A new era in NIACC baseball begins Saturday.
The NIACC baseball team, under first-year coach Travis Hergert, opens its season Saturday against the Ontario Blue Jays and Penn State-Hazleton in Vero Beach, Fla.
Hergert takes over for Todd Rima, who won 358 games in 11 years at NIACC. Rima left to become the head baseball coach at Kirkwood.
“It has been a smooth adjustment,” Hergert said. “What makes things easy is the group of players we have that believed in what our coaching staff was set out to do and have continued to work each and every day.
“Any success we have all goes to them. They work for it and hopefully they are rewarded for their work with a lot of success.”
Hergert was the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator for eight seasons under Rima.
In 2012, the NIACC pitching staff posted the lowest earned run average as a team since Hergert’s arrival in 2005.
The Trojan pitching staff posted an ICCAC-leading 3.37 team ERA. Right-handed pitcher Tim Black (Ontario, Canada) posted a school record 1.88 ERA and was selected honorable mention all-region.
A total of 13 players return from last season’s team that was 37-21 overall and 14-10 in the ICCAC.
Seven of the 13 returners have signed national letters of intent with four-year schools for the 2014 season.
Right-handed pitcher Lucas Bakker (Deception Bay, Australia) signed with Elon University, right-handed pitcher Jeremy Cronk (Iowa City West, North Liberty, Ia.) signed with Ohio University and second baseman Hunter King (Newman Catholic, Mason City, Ia.) signed with University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
Also, right-handed pitcher Ean McNeal (Cedar Rapids Xavier, Cedar Rapids, Ia.) and catcher Robert Swenson (Mason City High, Mason City, Ia.) signed with Chicago State. Infielder Max Waletich (Fairmont, Minn.) signed with NCAA Division II Minnesota State and shortstop Reynaldo Sala (Santiago, Dominican Republic) signed with Campbellsville University, an NAIA school.
So with the vast amount of experience and several players already signing with four-year schools, expectations are high for the Trojans heading into the 2013 season.
“Every team in sports always has an outside influence – whether it be fans, friends, media,” Hergert said. “Players can get caught up in ‘they said.’ Those can be negative and positive comments, but that can serve to distract a team from what they need to keep their focus on.
“I believe this group has their own expectations and they do a great job of staying in the moment and not getting caught up in hype. They are able to turn the page and keep focused on preparing.”
NIACC is scheduled to play 10 games on its spring trip to Florida. The Trojans are scheduled to open the Iowa portion of its schedule at NJCAA Division I Marshalltown on March 21.
Hergert says his team is ready to play outdoors as his team has been practicing inside for the last seven weeks.
“So needless to say, we are ready to play,” the coach said. “We feel we have prepared well and covered the things we need to cover before we get a chance to play outside.
“Practicing baseball inside and then playing your first game outside is like practicing basketball in a closet then hitting the court. But we are fortunate to have the top-notch facility in our recreation center to help us prepare in the off-season.”
NIACC returns 28 of its 37 wins from a year ago.
Bakker was 7-3, Joey Reed (Lindstrom, Minn.) was 6-4, Black was 4-1, Cronk was 4-1, Drew Verstegen (Newman Catholic, Mason City, Ia.) was 4-1 and McNeal was 3-5.
Hergert said the Trojans’ top four starters are Bakker, Reed, Black and McNeal. Cronk will be the team’s closer.
“This group put up a lot of wins last season,” the coach said, “but they know they have to continue to improve to accomplish more.”
Hergert said Verstegen will pitch in midweek games this season as he did last season.
“Our bridge guys to get to Cronk will be AJ Hrubetz, Isaac Willenbring, Zeb Noel, Nick Veale, and Kellen Yoder. Noel and Veale could also see some spot starts,” Hergert said.
Swenson hit .253 with 3 doubles, 3 home runs and 19 RBIs in 2012. Freshman Joe Hallock (Fargo, N.D.) will be the backup catcher.
“Both do a nice job behind the plate,” Hergert said, “and have taken on the role of guiding our pitching staff throughout the last 6 months.”
Hergert said Waletich has made the move from the left side of the infield to first base.
“He has made huge strides in his defense at first base,” the coach said. “Behind him are Bayden Waldock and transfer Spence Bonner.”
Waletich hit .324 with 10 RBIs a year ago.
King, an honorable mention all-region performer a year ago, returns at second base for the Trojans.
King his .387 with 15 doubles, 1 triple, 2 home runs and 27 RBIs.
“He had a very good offensive season last year and we expect more of the same,” Hergert said.
Hergert said Brett Guba (Eden Prairie, Minn.) will also see time at second base.
“Guba also has the ability to be our utility guy playing all infield spots,” the coach said.
Sala returns for his second season as the Trojans’ shortstop.
Sala hit .303 with 27 stolen bases, 8 doubles, 1 triple and 2 home runs as a freshman. He also had a fielding percentage of .941 with 134 assists.
“We have good depth at shortstop with Reynaldo Sala and Alex Stuart,” Hergert said.
Hergert said Stuart (Waikiki, West Australia) and Brett White (Albany, Ky.) will see time at third base for the Trojans.
“With these three players (Sala, Stuart and White), I feel good about the left-side of our infield,” Hergert said.
The Trojans’ outfield will consist of Tanner Unkel (Cedar Rapids Jefferson, Cedar Rapids, Ia.) in left field, Vertstegen in center field and Ryan Voves (Mason City High, Mason City, Ia.) in right field.
“I feel our top four outfielders could all be center fielders,” Hergert said. “Jake Adams will move around to all spots. All of them cover ground and cover the gaps.”
NIACC had a team batting average a year ago of .327 with 97 doubles, 20 home runs and 11 triples.
“This has been an area where we have put a lot of our focus on,” Hergert said. “Pete Lauritson has done a magnificent job of carrying out a plan with our hitters. I feel they have all developed well.”
Hergert said Voves and Unkel will start out the season at the top of the order. The coach said the middle of the lineup will consist of King, Waletich, Stuart and Verstegen.
“We have some good speed with our offense as well as some guys with some juice in the middle of the order,” Hergert said. “We have a number of options with the designated hitter in Adams, (Bayden) Waldock, White and Guba. Guba gives us a left-handed option along with Waletich.”
The NIACC coaching staff consists of Hergert and assistant coaches Lauritson and Derek Drage.
“Both have done a great job of developing players and keeping them focused on preparation.”
Who is the conference favorite?
“Until someone knocks off DMACC, I would say it is them,” Hergert said.