Last spring, the Lyons marched all the way to the NCAA Division III College World Series game, and this year the team finds itself in a similar position across the landscape of the sport: the very top. Wheaton’s baseball team is ranked first overall according to multiple preseason polls, making them early favorites to capture an NCAA championship this season.
Entering his 17th year as head coach, Eric Podbelski knows what it takes for the Lyons to achieve their goals as a team this season, but knows it’s too early to crown anybody champions.
“Pre-season chatter is all based on last year’s team – this year’s team hasn’t proven anything yet and if we start to think we’re where we need to be without having played a game yet, then we’ll be setting ourselves up for a tough season. That said, our guys have shown zero indication of looking backwards – they’ve been very focused each day in practice thus far and due to that, we believe we’re making progress.”
The team is led by senior ace Frank Holbrook ’13, who had an impressive 1.38 ERA in a team-high 84.2 innings pitched. In 12 starts, Holbrook had a 10-0 record, which included two complete games: the first at Coast Guard last March and the second at home in April against WPI. He was named to the D3baseball.com Preseason All-American second team this past January.
On offense, this could be a big year for first baseman Apolinar De la Cruz ’15, who hit .376 with two home runs in his breakout freshman season. De la Cruz led the team in runs batted in with 50, and managed a great 16-23 strikeout to walk ratio, and swiped nine bases with his speed.
Senior catcher Dan Gusovsky has managed the team pitching staff in each of the last two seasons, and will look to keep the Lyons right around the 2.80 team ERA in 2012, which ranked tenth best in Division III.
From third to first, the infield is manned by Justin Peluso ’15, Eric Jensen ’13, Matt Lavanchy ’16, and De la Cruz. Meanwhile, super utility man Justin Connor ’13 can hold down both second base and shortstop while bringing superb defense to the table.
The Lyons will use Sean Ryan ’13 in left field and Kevin Foley ’15 in right. Meanwhile there will be competition for a starting gig between Jimmy Smith ’16 and Matt Knight ’16, freshmen who should at least be splitting some time at the position.
Ryan has been one of the biggest bats for the Lyons for some time, with a team-best .531 slugging percentage last year, while also stealing 30 bases. He also led the team in runs scored, hits, triples, and home runs. Paul O’Neill ’13 also adds depth to the outfield, which should prove to be one of the team’s strengths. Meanwhile, the designated hitter spot is expected to be handled by Tyler Contillo ’15. As a freshman last year, Contillo hit .360 in just 19 games played.
The roster is rounded out by stud closer Ryan Grant ’14. He locked down 14 saves last season, while holding opposing hitters to a .200 batting average in his 26.2 innings pitched.
With a roster of veteran leaders mixed with promising younger talent, Coach Podbelski admires the depth and skills his team shows.
“Just like with the team as a whole, we just want each player to try their best to prepare and improve and if they do that, take no shortcuts and get themselves mentally ready for the challenges that the season will bring, then things have a way of working out well”.
The Lyons open their home schedule with a game against Suffolk on March 19th. There is also a scheduled rematch between Wheaton and NCAA Division III Champions Marietta, who edged the Lyons 7-2 for the title. That game will take place in Port Charlotte, Florida, where the Lyons play most of their early games before finally coming home.