Hopes are high this spring for Penn State Altoona baseball, as it prepares to embark on its 20th season as an NCAA Division III team. The Lions have shown steady improvement in each of the past two years, and with a solid and experienced foundation of talent, the team could be poised for its best season in recent history.
After an 11-win season in 2016, Penn State Altoona took a big step forward in each of the next two seasons, going 19-21 overall with a 9-7 AMCC record in 2017, then posting a 17-21 overall record in 2018 with a 10-8 mark in the conference. Third-year head coach RJ Barnard expects his team to continue its progression this spring.
"In the past two years, we have continued to make strides. We qualified for the conference tournament in year one coming off an 11-29 season in 2016, and we made the conference final four last year," said Barnard. "Expectations will be the highest in year three, as we return five of six All-Conference players and all but one everyday starter in our lineup."
15 players on Penn State Altoona's 32-man roster are upperclassmen, juniors and seniors who have comprised the team's core over the past several years. These players gained significant experience in a variety of roles throughout their early years with the Lions, and they are now in position to lead the team to new heights in 2019 through their positive growth as a unit.
"In the past two years, we've been able to use a lot of players," said Barnard. "We have had many guys, including bench guys, see significant playing time."
The top of Penn State Altoona's lineup projects this way: junior shortstop Hunter Breon (Boiling Springs, PA/Boiling Springs) leading off, junior outfielder Chase Clouser (Dublin, OH/Dublin Jerome) batting second, junior outfielder Peter Jacobs (Dix Hills, NY/Half Hollow Hills West) hitting third, junior first baseman Catcher Cumming (Altoona, PA/Altoona) batting cleanup, and junior outfielder/first baseman George Stiuso (Milford, NJ/Gill St. Bernard's) hitting fifth.
Breon was a third team All-AMCC selection last year, finishing tied for second on the Lions in runs batted in (29) while being third on the team in hits (42). Clouser, named a "Player to Watch" in the 2019 AMCC Preseason Poll, was third on the squad last season in batting average (.357) and slugging percentage (.531) while also being fourth in on-base percentage (.407). Jacobs, also named a 2019 "Player to Watch," was a first team All-Conference pick last season after hitting five home runs and finishing in the top 10 in the AMCC in doubles (17), runs scored (44), slugging percentage (.644), and batting average (.393). Cumming, a second AMCC All-Conference pick last year, was tied for second on the Lions in RBI (29) while being fourth on the team in doubles (12), total bases (61), and slugging percentage (.513). Stiuso was third on Penn State Altoona last season in home runs (4) and fifth in RBI (21) while slugging .515.
The Lions also return five players who are heading into their senior years academically: middle infielder Austin Anderson (Macungie, PA/Emmaus), third baseman/pitcher Dylan Bates (Towanda, PA/Towanda), outfielders James Mays (Dyer, IN/Lake Central) and Jordan McCall (Hollidaysburg, PA/Hollidaysburg), and catcher William Zdinak (Centennial, CO/Cherry Creek). Highlighting that group are Anderson and Bates. In 2018, Anderson was a third team All-AMCC selection while ranking third on his team in doubles (14) and total bases (64), tied for third in runs scored (36), and fourth in hits (40) and batting average (.320). Bates was second on the Lions last year in walks (18), third in on-base percentage (.427), and fifth in batting average (.320).
Barnard also points to three other returners he expects to help with the bat: junior outfielder Andrew Culp (Oxford, PA/Oxford), sophomore first baseman Stephen Schanne (Mantua, NJ/Clearview Regional), and sophomore third baseman Brandyn Schuchart (York, PA/Spring Grove).
"Breon, Clouer, Jacobs, Cumming, and Stiuso will most likely secure the top five spots in the lineup. All five are juniors who have been starters since day one at Penn State Altoona," said Barnard. "We will also look to the seniors to lead by example on the field and in team leadership roles. Culp, Schanne, and Schuchart should also have significant roles and will make positive impacts on the team, especially providing us with additional bats."
