In 2017, the Penn State Altoona baseball program took a significant step forward in its quest to return to relevance within the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference and NCAA Division III. Despite injuries and inexperience, the Lions persevered to win 19 games last spring, the team's largest win total since the 2011 season. Their 9-7 conference record was the program's best since 2012, propelling the team to its first AMCC Tournament berth since 2013.
This season, Penn State Altoona is ready to again exceed expectations by taking the next step. Unlike the 2017 squad that was comprised mostly of newcomers, the 32-player 2018 roster features 21 returners from last year's team.
"The experience from last year should really help. A significant number of freshmen saw a large amount of playing time," said Penn State Altoona head coach RJ Barnard, who enters his second year at the helm of the program. "Hopefully, this year we can avoid the injury bug and be able to stick with a more consistent lineup."
The Lions' offense will be led by senior outfielder Jim Shomberg (Lansdale, PA/Methacton). Shomberg was a 2017 D3baseball.com Preseason All-American honorable mention selection and batted .391 in 19 games before going down to a season-ending injury early in the team's conference schedule. A career .385 hitter, the left-handed hitting Shomberg will figure prominently in the Penn State Altoona batting order.
Other important bats returning to the lineup are sophomore shortstop Hunter Breon (Boiling Springs, PA/Boiling Springs) and sophomore outfielder Peter Jacobs (Dix Hills, NY/Half Hollow Hills West). Breon was voted the Eastern College Athletic Conference's Division III South Region Rookie of the Year and the AMCC's Newcomer of the Year, and he was also a second team All-AMCC selection. He led the Lions in many offensive categories, including batting average (.338), slugging percentage (.470), runs batted in (25), and stolen bases (10). Jacobs was a third team All-AMCC pick, leading the team last season in on-base percentage (.421) while ranking second in slugging percentage (.412), runs scored (26), hits (33), and total bases (42).
"Pete will move from the four hole to the one spot, a place in the lineup where he will be a much better fit. He has the ability to go deep into counts and has a high on-base percentage," said Barnard. "He will be followed by reigning Newcomer of the Year Breon, and the return of Shomberg will land him back in the three hole."
Sophomore catcher/first baseman Catcher Cumming (Altoona, PA/Altoona), a transfer from Division II Pitt-Johnstown, is also expected to find a slot in the lineup. Sophomore third baseman Dylan Bates (Towanda, PA/Towanda), who hit .319 in 2016 but missed the 2017 season, is back and should help the team with his solid bat.
Junior outfielder James Mays (Dyer, IN/Lake Central) and sophomore outfielders Chase Clouser (Dublin, OH/Dublin Jerome), Jordan McCall (Hollidaysburg, PA/Hollidaysburg), Aidan Plants (Montoursville, PA/Montoursville), and George Stiuso (Milford, NJ/Gill St. Bernard's) will all see significant time in the lineup, as well.
"Catcher Cumming, a UPJ transfer, will fill in the cleanup spot. Dylan Bates' return to the team after a year with eligibility issues will really help too, as he was our second-best offensive player behind Shomberg in 2016," said Barnard. "Clouser and Stiuso will see the majority of outfield reps against right-handed pitching, and Plants, Mays, and McCall, who all saw significant playing time last year, will also split duties in the outfield."
Despite having plenty of athleticism on its roster last season, Penn State Altoona often struggled defensively. The Lions committed the second-most errors (93) of any team in the AMCC last year, and their combined fielding percentage (.931) ranked seventh out of nine teams. But Barnard believes that his team should improve significantly in this area this year.
"We originally thought that defense would be one of the strengths of this team, but it was a big disappointment last year. Getting Shomberg back in center should strengthen the outfield, and Breon and Austin Anderson (Macungie, PA/Emmaus) having a year under their belts playing up the middle together should also be big," Barnard explained. "We also should be a lot better behind the plate this year with Cumming and Justin Virga (Port Jefferson Station, NY/Comsewogue). The lack of having a familiar home field also didn't help the defensive miscues, but we are hoping to be back on campus and in the comforts of a true home field this year."
While the Lions' lineup at the plate and in the field will feature mostly familiar faces from last year, the pitching staff will be more of an unknown. With graduated seniors Jared Dailey and Mike Marley no longer atop the staff, Penn State Altoona will rely on several young players to step up on the mound.
Sophomore right-hander Aaron Sharp (Freeburg, PA/Midd-West) is the team's top returning starting pitcher. Last spring, Sharp went 4-5 with a 5.17 earned run average, leading the team in innings pitched (55 2/3) and strikeouts (51). Sophomore righty Hunter Johnson (Shippensburg, PA/Shippensburg) was the team's best arm out of the bullpen last season, posting a 4.32 ERA in 12 relief appearances while compiling a 2-1 record.
Bates, a right-hander, will also see time as a starting pitcher, and sophomore left-hander Oliver Dailey (Boalsburg, PA/State College) along with sophomore right-handers Zane Leister (Middleburg, PA/Midd-West) and Aaron Smith (Duncansville, PA/Hollidaysburg) will also make appearances on the mound. Smith is a transfer to the Lions from Division III Lebanon Valley College.
"Pitching will be the big question mark of this team. Sharp and Bates will be the team's number one and two, and after that, we'll have to see who steps up to take those starting roles," said Barnard. "Oliver and Zane both pitched well at times last year, but both also showed control problems at times. We hope that will be fixed this year and those two will battle for spots in the rotation. Johnson pitched well out of the bullpen, and Aaron Smith brings some collegiate experience to the bullpen, as well. We will need the whole staff to step up and account for the 106 combined innings we lost last year from Marley and Jared."
Barnard knows that, to continue down a path to success, his team needs to lean on its strengths while making significant strides in improving its weaknesses. He also knows that he can count on the leadership from his senior players, Shomberg and first baseman Chris Michaelis (Albany, NY/Albany).
"We have very good leadership from our two seniors. Offense will be our strong point, as well as a versatile bench. Hitters one through seven in our lineup all have the ability to hit for both average and power," said Barnard. "Defensively, we must get better and our pitching staff must be more consistent, especially from a ball-to-strike ratio. Defense and pitching go hand-in-hand, and we need both to step up and help each other out."
Penn State Altoona baseball opens its 2018 season on the road, traveling to Virginia to go up against Eastern Mennonite University in a doubleheader beginning at 12:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 18. After that, the Lions embark on their annual trip to Florida to compete in the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational, where the team will play 10 games against a variety of Division III opponents from around the nation from March 3-10.
The Lions' home opener is set for Saturday, March 17 at 3:00 p.m. against Keuka College, and Penn State Altoona's AMCC opener is also at home on Saturday, March 24 against Hilbert College beginning at 1:00 p.m.
Barnard also points to a pair of road AMCC doubleheaders as being significant dates on the schedule this season: Tuesday, April 3 at Pitt-Bradford and Saturday, April 28 at Medaille College.
"Medaille swept us last year in our AMCC home opener, and we will look to return the favor when we visit them this year. Bradford, who eliminated us from playoff contention last year, will be another big doubleheader, and hopefully we're hungry with revenge," Barnard stated. "These four games will also be big in the regular season standings, and they would be huge wins if we look to host another home playoff game."