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‘We’re in it to win it,’ says Western Illinois baseball coach

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‘We’re in it to win it,’ says Western Illinois baseball coach

Tom Loftus sports editor

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      Oral Roberts, a dominant force in Summit League athletics since joining the league – then known as the Mid-Continent Conference – in 1997, will be departing for the Southland Conference after this school year.  

            For the Tulsa, Okla.-based, small (3,800 student), Charismatic Christian university, that means its baseball team’s impressive streak of conference titles will end this season, one way or another.

            However, Western Illinois University head baseball coach Mike Villano isn’t willing to concede that the Golden Eagles will likely wrap up their Summit League tenure by celebrating a 15th straight league championship.

            The Leathernecks want to start a streak of their own this spring.

            Oral Roberts was picked to finish first in the 2012 Summit League preseason poll. Western was chosen to finish second.

            “I can see where people see that,” said Villano, who is beginning his second full season at the helm of the Leathernecks. “I can see where I hope our guys (finish) higher.”

            Last spring, Western wound up 21-38 overall and 13-15 in the Summit League, good for fourth place out of eight teams. This spring, the pollsters figure that the Leathernecks can leapfrog last year’s second- and third-place teams, South Dakota State and North Dakota State, respectively.

            Villano has his sights set even higher.

            “(Our goal is) to win a conference championship,” said Villano, who spent nine years as a pro player, including a stint with the Florida Marlins. “Any time you shoot for less than that, you’re selling yourself a little short.”

            Western won its first two games against Oral Roberts last spring, eventually finishing 2-3 against the Golden Eagles on the year. This spring the Leathernecks will get their chance against the defending league champions with four games in Tulsa, Okla. April 20-22.

            Oral Roberts (39-22, 21-7 in 2011), which won 3 games in NCAA regional play last spring before being eliminated, returns pitchers Alex Gonzalez (8-7, 3.49, 100 strikeouts in 105-2/3 innings) – the 2011 Summit League Pitcher and Newcomer of the Year – and Drew Bowen (6-2, 1.73 earned run average), plus designated hitter Brandon King (.319-10-56), who bats cleanup.

However, the Golden Eagles’ entire starting outfield – and the top third of its lineup – graduated last spring:  leadoff man and center fielder Joey Winiecki (.279-0-21, 22 stolen bases), No. 2 hitter right fielder Nick Baligod (.364-7-41) and No. 3 hitter left fielder Chris Elder (.326-12-59).

            Since taking over the Western baseball program, Villano has been intent upon instilling a winning attitude into his players, who have continued to show improvement in the batter’s box, on the field and on the pitcher’s mound.

            “If they don’t believe it’s possible (to win the Summit League), then we’re probably not going to win very many games,” Villano said.

Last season, Western improved to third in the league in team ERA (5.03), with Dan Russell (6-7, 4.21) playing a significant role. Russell was fourth in the Summit League in strikeouts last spring with 80.

Russell returns this spring, and figures to anchor a starting rotation that could also include fellow seniors Rich Mascheri and Alexander Zarate. Mascheri sat out last season, but in 2010, besides going 0-1 on the mound, Mascheri hit .385 – second on the team – with 22 RBI.

“Zarate did a great job for us last year, and Russell gave us over a 100 innings,” said Villano, adding that Mascheri will see playing time at designated hitter this spring in addition to his pitching duties.

“Dustin Hunter is over a couple of arm issues he had last year, and has been very, very good. Philip Tolman has been very good, too,” Villano said of the two senior pitchers. “Those guys are both battling for time in the starting rotation also, along with a few freshmen who are coming on.”

Tyler Farrell, Tom Constand, Seth Fuller, Nick Smith, Nick Milligan and Tyler Willman are among the freshman arms joining Western this spring, with redshirt freshman Codey Harrison, junior Brian Loconsole and seniors Chris Macek and Gabe Long also in the mix.

“If you look at it, there people in the big leagues who are 19 years old,” Villano said. “We have some pretty talented young arms, and they’re going to get the opportunity to get going. Regardless of age, if they’re the best player, they’re going to get out on the field.”

On offense, first baseman Tom Lilja ranked No. 3 in the Summit League in 2011 with 11 home runs, while third baseman-outfielder Matt Igara was third in doubles with 19.

“Tom’s become more of a mature hitter, and hopefully we’ll see some good things from him this year,” Villano said of the Preseason First Team All-Summit League pick.

