CASTLETON, Vt. – Coming off its third consecutive North Atlantic Conference title and in the midst of one of its best stretches in program history, the Castleton baseball team is ready to crank it up in 2017 with several key players returning to the squad.
Castleton, which has piled up consecutive 30-win seasons for the first time in the program's 65-year history, put a stamp on its third-straight NAC title last season with a riveting come-from-behind victory over Husson in the championship game. The Spartans scored six unanswered runs to soar past the Eagles, 6-5, becoming the first team in conference history to three-peat and paving their way to their fourth NCAA Regionals appearance in five years.
Gone are last year's NAC Player of the Year Nick Swim and Pitcher of the Year Sam Spencer, but returning are Rookie of the Year Charles Stapleford and five bats from the starting lineup that led the conference in nearly every offensive category last season. Under the helm of 17th-year Head Coach Ted Shipley, the Spartans have high expectations in 2017 and are poised to make another playoff run, evident by their unanimous first-place rank in the NAC preseason coaches' poll.
"Our expectations are high and our goals remain the same - to be playing our best baseball individually and collectively as we enter into late April through the month of May. We still have to prepare to play and then compete the right way," said the six-time NAC Coach of the Year.
Vermont products Devin Hayes, Michael LaBeau, and Steven Jurkiewicz all return for their senior seasons on the mound and look to be the staple of a stacked pitching staff that topped the NAC with a 3.20 earned run average a season ago. The three seniors combined for 141 innings of work last season with 15 wins, four saves, and 87 strikeouts.
Hayes made nine starts on the mound last season, posting a 5-2 record with a career-best 2.82 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 54.1 innings pitched. A Vergennes native, Hayes made his presence known in the postseason, plowing through Union in the NCAA Regionals with nine strikeouts over eight innings to earn the win. LaBeau, a hard thrower out of Bellows Falls, made appearances in all three games of last season's conference tournament, collecting a win and two saves en route to MVP honors. Primarily a reliever last season, LaBeau went 4-0 with three saves and 26 strikeouts in 26.1 innings. Jurkiewicz leads all returners with 60.1 innings on the mound last season, tossing a career-high four complete games en route to a 6-2 record. The Essex Junction native tallied 22 strikeouts and finished the season with a 3.73 ERA.
Stapleford solidified his role as a front-end starter after ranking second in the conference in strikeouts and ERA in his freshman campaign. Averaging 7.62 strikeouts per nine innings, Stapleford went 6-2 with 46 punch outs and a 2.48 ERA in 54.1 innings. Senior Luke Salerno and junior Aaron Smith return as top options out of the bullpen, while newcomers Davis Mikell and Cameron Goulet are also projected to see quality time on the hill this season.
The Spartan offense, which led the NAC last season in batting average (.302), on-base percentage (.399), slugging percentage (.393), hits (429), and runs (310), will be anchored by senior Zach Bahan, who is coming off First Team All-Conference accolades. Bahan posted a .400 batting average, .489 on-base percentage, and a .627 slugging percentage in conference play last season, adding a team-high three home runs and 28 RBI.
Sophomore outfielders Deagan Poland and Dillon Benham return to the top of the lineup in 2017 with plenty of experience under their belts. Poland played in 44 games as a freshman, compiling 47 hits and 38 runs scored with 10 stolen bases. Primarily out of the leadoff spot, Poland hit .318 with a .402 on-base percentage in 148 at bats. Benham saw action in 33 games last season, posting a .333 batting average with 19 runs scored and 19 RBI in 96 at bats. Benham raised his game in NAC play, batting .490 with a .518 on-base percentage and a .633 slugging percentage in 18 conference contests. The sure-handed sophomores committed only three errors all last season, combining for a .979 fielding percentage. Pat Mumford returns to the squad in 2017 and looks to fill a void in the outfield after seeing limited action a season ago.
The Spartans will turn to young players across the infield, with Mitchell Caron and Bahan the lone infield returners with over 100 at bats last season. Primarily at the hot corner, Caron saw action in 39 games as a freshman, posting a .260 batting average and a .375 on-base percentage. Sophomores Matt Jackson and Dylan Bailey both saw limited action up the middle, while Tucker McClure, Henrik Barbin, and Mikell all look to see quality time at first base.
Senior Nick Patierne returns behind the plate after hitting .250 with a .346 on-base percentage last season. Sophomore Skylar LaFerriere also returns in 2017, joining junior transfer Jonathan Lindau behind the plate.
When asked about his young core of players, Shipley said, "We will have some new guys as we have graduated a lot of quality players over the last few years. If they can step in and produce in pivotal situations, we have the potential to be a pretty good group."
Castleton opens its 2017 season Friday against Apprentice in Newport News, Va. The Spartans are scheduled to play eight games before returning to Spartan Field on April 1 to open NAC play against New England College.