Last year, Penn State Altoona boasted one of the most potent offenses in the AMCC, as the Lions ranked second in the conference in batting average (.338), doubles (108), home runs (25), extra base hits (142), and slugging percentage (.494), as well as third in runs scored (328), hits (438), RBI (287), and on-base percentage (.417).
Barnard expects his team's success at the plate to continue into 2019. But he knows that the Lions must improve on the mound and in the field if they want to contend for an AMCC title.
"We are confident that our offense is as good as anyone who we will play all season," he said. "But we have got to throw it better, cut down on the number of walks allowed, and make plays behind our pitchers."
Starting pitching will be an "X factor" of sorts for Penn State Altoona this year. Barnard knows that his starting rotation has the talent to succeed, but that it must strive for consistency to bring more stability to the team.
Junior right-handers Aaron Sharp (Freeburg, PA/Midd-West) and Zane Leister (Middleburg, PA/Midd-West), sophomore righty Jacob Plunket (Altoona, PA/Altoona), and right-hander Bates are projected to get most of the starts on the mound. Freshman right-hander Austin Miller (Orbisonia, PA/Southern Huntingdon) will also factor significantly into the team's starting pitching.
Penn State Altoona's late-inning relievers figure to be the rock of the team's pitching staff. Sophomore righties Sawyer Kline (Bellwood, PA/Bellwood-Antis) and Tyler Manger (Lindenhurst, NY/Lindenhurst), along with right-hander Breon, are the Lions' top bullpen options. Kline and Manger both tied for seventh in the AMCC in appearances (14) as freshmen, with Kline striking out a team-best 28 batters and recording one save, and Manger earning third team All-AMCC honors after going 3-2 with two saves and a 4.01 earned run average. Breon went 3-1 on the mound, making four starts and six total appearances. Freshman left-hander Jaryd Palmer (Northumberland, PA/Shikellamy) is also expected to play a strong role out of the pen.
In all, Penn State Altoona must improve on its 8.54 team ERA, which ranked seventh out of 10 teams in the AMCC last season. The Lions also surrendered a .352 opponent batting average, the third-highest in the conference.
"Freshman Austin Miller will be one of our go-to guys on the mound, along with Sharp, Bates, Leister, and Plunket. They will see the majority of the starts," said Barnard. "Our back end of the bullpen will once again be our strength with Kline, Manger, and Breon. Those guys have the ability to throw multiple pitches for strikes and also pound the strike zone. Freshman Jaryd Palmer should see a major role, as well, coming in from the bullpen. With some consistency on the mound, we believe we should win a lot of games this season."
The Lions will also look for more consistency out of its defense. The team showcased good athleticism and ability – particularly on the infield – ranking second in the AMCC in double plays turned (31) and third in runners caught stealing percent (.235). But the team sometimes struggled with errors on routine plays, miscues that Barnard knows are correctable.
Behind the plate, sophomore catcher Richard Carey (Milton, DE/Milton) was fourth in the AMCC in runners caught stealing (9) while throwing out 47.4% of attempted base-stealers. Up the middle, Breon led the Lions in assists (90) while Anderson was second (82). Cumming posted a perfect fielding percentage, going errorless in 153 chances.
Barnard knows that his team is aware of what needs to be done this season in order to take the next step. If the team plays up to its potential while remaining consistent in all facets of the game, he believes the squad could make a deeper run into the AMCC Tournament.
"Our goal will be to not only get back into the conference final four, but to win a game once we're there and make a run during the postseason," Barnard said. "Each year, we have made big strides to improve, and we are hoping this year we can check another goal off the list. The guys are hungry – I can tell by their work ethic all winter in the gym and by their efforts indoors that they are holding themselves to high standards this season. We are excited and ready to get underway."
Penn State Altoona baseball is slated to open its 2019 season schedule on Saturday, February 16 with a 12:00 p.m. doubleheader at non-conference opponent Eastern Mennonite University.