Wisconsin’s late winters can always put a damper on sports, especially baseball. The Milwaukee Brewers thought for that when they planned a roof for the construction of Miller Park. Eight miles north at Henry Aaron Field in Lincoln Park, the UW-Milwaukee baseball team starts another season.
Leading the way is head coach, Scott Doffek. Doffek is in his ninth season coaching the team, five of which he has led the team to a .500 record or higher. In his fourth season in 2010, he led the Panthers to the Horizon League tournament title and to the NCAA Tournament. Three years later, the team captured the regular season Horizon League title.
The Panthers return most of their 2014 roster, losing only three players to graduation. Two of those losses were significant. Outfielder Ryan Solberg was a monster at the plate, batting .368 with 43 RBIs and seven home runs on his way to earning 2014 Horizon League Player of the Year. Also gone is Pat Wilson, their first baseman who batted .302 on the year.
“It’s hard to replace a player of the year like Solberg and then Pat as well had a great year,” says second baseman Mike Porcaro, who was the Horizon League Player of the Year in 2013. “Especially in the middle of our lineup, but we also have a lot of guys here that are ready to go and we have a lot of depth on our bench, so I think they’ll be able to be able to pick it up. Obviously it’s going to have to be a group effort because one guy can’t replace what Solberg did last year.”
Premium on Experience
Part of that group effort will include an experienced 14 seniors on the roster in 2014, six of whom are starters. Ryan McShane (SS), Sam Koenig (LF), and Derek Peake (RF) return in their positions from 2014. Last year’s reliable utility man and closer, Tell Taylor, is getting the first crack at first base in his senior year. Tyler Hermann is beginning this year at short stop while McShane takes over second base as Porcaro recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.
Each senior brings invaluable skills to the lineup:
- McShane earned Second-Team All-Horizon League team while batting .290 in 2014.
- Peake batted .244 with 17 RBIs and returns to right field where he is one of the rising outfielders in the Horizon League.
- Koenig returned from a broken hand with a stellar performance against Maine, scoring four runs with five RBIs.
- Porcaro is their consistent man in the middle at second base, but is working slowly into the lineup as he rehabs his shoulder, one of which required offseason surgery. In 2014, he batted .271 with two home runs and 24 RBIs
- Hermann hit .280 last year with three home runs as he moved around from third base to designated hitter and finally to left field to take over for Koenig. For the time being he is working at SS while Porcaro gets healthy.
- Taylor didn’t put up big stats in 2014, but was the jack-of-all-trades for Milwaukee last year. He already started off his senior year on a hot streak, hitting a home run against Maine.
With so many seniors, leadership is not in short supply in 2015.
“We’ve got some guys that have been here for a while and have been leaders, and unfortunately due to injury, were not able to play last year and I think every year the dynamic is different with your team and I think we’re kind of growing into exactly that question and we’re figuring that out right now,” said UWM head coach Scott Doffek on who would step up as a leader this year.
Behind them is a long list of returning junior starters such as Mitch Ghelfi (C) and Luke Meeteer (CF). Meeteer came back from last year’s injury with a monster performance in the opening series. He drove in two RBIs, while scoring nine runs of his own, and stealing eight bases. Ghelfi is two years removed from being Horizon League Newcomer of the Year as a freshman. Despite playing injured last year, he batted .276 and drove in 22 RBIs. His defensive contributions were far more outstanding behind the plate. He threw out almost 40% of base stealers and led the Horizon with right pickoffs.
“As far as I am concerned, Mitch is the best catch-and-throw guy in the conference and the coaches around the league would agree with that,” Doffek said.
The one sophomore skill starter this year will be Eric Solberg at third base. Eric is the younger brother of Ryan and started 13 games down the stretch last year. The team will work Hermann in at third as well throughout the year.
Power of the Bench
When it comes to their depth of skill players, Milwaukee is stacked. Behind Ghelfi at catcher, the Panthers have Aaron Buban, who hit .310 in 16 games last year; along with Sam Kohnke who hit .400 in six games. New to the catchers collective is freshman Daulton Varsho, who made his first collegiate start in the opening series vs. Maine. Doffek said that Varsho is likely to make a big impact early.
Once Porcaro fully returns from rehabbing, Hermann will join a good collection of infielders. Junior Nick Unes is expected to see plenty of time at first base with Taylor and does a good job at the plate, batting .276 with 18 RBIs last year. Redshirt freshman Blake Fleischman will be worked in as well as a depth player.
In the outfield is where the Panthers are stacked. Sam Koenig, Luke Meeteer, and Derek Peake are experienced and talented.
“I think we’ll be real good defensively,” said Koenig. “We got good chemistry out there. Good speed. Pretty good arms all around. Even have good depth, people coming off the bench. It doesn’t really matter who’s out there, we’re going to be pretty good defensively.”
In the event of injury to the three, Hermann can fill in well, as well as senior Sam Hammer and transfers Zach Taylor and Cole Heili. Filling out the outfield is juniors Dan Barwick and Dylan Detert.
One the mound, the team has great depth, both in starters, and relievers. The team only lost 60 of their 440 innings pitched from last season as Tyler Thicke graduated.
