Jackson State fell to Louisiana State (11-7) and Louisiana-Lafayette (15-1) in the Baton Rouge Regional of the NCAA Tournament.
All games will be played at Robert “Bob” Braddy Field.
THE SERIES: This weekend’s games will mark the first-ever contests between the Jackrabbits and both of their opponents.
SDSU played three other SWAC opponents in the past two seasons, combining to post a 6-1-1 record against Alcorn State (Miss.) (2-0), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (2-0-1), and Mississippi Valley State (2-1).
PRESEASON POLLS: The South Dakota State University baseball team has been picked to finish second in the Summit League regular season race, according to a poll conducted among the league’s coaches that was announced on Feb. 6
The Jackrabbits, 35-24 overall last year, turned in a runner-up finish during Summit League regular season play during the 2013 season with a 16-12 record. SDSU went on to claim its first Summit League postseason tournament title last season to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time at the Division I level.
Defending regular season champion Omaha received three first-place votes to claim the top spot in the 2014 preseason poll. SDSU received one first-place vote to garner its second-place projection. North Dakota State was third, followed by Western Illinois in fourth despite receiving a first-place vote. Fort Wayne rounded out the five-team field.
Summit League play begins March 28, when the Jackrabbits travel to Western Illinois for a doubleheader. The 24-game league schedule concludes May 17, followed by the four-team Summit League Baseball Championship May 22-24, which SDSU will host.
MOORE ON PRESEASON RADAR: Jackrabbit relief pitcher J.D. Moore has been named Summit League Preseason Pitcher of the Year by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.
A junior from Mississauga, Ontario, Moore set a Jackrabbit single-season school record with 13 saves in helping lead the Jackrabbits to their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance at the Division I level in 2013. He struck out 38 batters in 31.2 innings and posted a 1.99 earned run average, while limiting the opposition to a .175 batting average.
Collegiate Baseball Newspaper also named senior first baseman Aaron Machbitz, sophomore outfielder Paul Jacobson and junior pitchers Adam Bray and Chris Anderson as Jackrabbit players to watch this year.
In addition, Moore is one of 50 relief pitchers named to the initial watch list for the 10th annual National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year Award. He is one of 17 players on the list who tallied at least 12 saves a season ago.
The watch list will be updated the week of April 21, with finalists named on June 4. The winner of the award will be announced during the 2014 College World Series.
BIG TURNAROUND: The 2013 Jackrabbit baseball team recorded the biggest turnaround in program history, nearly doubling its win total from the previous season.
In 2012, South Dakota State finished with an 18-33-1 record in Dave Schrage’s inaugural season as head coach, missing the Summit League Baseball Championship for the first time since the program became eligible for postseason consideration in 2009. The 2013 edition of the Jackrabbits compiled a 35-24 record to finish with 17 more wins, surpassing the 14-win turnaround between the 1972 (5-14) and 1973 (19-14) squads.
SEASON PREVIEW: After a breakthrough season in 2013, the South Dakota State University baseball team has its sights on an encore performance.
“I think the experience we had last year helped give the players a boost and has the guys come back hungrier,” said head coach Dave Schrage, who enters his third season as head coach.
The Jackrabbits nearly doubled their win total from 2012 to 2013, improving from 18 wins to a 35-24 overall record and their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament at the Division I level.
Picked second in the 2014 Summit League preseason coaches’ poll, SDSU returns a number of battle-tested players in all areas. Six starting position players, including five of the squad’s top six hitters from a season ago, are back.
A verteran pitching staff that is anchored by a strong bullpen also give Schrage and his team reason to be optimistic heading into the Feb. 14 season opener against Texas Southern.
The starting staff will have a different look after graduating its top two starters, but the
“To me, that’s always the hardest thing to replace,” Schrage said of losing the team’s top two starters from a year ago, Layne Somsen and Stephen Bougher, both of whom have gone on to play professionally.
However, a Jackrabbit bullpen anchored by all-region closer J.D. Moore remains mostly intact.
Junior right-hander Adam Bray, who has made 22 career starts, is penciled in as the No. 1 starter to open the season. In 2013, Bray earned second-team all-Summit League honors after compiling a 7-2 record with a 3.19 earned run average.
Junior college transfer Chris Anderson is projected as the No. 2 starter after joining the Jackrabbits following a successful two-year run at Waubonsie Valley Community College in Illinois. A left-hander, Anderson anchored a pitching staff that led Waubonsie Valley to a third-place finish at the NJCAA Division III World Series in 2013, and was impressive in fall workouts with his ability to work both sides of the plate and change speeds.