“Matt, we expect him to be very good this year,” Villano continued. “If you asked him if he had a good year last year, he’d probably say ‘No.’ Both (Lilja and Igara) are capable of doing much, much better than they did last year.”

Also returning is senior Austin Cowen, who hit .302 last season with 1 home run and 37 RBI. Cowen will see playing time at both second and third base, Villano said.

Outfielder Dan Dispensa, a junior who is coming off a .281-1-22 season with 13 stolen bases despite a sore back, and catcher Manny Reyes, a 2011 Alaska Baseball League all-star for the Peninsula Oilers who hit a school-record .514 as a high school senior in Santa Monica, Calif., are also important pieces to the 2012 Leathernecks puzzle.

Dispensa hit .288 last summer for the Battle Creek (Mich.) Bombers in the prestigious Northwoods League, a wooden bat league whose alumni include Texas Rangers all-star second baseman Ian Kinsler, Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist, and Andre Ethier, who won a Gold Glove while playing right field for the Los Angeles Dodgers last spring.

Other Leatherneck veterans returning this season include third baseman Danny Marcuzzo (.238-5-24 last spring), outfielder/DH Ryan Cowhey (229-6-21) and infielder Tyler Baratano. Freshman catcher Mark Garton, redshirt freshman outfielder Dan Owenby, freshman shortstop Jameson Henning and junior outfielder Vince Howard will also get their shot to crack the starting lineup.

“Jameson – he’s a really talented kid. He’ll get a chance to progress and develop into a special player,” Villano said. “Garton will get some time behind the plate – he has a chance to be a really good player for the program. Vince Howard can really run; he was drafted by the (Atlanta) Braves            in the 30th round.

“We have a few question marks here and there, where guys will rotate in with the opportunity of proving themselves and being an everyday guy,” Villano added. “There’s a core group of guys that we know we can count on that will play every day.”

Although his immediate concern is preparing his team to play well during their season-opening 16-game road trip that will take the Leathernecks to Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky and Missouri, the Western coach nonetheless has his eyes focused on the season-ending Summit League prize, and the NCAA Tournament berth that comes with it.

“The whole thing is, what it comes down to, we want to prepare so we can be the best possible team we can at the end of May,” Villano said. “We think we’re getting better, we making strides, but we’re not great until we prove it on the field.”

Western opens its 2012 home season on Tuesday, March 20 at 3:30 p.m. at Alfred D. Boyer Stadium against St. Louis University (29-26 last season).


*   *   *


            In its opening weekend four-game series against host Georgia State, Western won Friday’s first game but dropped three straight after that. The games were played at the GSU Baseball Complex in Decatur, Ga.

            Rich Mascheri allowed only 4 singles through 7 innings, helping the Leathernecks win Game 1 of their Friday doubleheader, 7-5. It was Western’s first season-opening victory since 2007. Mascheri walked 4 and fanned 5.

            Dan Dispensa had 3 hits and 3 RBI for the Leathernecks. Austin Cowen also had 3 hits and drive in 2 runs. Jameson Henning, a freshman, had 3 hits and scored 3 times for Western.

            In Game 2, the Panthers blanked the Leathernecks on 1 hit, a fourth-inning double by Dispensa. Ben Marshall pitched a complete game for Georgia State, striking out 6 and walking 2. Alexander Zarate surrendered 4 runs in the second inning and took the loss for Western.

            On Saturday, 4 sixth-inning errors by Western proved too difficult to overcome in its 11-9 loss. The Leathernecks actually outhit Georgia State 12-7, but Western’s pitchers gave up 12 walks in the contest. Nick Smith took the loss, allowing 6 hits, 5 runs (4 earned), 5 walks and 5 strikeouts in 5 innings.

            Western had a chance to come away with a split in the series on Sunday, but the Panthers scored 9 unanswered runs to claim a 9-4 victory. The Leathernecks led 4-0 entering the bottom of the fifth, but a double by Brandon Williams tied the game at 4-4. Catcher Scott Sarratt’s 3-run homer in the seventh was the big blow for Georgia State.

            Dan Russell pitched 5 innings and was tagged with the loss. Russell gave up 7 hits and 4 earned runs to go with 1 walk and 1 strikeout.


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‘We’re in it to win it,’ says Western Illinois baseball coach