After coming one win shy of advancing to the NCAA tournament a year ago, the Milwaukee baseball team is ready to go in 2016.
The Panthers are following a year in which they finished 39-20, tying the school record for victories set back in 2001. They also tied the school mark of home wins at 17.
Head coach Scott Doffek is entering his 10th season, and said he was happy about last season’s performance.
“I think as a whole it was a very good season,” Doffek said. “I was really happy with the way we finished and how we played in the conference tournament. We got to the championship game but just ran out of gas.”
The baseball careers did not end for some following last season. Three players got selected in the Major League Baseball Draft and two others signed professional contracts. Nine players were recognized with Horizon League postseason honors. Stat wise, the Panthers set new records in multiple categories such as triples, stolen bases and strikeouts recorded by the pitching staff.
“We had a lot of upperclassmen that played very well and we put together a very solid season,” Doffek said. “It was unfortunate that we got ourselves behind the eight-ball in league play with some one-run losses. If we find a way to win just a couple more of those, we would have been right in the hunt for the conference championship and probably an at-large bid.”
MLB Draft selections are not the only thing that the Panthers lost players to. 14 seniors graduated following last season, meaning 21 of the 35 players on the 2016 roster will be making their first appearance in a Panther uniform this season.
“We have never seen anything even remotely close to this and I can’t imagine we ever will again,” Doffek said. “We just got really top-heavy with a bunch of injuries that ended up as redshirts, got unbalanced, lost some underclassmen to the draft and it became a situation where we’d be really experienced last year with talent but it would leave some voids moving forward.”
Despite losing players, Doffek is looking forward to the start of the 2016 campaign.
“We have a hungry group here and we are excited to move forward and compete,” Doffek said.
Unlike the starting lineup that featured a common theme among players last season, the Panthers are changing up the beat. Just three players who started at least half of the games in 2015 are set to return.
“I think with some of the returners who have been significant contributors, you have a good feeling about them and what they bring,” Doffek said. We have a handful of other guys competing to win a job. The first few weeks of practice will be important for a lot of this roster. We need to see some of them a little longer.”
One of those key players that Doffek will rely on in is centerfielder Luke Meeteer. Coming off a junior year in which he set career highs with 57 runs scored, 79 hits, 19 doubles, three triples, three home runs and 30 RBI while batting .321, the senior is looking for better results this upcoming year. He also swiped a school-record 37 bases in 2015, a total that ranked eighth across the NCAA. Meeteer’s first stolen base in 2016 will give him the school’s career record, as he came up just shy last season when he swiped no. 73.
Doffek discussed how Meeteer’s mentality on the field is crucial to the Panthers.
“Luke is not a vocal-type of leader, at least not outwardly,” Doffek said. “He’s been in the trenches a few years and knows what it takes. He is so impactful on both sides of the ball.”
Another key senior that will aid the Panthers is Nick Unes, who made 42 starts in 51 games in 2015 while ranking eighth in the Horizon League with a career-high 39 RBI. He earned himself on a spot on the Horizon League All-Tournament Team by finishing strong with a .287 batting average.
Doffek stated that Unes’ strong finish to 2015 earned him the position of everyday third baseman.
“He’s had a really good season so I am excited to see what he is capable of doing this year,” Doffek said.
One of the young guys that the Panthers will look towards having in the lineup is sophomore Daulton Varsho. He is coming off a season in which he was named to the Horizon League All-Freshman Team after etching his name into the UWM freshman record book, including triples (first), RBI and home runs (second), doubles and slugging percentage (fourth) and at-bats and runs (fifth).
Doffek contributes Varsho’s success to his hard work and attitude off the field.
“I think our players have a lot of respect for him,” Doffek said. “They see how he goes about his business and he plays hard every day. He will be an everyday guy in the middle of the order and I think you will see a more mature hitter this year.”
Other returners who played significant amounts of times last season such as Aaron Buban (.365 in 13 games) and juniors Eric Solberg (.286 in 37 games) and Cole Heili will now receive opportunities to contribute in key spots throughout the lineup. Doffek emphasized the next man up mentality that is a key to success.
“If you look back at some of the guys we lost, they were the backups at one point and then it became their turn,” Doffek said.”We hope they step up and take the ball and run with it. I am excited to give that group an opportunity.”
Regarding pitching, the team staff posted a 3.93 ERA a season ago but lost a pair of First-Team All-Horizon League selections in Joe Pavlovich and Justin Langley, as well as an all-league closer in Cody Peterson. His 11 saves finished second on the all-time single-season list at Milwaukee.
Senior Brian Keller will lead the way on the weekend, finishing sixth in the league in ERA last year (3.50), second in innings pitched (97.2), sixth in strikeouts (65) and eighth in opponent batting average (.272).
“It starts with Keller,” Doffek said. “He’s been a cornerstone guy for us for a couple of years now and we feel really good about what we will get out of him.”
A pair of freshmen stepped up last season on the staff, one being Austin Schulfer. He was selected to the Horizon League All-Freshman Team after going 3-0 in nine games and making five starts. He was given a more important role as the season progressed, striking out 42 batters in 44.0 innings overall while leading the team with a 2.25 ERA.
The other freshman who was key last season was Alex McIntosh went 3-2 in 12 games, making five starts—including a game in which he struck out 11 batters and recorded Milwaukee’s first ever no-hitter. However, McIntosh will be sidelined for the 2016 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery back in early December.
Overall, Milwaukee return less than 45 percent of their innings pitched from last season.
Doffek stressed the important of quality pitching and what it means to garnering success on the field.
“We have a lot of unknowns but pitching is the biggest one because it has to be good,” Doffek said. “You can’t be inconsistent on the mound and be competitive. We have the arms to do it, but we have to gain experience quickly and build confidence as fast as we can.”
This will likely be a rebuilding year for the Panthers. However, as the season progresses and with key contributions returning assets from last season, this team may have the potential to shock some in the Horizon League.