Also returning to the starting staff is senior Kolton Emery. The right-hander ranks seventh all-time at SDSU with 30 career starts over his first three seasons, compiling a 12-8 record. Emery posted a 4-5 record last season, but came up big in the Summit League Baseball Championship by pitching 7 2/3 shutout frames in the first of two championship games against North Dakota State.
The fourth spot in the starting rotation is likely to be filled by Chad Hodges, who pitched primarily out of the bullpen his first two seasons with the Jackrabbits. However, Hodges found success as a starter over the summer, earning Horizon Air Summer Series Pitcher of the Year honors by compiling a 7-0 record and 2.46 ERA while pitching for the Humboldt (Calif.) Crabs.
Schrage said a number of pitchers remain in contention for the mid-week starter roles. Among returning players, junior Marcus Heemstra and sophomore Joe Erickson are the leading candidates.
Heemstra sat out last season and will not join the team this year until completion of the basketball season. The 6-foot-9 right-hander appeared in a combined 21 games between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, posting a 3-1 record.
Erickson made a pair of starts among his 10 appearances as a freshman in 2013, recording a 3.50 ERA.
Newcomers Derringer Huff and Ryan Froom also are under consideration as mid-week starters. A sophomore, Huff, started 13 games at Lincoln Land Community College (Ill.) in 2013, and could also pitch in long relief out of the bullpen.
Froom, a true freshman, was one of the top prep pitchers in the Twin Cities Metro Area during his senior season at St. Louis Park High School.
Other pitchers who could see mound duties as spot starters or in long relief include juniors Aaron Klatt and Nick Young.
The Jackrabbit bullpen is anchored by all-region closer J.D. Moore. A junior, Moore set an SDSU single-season record with 13 saves in 2013, and held opponents to a .175 batting average while striking out 38 in 31 2/3 innings.
Primary setup man Talon Jumper also returns after a sophomore season in which he posted a 4-2 record with two saves.
Freshman right-hander Ethan Kenkel also will likely see action in late-inning situations, along with sophomore right-hander Andrew Clemen and situational left-hander Blake Fiedelman.
The Jackrabbits return the starting right side of their infield, but are faced with the task of fielding a new left side.
Senior Aaron Machbitz, the lone four-year position player on the team, returns for his third season as the starter at first base. Machbitz is a career .293 hitter who shared the team lead with 36 runs batted in last season. He enters the 2014 campaign fifth on the SDSU career putouts chart with 830.
Fellow senior Jake Ratz could also see some action at first base or designated hitter. Ratz, who has the potential to provide a power bat from the left side, struggled through an injury-plagued 2013 season after transferring from the junior college ranks, but was one of the team’s top hitters in fall workouts.
At second base, junior Al Robbins is the incumbent after a solid first season in a Jackrabbit uniform. The left-handed hitting Robbins batted .263 and was a perfect 7-for-7 in stolen bases in 2013, adding solid defense.
Sophomore Zach Holt, who hit .462 in a reserve role last season, is slated to back up Robbins, but could also vie for playing time in the outfield as he again fills a utility role.
The shortstop position will be up for grabs between senior Tyler Shannon and sophomore Cody Sharrow.
Shannon started 23 games in 2013, including the season opener, and wound up
hitting .244 with three stolen bases. Shannon also could see action on the mound out of the bullpen in 2014.
Sharrow, meanwhile, saw limited action during his freshman season. The Vermont product played both shortstop and second base, batting .333 in eight games.
At third base, junior Jordan Varga and freshman Matt Johnson are locked in a battle for the starting spot and will both see extensive action early in the season, according to Schrage. Both players are left-handed hitters, with Johnson having an edge in the power department.
At catcher, junior Reid Clary and senior Sam Pack return to give the Jackrabbits a
presence defensively in their pursuits of being strong up the middle. Clary was the
regular starting catcher down the stretch of the 2013 season, batting .269 with a home run and 19 RBI.
Pack, meanwhile, hit .257 in limited at-bats.
Four athletic players who all gained extensive starting experience during the 2013 season return to the Jackrabbit outfield.
In left field, Paul Jacobson put together a solid freshman season in 2013. Jacobson batted .293 and led the team with 15 doubles and 10 stolen bases in 47 starts.
Center fielders Eric Danforth and Zach Coppola shared duties last season. A junior, Danforth earned the bulk of the starting assignments down the stretch, hitting .278 with a home run and 17 RBI.
Coppola, who Schrage said was the team’s most improved player during fall workouts, hit .296 and was 9-for-10 in stolen bases during his freshman season.
