EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – Improvement remains the name of the game for the SIUE baseball team this season.
The Cougars aim to improve on their 23-29 record and land a berth in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. SIUE went 11-19 and finished 10th in the league last season. The 23 victories under Head Coach Sean Lyons represented a gain of 14 wins from 2016. The Cougars posted a 14-9 record at Roy E. Field, and that was one reason they started the season with a 10-5 mark.
"We're going to try and build off the strides we made as a program last year," said Lyons, beginning his second season.
And he anticipates more success. There's no reason to think otherwise. The Cougars are seeking their first winning season since 2011 and their first slot in the NCAA Division I playoffs.
"We've had a great fall and a good preseason," he said. "As far as the team aspect goes, I see the biggest change in the depth of our pitching. We have some new additions, and that's an area of improvement."
A good start and quick finish are high on Lyons' priority list. The Cougars play their first 10 games away from home, including six in Louisiana.
SIUE opens the 2018 season Friday against Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond. It's a three-game series before SIUE goes to Louisiana Tech for three games, Oral Roberts in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for three games and Wichita State in Wichita, Kansas, for one more.
The Cougars' home opener at the Simmons Baseball Complex is slated for Wed., March 7 against Saint Louis. SIUE has nonconference home-and-home dates with the Billikens, Evansville, Western Illinois and Bradley. The Cougars also have intriguing nonconference games at Missouri and Illinois State.
"It's going to be a challenge the first three weeks of the season because of our road games," Lyons said. "But it will tell us where we are as a program and be a good measuring stick for us. It will also be a good opportunity for us to prepare for the OVC season."
The 11-team conference competition is foremost on Lyons' mind. Tennessee Tech is regarded as the league favorite, SIUE is rated ninth.
"When we missed qualifying for the OVC tournament last season, it was a major disappointment," he said. "We want to get where we make the tournament every year. That's a goal."
It all starts with SIUE's pitching, Lyons said.
"Quality starts are the key to a successful season," he said. "One the biggest areas we want to improve on from last year is in the pitching staff. We lacked depth both in the rotation and in the bullpen."
Senior Nelson Martz of East Alton, Illinois, figures to anchor the starting staff. Martz logged a 7-5 record with a 5.56 ERA and registered 66 strikeouts in 79.1 innings last season.
"Nelson solidified himself last season as our No. 1 starter," Lyons said. Martz, a 6-foot, 4-inch, 200-pounder, is the son of former Major League pitcher Randy Martz, the head baseball coach at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, Illinois.
Brock Fulkerson, a 6-7 senior from Mount Vernon, Illinois, and a four-game winner last season, also will be in the rotation. So will JUCO transfer Ryan Byrd, a junior left-hander from Spokane, Washington, and junior Kenny Serwa of Chicago, Illinois. Serwa previously pitched at Saint Joseph's (Indiana) College. St. Joseph's, a member of the Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference, closed last year.
"We have guys competing for weekend spots and adding to our bullpen depth," Lyons said.
Collin Baumgartner, a 6-6, 225-pound freshman from Brighton, Illinois, could be prominent in the Cougars' plans. "He could be a bridge guy out of the bullpen," Lyons said of the Southwestern High School graduate. "His role is not defined yet."
Mason McReaken, a senior from Centralia, Illinois, has a defined role. He is the Cougars' closer after saving six games in 2017. McReaken was recently named to the Stopper of the Year Award watch list.
"Mason showed the ability not to be fazed in his ability to finish games," Lyons added.
Chris Robinson, a junior from Glen Carbon, Illinois; Mike Miller, a senior from Tinley Park, Illinois; Braydon Bone, a sophomore from Effingham, Illinois; David Llorens, a left-hander from Grayslake, Illinois; Danny Ehrsam, a junior from Joliet, Illinois and a four-game winner last season; Michael Shereyk, a junior lefty from Homewood, Illinois; Devin Colley, a sophomore from Godfrey, Illinois; Brett Taucher, a freshman from Elk Grove, Illinois; Tyler Hutchinson, a junior from Sorento, Illinois and A.J. Johnson, a sophomore from Overland Park, Kansas; add pitching depth.
Catcher Brock Weimer and outfielder Dustin Woodcock will be counted on to lead the SIUE offense, which hit .293 and accounted for 53 home runs last season. Weimer, a junior from Edwardsville, Illinois, earned preseason All-OVC honors. Last season, he hit .329 with 15 home runs, which tied SIUE's single-season record, while adding 50 RBIs. Woodcock, a senior left-handed hitting outfielder from Jacksonville, Illinois, batted .330 with 14 doubles, six home runs and 42 RBIs.
"Brock (Weimer) had a tremendous season last year, and he was our most productive player," Lyons said. "Dustin, like Brock, is one of our best hitters, and he's good at hitting the gaps for doubles and driving in runs."
Newcomer Peyton Cordova-Smith, a junior transfer from Bothell, Washington, figures to be in the middle of the lineup and start at first base.
"He's a big left-handed hitter who has an advanced approach at the plate," Lyons said. "He can really swing the bat."
Aaron Goecks, a sophomore from Lannon, Wisconsin, could open at second base, though Lyons has senior Mario Tursi of Glenview, Illinois, and junior Jordan Ross of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, competing with him. Tursi and Ross also are candidates to start at shortstop. Jared McCunn, a senior from Eureka, Illinois, is switching from first base to third base. He batted .309 last season.
"We want to keep his bat in the lineup," Lyons said of McCunn.
Junior College transfer Bret Fehr, a left-handed hitter from Manhattan, Kansas, will play left field and serve as the Cougars' leadoff hitter, Lyons said. Redshirt sophomore Eric Giltz of Warrenville, Illinois intends to man center field. He batted .302 in 2017 and earned a spot on the OVC All-Newcomer team.
"Eric is a tremendous defender," Lyons said. "Last year he came into his own offensively."
Woodcock, who likely will hit third in the order – one spot ahead of Weimer -- will play right field. Transfer Brock Hammit of Nixa, Missouri, anticipates having designated hitter responsibilities and logging some time in left field, according to Lyons.
SIUE also has plenty of bench depth. Junior Chris Monasmith of Pacific, Missouri, is cast as a backup catcher. Freshman Steve Pattan of Godfrey, Illinois, is another versatile player who can catch.
Aaron Jackson, a junior from Edwardsville, Illinois; Garrett Carmichael, a redshirt sophomore from Wheelersburg, Ohio; and Jordan Humphries, a sophomore from Thornton, Colorado; expect to get time in the infield. Jackson Layton, a junior from Olathe, Kansas, and Jackson Hoang, a sophomore from Pewaukee, Wisconsin are cast as reserve outfielders.
"We have a lot of question marks to figure out now," Lyons said. "By April and May, our goal is to be in the mix of things in the conference and fighting for the playoffs."