FRANKLIN, Ind. – Coming off the most successful season in program history, the Franklin College baseball team has their sights set on an encore performance as they get set for the 2019 season opener.
The Grizzlies set a program record for wins in a season a year ago, going a staggering 39-5 on their way to an NCAA Regional berth after sweeping the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC) regular season and tournament championships. With a bulk of the lineup back and several familiar faces on the pitching staff, the Grizzlies enter the season with heightened expectations, as well as a target on their back.
"On one hand, every year is a new challenge with new players and a chance to develop a new team chemistry," Head coach Lance Marshall said. "On the other hand, these guys are bringing a ton of confidence with them coming into this year and they feel good about their ability to compete at the highest level. It's different this year because that was their first chance to compete at the national level and they're all anxious to get back there."
Franklin fielded an offense that was one of the nation's best a year ago, leading Division III with a .351 batting average as a unit. Seven regulars from that lineup are back in the fold, led by the reigning HCAC Player of the Year and Third Team All-American outfielder Ryan Bixler. He will be joined by first team all-conference selections Sam Claycamp, Nick Wright, Jarrod Smith, Alex Mis and Drew Naumovich, as well as second team all-conference second baseman Brandt Pawley to give Franklin a deep and dangerous offensive attack.
With not much turnover in the lineup, the Grizzlies will turn to a deep group of veterans and newcomers itching to get into the every day lineup for an offense that expects to be dangerous once again.
"Having as many offensive standouts back is huge," Marshall added. "We also had some guys in backup roles last year that are ready to make a mark and some newcomers itching for playing time. It's going to be tough to replicate what we did last year, but we expect to be strong offensively once again."
Overshadowed by the dominant offense at times, the Franklin pitching staff turned in a stellar 2018 campaign, finishing with a team earned run average of 3.72 with 308 strikeouts as a staff. After starting last season as the team's closer, senior Jordan Clark opens the season back in the rotation that is also expected to feature seniors Aaron Leming, Ben Sprinkle and Nate Stonebraker.
The Grizzly bullpen will feature plenty of new faces and returners expected to take on expanding roles. With just 34.1 innings logged by returning relievers, there will be plenty of chances for the entire bullpen to earn their spot on the mound in critical situations.
"We had some guys that didn't get many innings last year that have developed and some new guys to the program that are really going to help," Marshall continued. "We also have a good, veteran group coming back and we have a chance to have a really good staff. Our pitching was great last year but they got overshadowed a bit by our offense. This year, we hope that's not the case."
Standing in the way of the Grizzlies and a return to the top of the league is a difficult schedule that features the standard 18-game HCAC slate and eight dates with NCAA Tournament qualifiers from 2018. That competition will not only provide a litmus test for the Grizzlies, but will give them a chance to show they belong on the same level as some of the region's top teams.
"Our guys are excited to prove themselves against some really good teams," Marshall closed by saying. "They want to play top competition because they know it will only make them better. We know we will have to be at our best, but we also know other teams are going to have to be at their best to beat us."
Franklin begins the 2019 season on Friday, Mar. 1 at home, taking on Albion College at McDowell Field. First pitch is set for 3:30 p.m.