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2009 Calvin College Baseball Outlook

Saturday, March 07, 2009

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John Sparks Pre-Season Audio Interview

By Chaz Amidon

With their league-best pitching staff completely intact after a championship season in 2008, the Knights will aim to capture their second straight MIAA title this spring behind the arms of seniors Nate Pocock (Wayland, Mass.) and Kyle Cousins (Holland).

And with a proven supporting cast on the mound, along with the return of junior Matt Schepel (Grand Rapids), the MIAA’s reigning home run champion, Calvin has positioned itself to do just that.

“I tell our guys, going into every game, there are two things we want to do,” said second-year head coach John Sparks. “One is that we’re always going to hustle…the other thing we’re going to do is stay together no matter what. If we can do those two things, consistently, on a day-to-day basic, we’re going to have a pretty successful season.”

Last year, the Knights ended a six-year conference title drought by compiling a 23-5 record to finish one game ahead of Adrian, a team that advanced to the NCAA-III World Series in May.

Sparks led Calvin to an overall record of 32-10 in his debut season, where the Knights used a torrid 8-1 start – a product of their successful campaign at the annual Russ Matt Invitational in Phoenix, Ariz. – to gain momentum heading into league play. They won their first 10 MIAA contests before going 1-3 in their four-game series with the Bulldogs, but finished the regular season on a 12-1 stretch.

The Knights’ annual spring break foray into the desert will likely set the tone for this year, like last’s, though they’ll have to face an array of high-profile programs. Calvin is slated to play No. 8 Southern Maine and No. 11 Eastern Connecticut, among the ranks of other prestigious schools headed to the invite.

“We’ll see how we stack up right away,” said Sparks. “That 8-1 (record) last year was exceptional, but I’ve been trying to communicate with the guys that we could go .500 this year and might even play better, just because of the competition we’re playing.”

Pocock, the MIAA Pitcher of the Year in 2008, will occupy the No. 1 spot in Calvin’s starting rotation, which combined for a 28-5 record last year. In 10 starts, he furnished an 8-2 record and finished the season with an ERA of 3.25. His 61 strikeouts was second only to Adrian’s Nick Vandike (64).

Cousins, the lone lefty in the rotation, was awarded All-MIAA Second Team honors last year for maintaining a 2.56 ERA.

“From a leadership standpoint, they sat back a little bit (last year),” said Sparks of Pocock and Cousins. “And now it’s their turn to lead. It’s been fun to see that because they’re both very different in their personalities, but I think they’ve grown not only individually but they’ve grown in their relationship with each other, appreciating what the other brings to the table.
“I’ve been really, really proud of the job they’ve done early on in the season in bringing along the younger guys.”

The two senior standouts will once again be joined by sophomores Peter Steiner (Chicago, Ill.) and Keith Spoelstra (Oakland, N.J.), each of whom helped Calvin’s illustrious pitching staff finish with a team ERA of 3.88.

Sophomores Adam VanOpstal (Grandville) and Jeff Groenewold (Chicago, Ill.) will reprise their roles in Calvin’s bullpen. In his 12 appearances last season, VanOpstal had a team-best 1.80 ERA in 20 innings pitched.

Ben Sietsema (Ada), a transfer from Grand Rapids Community College, and freshmen Zach Thomas (Bradenton, Fla.) and Derick Vargas (Hialeah, Fla.) will also be key relievers.

“Having that experience back on the mound is certainly a nice luxury to have,” said Sparks. “What we’ve done this year is added a little bit of depth to that rotation.”

Anchored by two All-MIAA selections, Schepel and senior first baseman Chris Blacklidge (Comstock Park), Calvin’s infield has retained its entire starting lineup from 2008, with the exception of the catcher position. With senior Jason May (Chicago, Ill.) at third, junior Kyle Gurzynski (Ludington) at second and Schepel at shortstop, the Knights return an infield that combined for a .945 fielding percentage last spring.

Schepel, who was among the national leaders in batting average for much of the 2008 season, hit .415 and blasted a league-best nine home runs. He was fourth in the MIAA in both hits (56) and RBIs (38), but committed a team-worst 24 errors.

“He obviously had an exceptional season last year. He sparked a great deal of our offense. We feel like the offensive part of his game is always going to be there…but we’re trying to challenge him defensively and continue to work on his overall game at shortstop.

“If he can have a well-rounded year this year, both defensively and offensively, he’s an All-American type of candidate. We’re excited to have him back and see what this new year brings.”

The only question mark for the Knights’ infield lies behind the plate. After graduating All-MIAA Second Team selection Kyle Fletcher and his back-up, Pieter Groot, several underclassmen will contend for the starting catcher spot.

Matt Dodrill (Murfreesboro, Tenn.), a transfer from Middle Tennessee State, is currently the frontrunner, but Scott Tipton (Stow, Ohio), Scott Burden (Royal Oak) and Chris Petersen (Ludington) will also be vying for the starting gig.

The Knights’ outfield, however, will undergo significant changes. Senior Jacob Vriesman (Denver, CO.), Calvin’s leadoff hitter who hit .343 last season, may miss Opening Day due to an offseason knee injury. Centerfielder Drew Johnson opted not to play this spring, and rightfielder Alex Marcus, who led the team in homeruns back in 2007, graduated.

Freshman Tyler Berger (Grand Rapids) is expected to fill in the vacant centerfield role, while freshman Jake Van Alten (Holland) and junior Chris Dykstra (Hudsonville) could play in opposite fields. Cousins, a viable offensive threat, could also see some time in the outfield.

“From a defensive standpoint, we feel pretty good about what we have out there,” said Sparks. “The kind of offensive contribution we’re going to get from those guys is something that concerns us, and we’re continuing to work on it. I’m confident we have enough talent out there to help us out. That’s what good teams do.”

Calvin will open its season with a doubleheader at Otterbein on March 14. The Knights will play a total of eight games at the Russ Matt Invitational (March 20-27) and will host Kalamazoo in the conference opener on March 28, the day after returning from Arizona.

John Sparks Pre-Season Audio Interview

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