CHICAGO – For the first time in 22 years, the University of Chicago baseball team will have a conference to call home. The 2019 season will feature a return to the Midwest Conference for the Maroons.
UChicago last participated in the MWC in the 1987 season, and the Maroons had functioned as an independent (no conference affiliation) since 1997.
The Maroons are now part of the MWC's North Division as an affiliate member in baseball, and Head Coach John Fitzgerald believes that his team will be energized by the playoff possibilities.
"Having the ability to play for a conference tournament will be a game-changer for our student-athletes," Fitzgerald said. "The ability to have more control of our destiny and be part of a true pennant race is what college baseball is all about. If we are able to play our way into the four-team conference tournament, our players will forever have memories of the emotions and excitement that go along with postseason baseball. I'm thrilled that they now have the opportunity to hopefully gain that experience first-hand."
The 2018 season was a banner campaign for UChicago – the squad tied the school record for wins with a 26-13 record. After graduating three seniors, the Maroons return eight starting position players and almost the entire pitching staff.
The current eight-member senior class has helped guide the Maroon resurgence, increasing win totals from 18 to 22 to 26 in the last three years. The winning culture has developed, alongside the luxury of having multiple four-year starters.
"In their first three years, our senior class has already provided this program with more than I could have imagined," said Fitzgerald, who enters his fifth season as head coach. "Being our first recruiting class, they had an opportunity to come in and compete immediately. To a man, they have all accomplished that. But more importantly, they have created an incredible environment and culture for the younger players and our program as a whole."
The potent offense compiled a .316 team batting average and averaged 8.0 runs per game last season. Runners proved dangerous on the base paths with 55 stolen bases on 66 attempts (83 percent success rate). The biggest void to replace is graduated outfielder Maximiliano Larsen, who broke the school record for career doubles while posting a .345 batting average, 23 doubles, 28 walks and 44 RBI as a senior.
The leadoff spot will be manned once more by senior centerfielder Connor Hickey. The speedy lefty ranks second all-time in stolen bases (42), going 17-for-19 in 2018. He added a .361 batting average, 49 runs and 22 walks drawn. Senior Josh Parks is back in the outfield with a power bat that produced five homers, 15 doubles, 35 RBI and a .321 batting average. Senior Brady Sarkon mans first base (.352 BA, 3 HR, 34 RBI, 21 BB) and junior Payton Jancsy (.367 BA, 35 RBI) will continue his utility role. Senior Ian Bohn resumes duties behind the plate (.304 BA, 2 HR, 31 RBI, .992 FLD PCT).
The infield includes the double-play combo of sophomore Brian Lyle at shortstop (.336 BA, 23 RBI), sophomore James Kelly at second base (.246 BA, 9 2B, 13 RBI), who helped UChicago tally 35 double plays last year. Junior Drew Ventrelle (.248 BA, 23 RBI) was a regular starter at third base as well.
"I think repetition and consistency are probably the two aspects of our offense that jump out," Fitzgerald said. "Coach [Paul] Stevens has done a phenomenal job with our offense over the last few years and has the ability to truly develop our hitters on a daily basis, both physically and mentally. The addition of Coach [Kevin] Tyrrell has only increased that ability to develop hitters and our position players this winter."
Fitzgerald is counting on his depth to be a strength that will be called upon for crucial MWC series. UChicago brings back 13 position players and 14 pitchers off last year's squad. "The conference schedule with four, nine-inning games over two days on the weekend will also really test our guys, both physically and mentally. In order to be successful in that format, we will really need to generate a laser-like intensity throughout conference play," he said.
The pitching staff features senior Brenton Villasenor and junior Jacob Petersen, who made a combined 21 starts. Villasenor provided top-of-the-rotation presence with a 4-4 record, 3.22 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 67 innings pitched. Petersen led the team in victories at 8-2, with a 3.99 ERA and 42 strikeouts.
"I think that they both matured immensely last season and really possessed a commanding presence on the mound," said Fitzgerald. "I also feel that both have grown significantly in their abilities since last spring. Their ability to consistently throw strikes and compete on a pitch-by-pitch basis last season was a huge reason for the success and improvement that they enjoyed in 2018."
Senior Joe Liberman started six out of his 10 appearances as well, going 4-2 with 32 strikeouts in 27.2 innings. All told, the deep pitching staff were able to miss plenty of bats last year – they struck out 309 batters in 310.1 innings.
In the bullpen, senior Ravi Bakhai posted the top ERA on the team at 1.14. He tallied 29 strikeouts and only 10 hits allowed in 23.2 innings of work. Sophomore David Clarke set a new school record with seven saves in 2018, posting a 1.45 ERA. UChicago secured at least nine mound appearances from Patrick Rogers, Daniel Smith, Zach Morochnik, Chandler Yu and Patrick Murphy.
The incoming first-year class is 11 deep with plenty of versatility that the Maroons will hope to utilize this season.
"Only time will dictate how they perform at this level during their first season at UChicago," Fitzgerald said. "I firmly believe that if we hope to continue to increase our performance and record this season, we will rely heavily on the contributions of a number of our freshman players. Unlike recent years, we have the ability to bring them along a bit more slowly this spring; however, there will be a number that could and should have a profound and immediate impact on this club."