Wakefield, three returning All-HCAC players aiming to fill big shoes in 2003
By Tim Stried
February 22, 2003
If the proverb is true that states a good baseball team is good up the middle, then it's no wonder why Bluffton College won a school-record 11 games in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference last season. The challenge for the Beavers in 2003, however, is that the majority of those players who played up the middle graduated last May.
Except for the pitchers, Bluffton said goodbye to each of its middle position players, including its catcher, shortstop, second baseman and centerfielder after the 2002 campaign, which produced an overall record of 14-22 and an 11-10 mark in the HCAC. Add to the list of departures a left fielder and injuries to two of BC's top pitchers and it's safe to say that Bluffton has big shoes to fill this spring.
Ready to fill those shoes, however, are three returning All-HCAC selections from a year ago, including Kyle Alberson, Jim Dwenger and Wes Hall, and a total of six other letterwinners that will no doubt be big pieces of the puzzle for the Beavers in 2003.
Bringing the pieces of that puzzle together in 2003 will be a man who is new to the head coaching ranks, but is no stranger to Bluffton baseball. Vince Wakefield, who was an assistant coach last season, will take over the reigns of the club this year as former head coach Greg Brooks stepped down to become director of football operations this spring in the wake of Carlin Carpenter's January 17th announcement that he will be retiring as head football coach. Brooks racked up a school-record 266 wins in 22 seasons as head baseball coach and at the same time has been the football squad's offensive coordinator.
Wakefield is a 1997 BC graduate and was a four-year pitcher for the Beavers from 1994-97. His 14 games pitched as a sophomore are the second-highest single-season total in school history, and it's that kind of experience that Brooks was counting on last year when he handed Wakefield control of the pitching staff.
Wakefield's control will span the entire team this season, of course, and his first priority will be to find replacements for the aforementioned losses up the middle.
"That's my first concern," said Wakefield as he scanned his 20-man roster that doesn't include catcher Ben Schwab, shortstop Todd Pickthorn, center fielder Brad Buckingham or left fielder Dustin Kreis, all of whom graduated last May. Also absent are second baseman Dan Crider and backup third baseman Phill Rasey, who both did not rejoin the squad this year.
Buckingham (.382, 3 HR, 21 RBI) was a four-time All-HCAC selection, earned three team offensive and defensive MVP awards and set Bluffton career records for hits (168) and runs scored (106). Pickthorn (.359, 1 HR, 19 RBI) was a two-time All-HCAC selection and was a four-year starter along with Kreis (.240, 11 RBI, All-HCAC in 2000), and Schwab (.223, 1 HR, 11 RBI).
But Wakefield noted that there are quite a few names on that roster that are ready to pick up where last year's seniors left off. "Luke Claus (catcher, transfer from Huntington College in Indiana) has two years of experience behind the plate and Ryan Fiely (.370 avg. in 2001 as a freshman, didn't play last season) is back to play short stop," said Wakefield. "Jeff Hindershied will step in at second base and Jim Dwenger will move from right field to center."
Dwenger, a junior, was an honorable mention All-HCAC selection last season as he led the team in batting average (.398) and added two homeruns and 18 RBI. Alberson (.380, 7 HR, 34 RBI), also a junior, ranks among the leading power hitters in the Heartland Conference. He hit seven home runs in each of his first two seasons for a total of 14, which is already tied for second-most all-time at Bluffton and is just three away from the record of 17 career dingers hit by Dave Rodriguez from 1987-90. Hall (6-1, 2.98 ERA), one of Bluffton's two seniors, ranked among the HCAC's best pitchers last year and his six victories are tied for the second-most wins in a season in BC history. Offensively, Hall batted .288 and added a homer and 16 RBI.
"Wes will be available to start but I want him ready to close out games, too," said Wakefield, noting that Hall had two saves last year, as well.
Add to the list of veterans Bob Heitkamp and Josh Underwood, both juniors. Heitkamp (.311, 1 HR, 13 RBI) led the team in batting average as a freshman (.400) and was one of Bluffton's top pitchers the last two years (5-4 record last year). However, a rotator cuff injury will severely limit his innings in 2003, and an elbow injury to Alberson early in his sophomore season will keep him off the mound this year, as well. Both were expected to be among Bluffton's top pitchers this season.
Underwood was among Bluffton's starting pitchers as a freshman and sophomore and will be counted on to continue that role in 2003. Also returning the mound this season are junior Ryan Whitaker and sophomores Brad Moore and Jason Moore. Newcomers to the pitching staff include freshmen Randy Miller, Casey Ray, Steve Hastings and Steve Bogner.
Wakefield has veterans returning at the corners of the infield, as Hall and Heitkamp will hold down third base and Alberson, Underwood and senior Tony Boenker all have experience at first base. Junior Scott Van Eman returns after seeing playing time in the outfield last season.
"The top and middle of the order will be upperclassmen," said Wakefield. "We have good leadership and we have some upperclassmen that can hit and can pitch. The goal is to get one-through-nine in the order to be a solid hitting group."
Wakefield will be searching carefully to complete that group. "We either need some of the upperclassmen to step up into those spots or we'll look to some freshmen."
Rounding out the freshman class are a trio of players that can play at various spots on the field and include Riordan McClain, Tony Gerig and Jared Owens.
Bluffton begins the 2003 season at the Seventh Annual EMU Sarasota Spring Classic March 3-7.