Junior Brian Keller (2-8, 4.26 ERA in 2014) pitched six scoreless innings in game one vs. Maine and is being counted on to return as their primary starter. Graduate student transfer Joe Pavlovich is eligible to play immediately after being one of the top pitchers for UW-Oshkosh in the WIAC. Milwaukee also has Mike Schneider (8-3, 3.54 ERA) returning to the mound after he sat out 2014 undergoing Tommy John surgery. Schneider isn’t completely healthy yet, but the team expects him back at some point this season.
Another starter for the Panthers will be sophomore Justin Langley (2-1, 3.30 ERA). After impressing in limited action last season, including 12 strikeouts in seven innings vs. Valparaiso last year, the coaching staff is excited to get him on the mound. Junior Jake Tuttle (2-2, 4.09 ERA) and Sophomore Adam Reuss (1-1, 6.48 ERA) round out the starters.
“Our bullpen has been looking really good so far” said Brian Keller on the team’s depth. And I think we will only continue to get better as we find out who is going to be out there in what roles as the season gets on with more experience.”
Part of Milwaukee’s deep depth in the bullpen comes from four seniors. Middle relievers Gunnar Eastman (14 games), Justin Jaquish (2-2, 4.09 ERA) and Eric King (2.31 ERA in 6 games) all will be playing key roles in the year. Senior Cody Peterson (4-3, 5.23 ERA) was a starter for UWM last year, but is moving into the closer role as last year’s closer, Tell Taylor, moves to first base.
“He is a guy who is going to give us his best effort every game. Very consistent and he has great stuff too.” Keller said of Peterson as a closer.
Other contributors to the bullpen include Junior Jonathan Nick, sophomore Zach Brenner, and freshmen Elijah Goodman, Alex McIntosh, Austin Schulfer, and Chaz Schmidt.
Weather and Stadiums
Playing in Wisconsin is no easy task for UW-Milwaukee. The spring college baseball season has 56 games that start in early February. For northern teams like UWM, that means it is still freezing outside with snow on the field.
It’s nothing new to the team, who has had 37 games postponed or outright cancelled the past two seasons, including their series this past weekend against Louisville. The majority of those cancellations have been home games at Hank Aaron Field. “The Hank”, as it is affectionately called by players and coaches, is a Milwaukee County Park field located at Lincoln Park, and is actually maintained by the players themselves.
Since it is a natural grass field, the surface can easily become unplayable due to rain or snow, which leaves many games to be cancelled or postponed.
“It’s frustrating. But you kind of expect it at this point and time,” said Chris Zills, the teams sports information director. “This is my 10th season at Milwaukee and my 15th season doing college baseball in Wisconsin, and if you go two straight weeks actually playing games you’re supposed to, that’s a pretty good run.”
“You just battle and do your best,” said Doffek. “The past few springs around here have been ridiculously bad, and this one isn’t looking great right now. And it’s not even spring yet. But what can you do? Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us, so you just make the best out of your facility that you have and try keeping everyone’s eyes on the prize, which is the long term.”
Hope is on the horizon, as it was announced in January that local entrepreneur Mike Zimmerman’s MKE Sports and Entertainment is planning a synthetic turf stadium in Oak Creek that the Panthers could lease.
“Well, it’s huge for the program from a recruiting standpoint. It starts with that,” says Doffek. “Your goal is to attract the best players. And the fact it will be turf is huge in the spring up here. Being able to get on it, and stay on it longer. And the location I think will be right off the highway, which will be great for visibility for our program.”
“It’s great for the program because the program deserves it,” remarks Mike Porcaro. “Scotty, (Coach Doffek) Cory, (Head Assistant Coach Cory Bigler) and the rest of the coaching staff has worked extremely hard to make this program where it’s at right now.”
What the Future Holds
After their series against the University of Louisville was cancelled due to snowfall and rain, the Panthers have a break until their next series. Later this week, the team will travel to Phoenix, Arizona for a four game series against the Grand Canyon State Antelopes. Then on March 2nd, they will play Aoyama University of Japan at the Kansas City Chiefs spring training facility, Surprise Municipal Stadium, in Phoenix.
The team will continue to stay in Phoenix after that to play an exhibition game against the Milwaukee Brewers, the first time ever the two teams will meet. This will be the Brewers first exhibition game against a college team since 1983, when they played the Arizona State Sun Devils.
“Almost all of our guys are from Wisconsin or surrounding states and are Brewers fans and so as a player, you idolize those guys, and now you get to compete against them,” says Doffek on what this opportunity means to the team. “But for us, I look at it as another way to get an opportunity to play against great competition. I mean, you can’t get any better than that. I mean, just a cool thing for the fans and the alumni and our players and it’s just an outstanding opportunity.”
“It’s pretty awesome because you watch those guys on the TV every night throughout the spring and summer,” remarked Porcaro. “It’s also a team most of us grew up cheering for and players we grew up idolizing. So it’s pretty sweet to be on the same field as them and matchup against them and see where our talent is compared to theirs and it will be fun.”
“You just got to be confident as an individual,” said Koenig. “It doesn’t really matter who you’re playing. Obviously you have to respect your opponent and they are clearly very good. You just got to stick within yourself and do what you do. Stick to the process.”
Going forward, the team is relatively healthy, with only Schneider out with injury and Porcaro being worked into the lineup. With their depth and a little luck with the injury bug, the Panthers have a shot to take the Horizon League title and possibly make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.