LEBANON — McKendree University isn't expected to be a legitimate threat in the Great Lakes Valley Conference.
But 16th-year Bearcats coach Jim Boehne, with an emphasis on pitching and defense, is building a team that he hopes will be a force at the Division II level in the near future.
"It's going to start on the mound," Boehne said. "That's where we think we've improved the most. We've still got young kids, but they've improved through development. We've also got a couple of younger guys in there that are going to be thrown into the mix.
"We're still a pretty young team. We're going to be playing a few sophomores in the field and probably only one senior in the field. Our best pitcher is a junior. Everybody else is younger. So it's going to take us a while. It's part of the process we're going through."
McKendree, which was 14-31 last season as an independent, is picked to finish last in the eight-team East Division, behind Indianapolis, Southern Indiana, Bellarmine, Lewis, St. Joseph's, Kentucky Wesleyan and Wisconsin-Parkside.
Quincy is narrowly picked to win the West Division championship, followed by Drury, Missouri-St. Louis, Rockhurst, Missouri S&T, William Jewell, Maryville and Illinois-Springfield.
Boehne wasn't surprised at the preseason rankings.
"That's part of the transition (from the NAIA)," Boehne said. "Everybody picked us eighth in our division, and heck, that's where I would have ranked us as well. It's just going to be a question of trying to move up that ladder a little bit -- seeing who we can beat and who we've got to get better (against).
"There's growing pains. But we're getting ready to play the schedule. That's what it amounts to. We know we've got to play well to have a chance to compete."
McKendree was scheduled to open the season Wednesday at Missouri Baptist, but the game has been postponed because of inclement weather. The Bearcats are scheduled to play a doubleheader at noon Saturday at Quincy.
The Bearcats' rotation will consist of junior right-hander Ben Dallesasse, sophomore right-hander Vince Kiefer, of New Athens, freshman right-hander Matt Sax, and freshman left-hander Sam Lidisky, an Althoff High graduate.
"There's going to be some spot starts in there, but how those front four guys do is going to be how we go," Boehne said.
Dallesasse is the most experienced starter. He was 5-5 with a 6.75 ERA in 12 games and 65 1/3 innings last season.
Kiefer, meanwhile, was 3-4 with a 6.48 ERA in 10 games, including nine starts, and 41 2/3 innings as a freshman.
Boehne said Lidisky could make an immediate impact.
"Sam's going to get a chance to pitch early in his career, and that's why he chose to come to McKendree," he said. "We're going to see how good Sam can be, because he's got a huge task in front of him.
"He throws three pitches for strikes; he's a strike-thrower. He's got to pitch to contact. If we play defense behind him, he'll give us an opportunity to stay in games and give us an opportunity to win."
Working out of the bullpen will be freshman left-hander Josh Tonozzi, junior right-hander Jon Trampe, a Metro-East Lutheran High graduate, sophomore right-hander Travis Blumhorst, of Okawville, and sophomore right-hander Cole Wille, of Collinsville.
Wille was redshirted last year when he suffered an elbow injury after making four starts. But Boehne said Wille has made a seamless recovery and expects him to be the Bearcats' closer.
"We really didn't have that guy (last year)," Boehne said. "He's accepted that role already. It's going to take some stress off him (compared) to throwing 100 pitches in a game."
McKendree isn't deep, so Boehne anticipates that his starting position players will play the majority of the innings.
Sophomore center fielder Kyle Rutledge, who played left field last season, is the Bearcats' top returning hitter. He batted .320 with eight doubles, two home runs and 17 RBIs in 42 games last year.
"He can run 'em down out there and is going to hit right in the middle of the order," Boehne said.
Third baseman Jacob Kline, a sophomore, returns after batting .308 with five doubles in 38 games last season. Junior Tony Kossina, a Belleville West graduate, will shift from right field to shortstop. Kossina batted .312 with five doubles, two homers and 27 RBIs in 44 games last year.
"He's done a fantastic job in the preseason," Boehne said. "I wouldn't call him flashy, but I would call him very steady."
Sophomore Blake Abbott, who batted .300 with five doubles in 38 games last season, will move from shortstop to second base. Sophomores Jeff Tolliver and Craig Dalman, of Nashville, and senior Rob Beatty, a Belleville West graduate, will share time at first base.
Sophomore Bryce Harre, of Nashville, and freshman Mason Shirley will share left field. Senior Pat Thole, a Central High graduate from Carlyle, will handle right field and will occasionally pitch.
Boehne said junior newcomer Tyler Collins, of Marietta, Ga., is a plus defensive catcher who will stabilize the pitching staff.
"He's a catch-and-throw guy," Boehne said. "His presense has already made a big difference in the development of our young pitchers. He's very athletic behind the plate."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.