14th-Ranked Wooster in Search of Third-Straight NCAC Championship

James Usher
Senior James Usher projects to once again be one of the Scots' top relievers. The right-hander stranded 23-of-28 inherited runners last year. (Photo: Martin Santek Photography)

The College of Wooster baseball team, which boasted the highest-scoring offense in Div. III for the second time in the last three seasons in 2017, projects to once again be one of the toughest top-to-bottom lineups to match up with in the country as seven everyday position players return, while on the pitching side of things, the Fighting Scots have a good mix of quality ranging from proven veterans to guys stepping into bigger roles and newcomers alike. This combination should bode well for Wooster, which checked in at 14th for the second straight year in the D3baseball.com/National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Top 25, as the Scots have their sights set on a third straight NCAC championship and a lengthy regional run come May.

"Offensively, I know we're going to have another very potent lineup top to bottom," said head coach Tim Pettorini, Div. III's winningest active coach who enters 2018 with a remarkable 1,173-436-6 record, all at Wooster. "Not just the fact that we return as many guys as we do, but just with the improvement. In terms of pitching, we've got an anchor in Nanak Saran, who I think is going to be one of the dominant pitchers in this region, if not the country. We have a group of guys behind him, some improving guys, but we think we have some real quality guys. We have James Usher to anchor the bullpen. I think him and Wyatt Linde will be a really good righty-lefty combination down there at the end of games. I'm feeling good about the pitching staff."

Wooster's lineup – and fielding – is headlined by junior shortstop Michael Wielansky, a first-team American Baseball Coaches Association All-American and Rawlings Gold Glove winner a year ago. Wielansky, who led Div. III in runs with 69 doesn't have fellow All-American Jamie Lackner behind him in the lineup anymore, but he gives opposing pitching staffs plenty of fits by himself with a career .399 average and over 70 hits in each season in a Scots' uniform thus far. A five-tool player, Wielansky boasted a .986 fielding percentage last year and has 42 career steals.

"Michael is a very, very gifted all-around player, especially offensively with his speed and power," said Pettorini. "There's no reason to think he won't put up some very impressive numbers."

Jake Fling is projected to hit right above Wielansky. While always an integral part of the offense's success during his career, Fling's production reached another level when he moved down to the No. 2 spot down the stretch in 2017 with the Scots turning in a remarkable 13-2 record when the centerfielder hit in that spot in the lineup. Fling upped his average to a career-high .384 (71-for-185), and worth noting, he's the first player in the tradition-rich program's history to record his 200th hit before the end of his junior year.

Five other regular starters from last year return for 2018, including two who earned all-conference certificates – Garrett Crum and Chandler Dippman.

Crum factored heavily into the offense's success, and in fact, ranked ninth in Div. III with 56 RBI. With the graduation of Lackner, Crum projects to see the majority of his time at first base, and he could rotate across the diamond at times when Dippman is pitching, per Pettorini.

Dippman, a sure-handed fielder, saw his role expanded to the mound, where the righty went 4-0 while turning in a 2.47 ERA over 28 innings of work. At the plate, Dippman came on strong late in the season to bump his average north of .300 for the second straight year.

Noteworthy, Wooster's infield was one of the best in Div. III defensively, and the Scots have ranked in the top three in Div. III fielding percentage two years running.

Jacob Stuursma played a big factor in the Scots' success defensively after emerging as the regular starter at second base, and by season's end, was hitting .360, thanks to a 10-for-12 showing at the NCAC Tournament.

"Jake started last year in the eight-hole being platooned, and by the end of the year was a really great player," said Pettorini. "He took off in that spot so much so that the guys voted him a team captain. Now, he's not only looked at as the regular guy at second base, but a regular leader on the team. I think that's a credit to the amount of work he's put in."

Drew Tornow projects to once again anchor down right field, and his big bat has resulted in 61 of his 132 career hits going for extra bases. Rising sophomore Nick Strausbaugh patrols the other corner outfield spot, and he logged a .461 on-base percentage as a rookie.

Catcher represents a position to keep an eye on as the likes of Dan Gail, Tanner Kaplan, Conner Thomson, and Harrison Walls all in the mix for time, with Kaplan carrying the most game experience in to the season. Pettorini projects "he'll spread the workload around with more split time" behind the plate.

The Scots have plenty of depth among the position players with the likes of Dan Harwood and Aaron Spidell ready to take on key roles, plus Ryan Farrell, Tyler Iversen, Ethan Myers, and Harry Witwer-Dukes all returning. Harwood, a sophomore, projects to factor heavily into the mix for the lead role at designated hitter, and could also see time at first base and the outfield. Spidell often saw action as a late-inning defensive replacement last year, and could very well contribute in a similar fashion with two senior starters in the outfield.

Saran, who is 15-3 for his career at the College, steps into the No. 1 starting role following the graduation of all-region honoree Michael Houdek. An all-region selection himself last year, Saran went 8-0 with a fine 2.92 ERA.

Behind Saran are junior Brian Murray and senior Alec Hammond, who made four and two starts respectively last year, while overall logging a combined 29 appearances. Murray in particular stepped into a large role as a sophomore as his 41 2/3 innings marked the fourth-most on the team. As mentioned earlier, Dippman could continue to factor in prominently on the mound.

Usher will anchor a talented bullpen, although he may not appear in a traditional closer role per Pettorini. The magician turned in a tidy 1.75 ERA over 36 innings last year, oftentimes entering the game with Wooster in a jam, but he held his own as 23-of-28 inherited runners never touched home plate.

Linde, who came on strong late in the season after missing over a month with an injury, is a formidable lefty.

The likes of Max Lackner and Jeremy Parton also return for the Scots while a host of newcomers, including transfer Christian Julius, will be in the mix for some innings.

Wooster's roster is rounded out by eight first-years – outfielder Noah Clement, pitchers Jay DiBacco, Evan Faxon, Andrew Hill, and Jack Jones, outfielder Zach Schuch, shortstop Gabe Sherman, and pitcher Steve Spidell.

Wooster's non-league slate to start the season features several tough challenges as four games against teams ranked in the D3baseball.com/NCBWA Preseason Top 25 headline the program's annual spring break trip. Additionally, the Scots have four other early-season non-conference games against those receiving votes in the poll, including the University of Mount Union, which Wooster is slated to open the season against at Art Murray Field at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 25.

Additionally, the NCAC features a new twist to the schedule this year as the league is playing a full round-robin which each team now playing a twin bill versus a four-game series against each team in the division plus the crossover weekend.