STORM LAKE - Coming off its first losing season in over a decade, the Buena Vista baseball team is eager to get back out on the field in 2019 and put itself back into the mix of conference title contenders at season's end.
Entering his 19th season at the helm, head coach Steve Eddie, will have the majority of his line-up back from last season that finished 15-23 overall and 10-12 in conference play, earning the sixth-seed into the conference tournament.
Following a rough 1-7 start to the year, the Beavers rebounded nicely in the middle half of the season, going 10-4 over its next 14 games, including a 7-2 start to league play. Mother Nature didn't give it any breaks though, and the team was then forced to play nine of its next 10 games on the road where it went just 2-8.
Eddie fielded a much younger line-up in 2018 than he's seen take the field in recent years, but it gained a great deal of valuable experience, especially the pitching staff, and he's excited to see where his squad stacks up in 2019.
"We gained a lot of experience last year, so we have been able to progress through things pretty quickly this pre-season," says Eddie. "We have an athletic group that should help us score runs and help our pitchers."
The Beavers scored an average of six runs per game offensively a year ago and returns four of its top-five hitters from that line-up. Senior Peyton Renning, who was a First Team All-Conference selection as a junior, leads that group after leading or tying for the team lead in average, hits, doubles, triples, RBI, runs scored and stolen bases. Also returning is First Team All-Conference utility selection, Nick Henrichs. The sophomore started 25 games for BVU, mainly behind the dish, while also appearing in 16 games out of the bullpen. He went 4-2 on the mound with a 2.67 ERA over 27 innings, striking out 30 batters a notching a team-leading three saves.
Alex Savary (.341), Bryce Rheault (.317), Coleman Roberts (.314) and Tyler Tennyson (.302) are all back after hitting over .300 for the team a year ago. Rheault and Roberts each had 10 doubles and three triples and combined to drive in 69 runs.
A big addition to the offensive line-up is the return of senior Noah Paper, who missed all of last season due to injury. Paper was a First Team All-Conference selection at shortstop in 2017 and is a career .349 hitter with 370 at-bats.
"We believe our lineup should be better than it was last year," adds Eddie. "With seniors Peyton Renning, Porter Sartor, Noah Paper and Alex Savary, we have a group who have had a lot of college experience. Our sophomore group, Coleman Roberts, Nick Henrichs, Ryley McGregor, Tyler Stoltze, and Easton Bahr gained a lot of experience last season and shouldn't be so overwhelmed this time around."
Eddie feels his pitching staff is poised for a big year in 2019 after the majority of his arms gained significant experience a season ago.
"We will have plenty of guys that will get an opportunity to prove themselves early in the year," he states. "We need to find guys who we can count on by the time we get to conference play. Egan Bonde and Eric LaRue will be two of our starters, the other positions should be settled after we play our non-conference games. We can show a lot of different looks, but we need to see it in competition. We like the back end of our bullpen, with Nick Henrichs, Gage Smart, and Bryce Rheault. But, there are plenty of innings unaccounted for."
An area of strength for BVU will be its defense. Eddie's program's have traditionally been at or near the top of the league in fielding percentage, and last year was no different. The Beavers posted a .956 fielding percentage which trailed only Wartburg (.975), Loras (.968) and Luther (.957). It was also fifth during conference play with 14 double plays turned and also had nine outfield assists from its three primary outfielders.
"Our defense should be our strength," he says. With former First Team All-Conference shortstop Noah Paper back this year, it will allow us to move Bryce Rheault back to second base. They will make the routine play and Bryce has the ability to make a highlight play too. Porter Sartor plays solid defense at third base and catcher Tyler Stoltze gained a lot of experience last year as well. Tyler has done a great job of handling our pitchers this fall and pre-season, and has gained a ton of confidence."
"Our first base position will rotate between Tyler Tennyson, Joe Rock, and Nick Henrichs. Tennyson and Henrichs will throw some innings on the mound this year and we need to get at-bats to all three of them. Parker Truesdell and Easton Bahr give us the ability to pinch-hit, pinch-run, and fill in if injury sets in, without sacrificing much on the defensive end."
Eddie is scheduled to lead his team down to Topeka, Kan., to open the season on February 23-24 for a three-game weekend series against Hamline University at the Bettis Family Sports Complex. The team then plays seven more games before it ventures down to Tucson, Ariz., for its annual Spring Break trip beginning March 14. Although picking up victories is what he'd like to see in those games, he's more concerned with his team coming together and showing it can compete every time out.
"We just need to compete," he says. "I hope every one of our non-conference games is a close game which will simulate our conference series. We have the ability to do some different things, and I believe we can win games a number of different ways. But, it all comes down to how competitive we are as individuals."
It will be a quick turnaround after its return from the desert, as the team begins American Rivers Conference play on the road at Simpson College for a three-game weekend series beginning Friday, March 22. The team plays 10 of its first 13 conference games away from home so Eddie knows his team, which was picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches poll, is faced with a challenge.
"We will need to bring a consistent attitude to the ballpark each day, and we need to embrace the challenge of our high expectations," he says. "Our league is becoming much more balanced from the top to the bottom. But, our guys need to do whatever it takes to win ballgames early in the season. When I look at our team, we have a lot of guys with ability, we don't rely on one or two. But sometimes, an emotional leader needs to step up and set the standard for how we are going to play. I hope we can figure that out within the first portion of our schedule."
The home opener is scheduled for March 29-30 when Loras College visits town. The regular season will close with the Beavers playing eight of their final 11 games on their home turf, starting with a weekend series against Wartburg College on Easter Weekend, April 19-20. Defending champion, Dubuque, is in town to close out the regular season on May 3-4.
The American Rivers Conference Tournament is set for May 9-11 in Cedar Rapids with Buena Vista serving as this year's host.