Scott Splett is again expected to patrol right field for the Jackrabbits. A senior, Splett led the team with 59 hits and 39 runs scored, while batting .288 with two home runs and 32 RBI. An all-tournament selection at the Summit League Baseball Championship, Splett rounded out his strong first season in the SDSU lineup by recording seven outfield assists.
Also vying for playing time in the outfield is sophomore Michael Finochiarro.
The 2014 schedule features a mix of foes that includes two fellow NCAA Tournament qualifiers (Jackson State, Texas-San Antonio), regional major conference opponents (Creighton, Iowa, Minnesota) and mid-major opponents who play a variety of different styles.
“I like how our schedule plays out,” Schrage said. “It will prepare us for what we need to get done.”
The 24-game Summit League schedule kicks off March 28, when the Jackrabbits travel to Western Illinois for a doubleheader.
“I think it will be an interesting race,” Schrage said.
SDSU is scheduled to open the home season April 4 with a Summit League doubleheader versus North Dakota State. That kicks off a 10-game homestand that includes a three-game weekend series against Air Force April 11-13 at a revamped Erv Huether Field.
The Jackrabbits will attempt to successfully defend their league postseason title when they host the Summit League Baseball Championship May 22-24.
COACH SCHRAGE: Veteran baseball coach Dave Schrage (pronounced Schrag) enters his 26th season as a collegiate head coach — and third at South Dakota State University — during the 2014 season. Schrage was hired to take over the reins of the Jackrabbit baseball program on Aug. 8, 2011.
After posting an 18-33-1 record in his first season at South Dakota State, including a 7-14 mark in The Summit League, Schrage directed a big turnaround in 2013, leading SDSU its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament at the Division I level. The Jackrabbits, who ended the season with a 35-24 overall record last season, won four consecutive games to claim their inaugural Summit League postseason tournament title and advance to the Eugene Regional of the NCAA Tournament, where they were edged in a pair of one-run games.
Schrage enters the 2014 campaign with a 649-719-2 career mark, and recorded his 600th career victory on March 19, 2012, when the Jackrabbits posted an 11-8 victory at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. In 25 seasons as a collegiate head coach, he has averaged more than 25 victories per season, including six campaigns with 32 or more wins. He has coached players who have earned all-conference honors 64 times and 40 of his former student-athletes have gone on to play professionally, including Layne Somsen and Stephen Bougher from the Jackrabbits’ 2013 squad.
Prior to South Dakota State, Schrage was head coach at Notre Dame for four seasons, leading the Fighting Irish to a 119-104-1 record from 2007-10. After posting a .500 record (28-28) his first season in South Bend, Schrage put Notre Dame back in contention for postseason play with a 33-21-1 record in 2008 and a 36-23 mark in 2009. The Fighting Irish led the BIG EAST Conference in fielding in both 2008 and 2009, while consistently ranking at or near the top in batting, on-base percentage and earned run average.
Schrage has previously found success at the mid-major level, including a four-year stint at Evansville (Ind.) from 2003-06, during which he guided the Purple Aces to a 130-108 record. Evansville improved its win total each of his four seasons, from 24 in 2003 to 43 in 2006. Schrage earned Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year honors for the third time in 2006 as Evansville won both the regular season and tournament conference titles, earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Purple Aces advanced all the way to the finals of the Charlottesville Regional, knocking off host Virginia before falling to South Carolina in the championship.
As a collegiate player, Schrage was an all-conference outfielder at Creighton, batting .400 as a junior and .433 his senior season. He also was an Academic All-America honoree during his senior campaign in 1983, and graduated that spring with a bachelor of science degree in finance. Schrage was honored on the MVC’s Centennial Celebration baseball team and is the only person in league history to earn all-conference honors and be named MVC Coach of the Year in baseball.
THE ROSTER: The 2014 SDSU baseball roster features 36 players from 12 different states plus three Canadian provinces. Of the 36 players, nine are from Iowa, six are from South Dakota, five are from Illinois and four hail from Minnesota. Two Jackrabbit players are from Colorado, while Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Vermontare represented by one player each. In addition, three players are from Canada — one each from Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario.
By class, six are seniors, 13 are juniors, eight are sophomores, one is a redshirt freshman and eight are true freshmen.
A LOOK AHEAD: The Jackrabbits return to the South for a four-game weekend series Feb. 21-23 at Alabama A&M. The series, which will be played in Huntsville, Ala., kicks off with a 1 p.m. game on Feb. 21, followed by an 11 a.m. doubleheader on Feb. 22. The series concludes with a noon contest on Feb. 23.