A potent early-season offense has Vincennes University baseball off to its best start in several years, and if the Trailblazers' pitching can keep pace, there's reason to believe VU can achieve a few other feats it hasn't accomplished in several years.
The Blazers are off to a 10-5 start and received honorable mention notice in Monday's NJCAA Division II poll, thanks largely to its offense putting up nearly nine runs per game. After dropping 2-of-3 in the season-opening series, VU won its next five and has swept or split every series since.
A season ago VU started 3-6 before winning eight in a row, but it still staggered to a 25-30 record and a 13-18 mark in its inaugural season in the Mid-West Athletic Conference, which is all Illinois schools besides VU.
Still, last season was a vast improvement over the previous four seasons when the Blazers started 1-8 in 2017 and 2018, and 0-8 in 2015. VU started 6-8 in 2016, but rallied to become the last Blazers team to finish with a winning record at 29-25.
VU coach Chris Barney, in his 12th season in charge, is confident his team can compete this year in a challenging M-WAC, which includes No. 15 Lincoln Land and fellow honorable mentions Parkland and Heartland. The champion of the M-WAC Tournament, hosted by Heartland in May, earns an automatic bid to the World Series. The Blazers' last World Series trip was in 2014.
In addition to VU's strong offense, the defense has improved as well. The Blazers' have trimmed their average errors per game from 1.5 last season to 1.2 this year.
“The offense has been solid. We're swinging the bats really well, and we've done what we were supposed to do so far this season,” Barney said. “I'm pleased with the offense, and I'm very pleased with the defense. Now we just have to get the mound side of the things, the pitching, figured out.”
The Blazers possess a versatile roster, highlighted by sophomore Ryan Robison. The New Albany product is the team's top returning hitter, and he already leads the team with a .404 average, 19 hits, three home runs and 21 RBIs. Robison, a lefty, also pitches and is versatile there as well.
Barney noted that in their four-game M-WAC series, Robison will either serve as the No. 3 starter or long relief/closer in the first two games, depending on need. The southpaw has dominated on the mound too, striking out 20 in 20 1/3 innings with a 2-0 record, two saves and an 0.89 earned run average.
When not on the mound, Robison is at first base in an all-sophomore infield of second baseman Trent Weiss, shortstop Sean Becker and third baseman Max Flock. Primary outfielders are sophomore Jared Sermersheim, and freshmen Landen Freestone, Devon Rodgers, Eli Winkler and Lincoln graduate Isaac Lane.
Winkler has become a steady arm in the bullpen, so Sermersheim has mostly locked down center field, with the other three rotating at the corners. Lane also plays some at third, where he excelled for the Alices last season, and Rivet graduate Macaine Claycomb has spent time at second but also plays first when Robison pitches.
Lane, Becker and Weiss are second behind Robison with 14 hits each, and Becker and Lane are both hitting .341. Weiss, Lane and Sermersheim are next in RBIs with 13, 11 and 10. Rodgers leads the team with 17 runs, and Sermersheim is getting on base at a terrific .540 rate while also leading with eight stolen bases.
Catching is a slight area of concern for Barney, but only because none have shown much separation defensively. Becker, sophomores Luke Stock and Ian Martin, and freshman Nate McVaigh have been the main core rotating at that spot, with freshmen Gage Wilson and Parker Watts filling in for Becker at short. McVaigh has provided the most offense so far, hitting .462, but he's only had 13 at-bats.
“We're rotating a lot of guys behind the dish. We're kind of figuring out which pitchers like to throw to which catchers, and that's what we're going with at this point,” Barney said. “We have a lot of experience on the infield. Hopefully (the good defense) is something we can sustain the whole season. It's an area where you need to be good. We have a lot of versatility with a lot of guys who can play multiple positions, and that's a good thing to have.”
Sophomores Nate Toone and Kacey Cheek are the No. 1 and 2 starting pitchers for VU, and Toone has lived up to he billing. He's 3-0 in four starts with a 3.48 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings. Cheek has been more sporadic, going 1-1 in four starts with a 7.04 ERA in 15 1/3 innings. But he leads the team with 22 strikeouts, and has shown dominant flashes.
But after Robison, Winkler is the only other pitcher to show consistency. He's 2-0 in three relief appearances, striking out eight in 9 1/3 scoreless innings.
“Winkler's done a really nice job for us, but we're going to have to have some other guys step up,” Barney said. “We have a few good outings from some other guys, but we need the rest of them to figure it out and show us what they can do.”
Sophomore Noah Woodward, a Linton product who had a 3.60 ERA last season in 25 innings, could return from a shoulder injury later in the season to give the bullpen a boost, but Barney was uncertain.
“There's an outside chance he's back in April. He had surgery in the fall, and he's ahead of schedule,” Barney said. “Once he's 100 percent, we'll see if it's worthwhile to bring him back for the last few weeks or if he should just take time off and get ready for next year.”
VU opens its M-WAC season at Lewis & Clark this weekend with doubleheaders scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The first game in each four-game league series serves as the head-to-head tiebreaker if the series is split, but all four games count evenly toward the league standings and postseason seeding.
No. |Name |B |T |Pos. |Class |High school
1 |Cody Swimm |R |R |P-IF |Fr. |Hagerstown
2 |Sean Becker |R |R |C-IF |So. |Evansville Central
3 |Macaine Claycomb |R |R |IF |Fr. |Rivet
4 |Tyler Rice |R |R |P-IF |Fr. |Southport
5 |Ian Martin |R |R |C |So. |Brownstown Central
7 |Trent Weiss |R |R |IF |So. |Hagerstown
8 |Nate McVaigh |L |R |C |Fr. |Evansville Central
9 |Landen Freestone |R |R |OF |Fr. |Shenandoah
10 |Jared Sermersheim |R |R |OF |So. |Jasper
11 |Ross Kirkland |R |R |C |Fr. |Boonville
12 |Gage Wilson |R |R |IF |Fr. |Barr-Reeve
13 |Noah Woodward |R |R |P |So. |Linton
14 |Bailey Elliott |R |R |P |Fr. |Southwestern
15 |Max Flock |L |R |IF |So. |North Harrison
16 |Nate Toone |R |R |P |So. |Evansville North
19 |Nolan Clark |R |R |OF-IF |So. |Lapel
20 |Zach Finley |L |L |OF |Fr. |Charleston (Ill.)
21 |Blade Pittman |R |R |P |So. |Terre Haute North
22 |Derek Foncannon |R |R |OF-P |Fr. |North Vermillion
23 |Ryne Wheeler |L |R |C |Fr. |Lapel
24 |Ryan Robison |L |L |P-IF |So. |New Albany
25 |Eli Winkler |L |R |OF-P |Fr. |Bethlehem (Ky.)
27 |Parker Watts |R |R |P-IF |Fr. |Cloverdale
28 |Jaxon Bailey |L |L |P |So. |Franklin Central
29 |Devon Rodgers |R |R |OF |Fr. |Columbus North
30 |Gehrig Tenhumberg |R |R |P |FR. |Evansville Reitz
31 |Kacey Cheek |R |R |P |So. |Oblong (Ill.)
32 |Kendal Riley |R |R |P |Fr. |Terre Haute North
33 |Isaac Lane |R |R |IF-OF |Fr. |Lincoln
34 |Luke Stock |R |R |C-P |So. |Henryville
43 |Grant Maas |R |R |IF |Fr. |Evansville Central
47 |Ben Balogh |R |R |P |Fr. |Zionsville
Coach: Chris Barney
Assistants: Hank Lopez, Matt Goebel