LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Nine months after winning its fifth consecutive North Atlantic Conference Championship and eighth in the last 11 seasons, the Castleton University baseball team faces a new challenge.
Entering its first season in the Little East Conference, Castleton is well prepared for the increase in difficulty and is poised to make some noise. In 2018, the league had two teams spend a majority of the season ranked inside the top 15 in the nation as well as four squads with at least 25 wins, making it one of the better conferences in all of Division III baseball.
"It's a challenge, but the game hasn't changed..."
"The challenge, the approach, the quality of players and the coaches on the other team, maybe, but for us, it hasn't changed a bit," said Castleton baseball head coach Ted Shipley. "You prepare to be your best and that's what we're doing."
The Spartans are no stranger to sending ripples as they pulled off one of the biggest upsets in program history in 2018. In just the third game of the season, Castleton marched into Los Angeles, Calif. and rallied to down the defending Division III National Champions and second-ranked Cal-Lutheran Kingsmen.
Starting on the mound in that game and leading the Spartans – the team's 2017 MVP - Davis Mikell went seven innings while allowing just five hits and one earned run. Over the course of the season, Mikell appeared in two more games on the mound, while taking 140 at-bats. Posting a .371 average, he collected 52 hits – 12 doubles, one triple and five homers – and drove in 36 runners.
"He's as good as any pitcher in Division III when he is healthy..."
"He still has some things that he is working through, but we're confident in him and it is great to have his bat as well," Shipley stated. "It's great to have someone that is reliable as a pitcher and has great at-bats. It doesn't necessarily need to be the same person, but Davis is really talented and can compete at a high level."
Mitchell Caron – another of the team's leaders heading into the 2019 season – started the rally in Castleton's win at Cal-Lutheran. Trailing 2-1 heading into the ninth, Caron drove in the game-tying run after Dillon Benham singled in an earlier at-bat.
Caron (.317; 40) and Benham (.348; 48) each come into 2019 having batted well over .300 on the season and collecting at least 40 base knocks. Both players also collected their fair share of extra base hits as Caron slapped 11 doubles and a homer, while Benham tallied a team-leading 14 doubles, one triple and a couple of dingers.
Returning much of its pitching core, Castleton will look to its veteran hurlers to lead the way. Garrett Moran (1.90) led the team in earned-run average, while Jacob Nadeau (1.42), Mikell (2.45), Sam Sylvain (2.70), Andy Kenosh (3.00) and Joe Gratton (3.04) reached or flirted with an ERA near 3.00.
The Spartans will also bring in more than 20 new players, deriving of mostly freshman, but including multiple transfer students as well.
"Everybody is doing a great job of preparing..."
"The thing I am pleased most with is the strong work and focus that we have gotten…from really everybody," Shipley pointed out. "In terms of readiness, I think we might be a little ahead of where we have been in years past."
Castleton begins a 40-game slate with six over the coming six days in the greater Los Angeles area. The season starts against Whitworth College at 2:30 p.m. PDT (5:30 p.m. EDT) on Friday, to be played at Occidental College.
Following an off day, Castleton returns to the diamond for a doubleheader at Occidental beginning at 11 a.m. PDT on Sunday. Single games at Pomona-Pitzer and the California Institute of Technology follow at 2:30 p.m. PDT on Monday and Tuesday. Wrapping up the trip at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Castleton faces nationally ranked Chapman in a single contest.
"Strategically, we will figure out what we need to do."
"There is going to be a learning curve for us coaches and our players. I'm very familiar with the conference and I've always tried to schedule Little East teams to give our guys an idea," Shipley said. "Even with California, the teams we are going to be playing out there are comparable. They are all good and there are no really weak teams."
Remarking on the length of the season, Shipley mentioned how difficult it is to keep the whole squad healthy. Often times, teams need to catch a break and receive the news that an injury is not as severe as it seems or better yet, altogether avoid the issue. Furthermore, it is important to have a roster deep enough to cover the loss if a player is injured for an extended period of time.
"Either way, you have to fight for every win."
"I'm excited about it; looking forward to it. I don't have any goals directly related to it the Little East. Our goals have really always stayed the same, even in our last conference," Shipley mentioned. "Our focus was that we always knew where we wanted to be when we got into tournament play. You always have to get into the tournament; in the NAC it was four teams, here it is six, so basically it is the same percentage of teams, but either way, you have to fight for every win."
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