EDWARDSVILLE — Southern Illinois University Edwardsville baseball coach Tony Stoecklin is realistic about where his team was picked by Ohio Valley Conference coaches and sports information personnel.
"The eighth-place pick is fair, "Stoecklin said. "We finished eighth last year."
That doesn't mean that the second-year head coach has to believe it. Stoecklin believes the Cougars have higher potential than last year's 16-35 club.
"Eighth place for this year's team is not going to be acceptable," he continued. "Our expectation is to be one of the top six teams and be in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament at the end of the year. We have the ability physically to accomplish that. We need to come together as a team to accomplish that."
The season started with a three-game series on the road at perennial contender and defending Missouri Valley Conference tournament champion Wichita State. The Cougars dropped all three games.
"We'd like to be practicing outside from day one, but that's just not the reality of baseball in the Midwest in January and February," Stoecklin said.
Stoecklin believes the Cougar pitching staff will improve on last season, in which the Cougars were 10th of 11 OVC teams in earned run average. The staff will be without its leader, at least for the early part of the season.
Preseason All-OVC pick Travis Felax (Triad) is injured and will not start the year as planned.
"We're obviously disappointed to not have him," Stoecklin said of the Cougar senior. "Hopefully it is a short period of time, and we can get him going and back into the rotation."
Ryan Daniels has been in Felax's shoes, so to speak. The redshirt junior has missed each of the past two seasons with injury. This year, Daniels is healthy, and he'll begin the season as the Friday starter and will get the ball opening day against the Shockers.
"It's nice to have Ryan back healthy and in the rotation," Stoecklin said. "He'll go out every weekend and give us an opportunity to win."
Senior Jake Stauffenberg and sophomore transfer Jarrett Bednar are also starters. Stauffenberg made 17 appearances in relief as a junior and finished 3-3 to tie for the most wins on the team. His 3.80 ERA was the second best on the team.
"Jake did a great job out of the pen last year, and he's earned this opportunity," Stoecklin said. "His confidence has come a long way since he got here as a freshman. He knows he can go out there and get the job done."
Bednar came to SIUE following a stint at Rend Lake College, where he was 7-1 with a 2.96 ERA last season.
"(Jarrett) gets a lot of ground balls," Stoecklin said. "He has to transition from junior college and make the adjustment to the level of intensity."
Stoecklin admits that he hasn't figured everyone's exact role on the pitching staff and that it will come based on performance. One thing he has figured out, at least to start the season, is that P.J. Schuster will be at the back end of the bullpen.
"P.J. did a nice job as a freshman. He started and relieved and handled both roles well," Stoecklin said. "He approached me, and I had been thinking about it. To be a closer you have to be strong mentally, have a short memory, and you have to have an out-pitch. P.J.'s changeup is a true out-pitch."
Returners Sam Hopkins (O'Fallon), Zach Malach, J.D. Williams and Caleb Wilkersonwill be joined by newcomers Brett Thomas, Evan Martens and Mike Miller to round out the pitching staff.
Stoecklin said Hopkins and Malach each have made improvements during the off-season. He also noted that Malach will see some situational use as the team's only left-hander.
While Stoecklin said there is movement likely to come among the position players.
Sophomore Zach Little opened the year as the team's starting catcher while senior Brian Sipe (Mount Vernon), who missed time with a broken bone in his hand last season, continues to get fully healthy.
"He's made improvements," Stoecklin said of Little. "For one thing, he's more vocal. He'll bring leadership behind the plate."
Stoecklin said the fact that Sipe brings experience is important.
"He's going to get a lot of time," Stoecklin said. "He knows what is expected. He does a nice job leading the pitchers."
Junior Drew Johnson, who appeared in 34 games last season, also could see time behind the plate for the Cougars.
Junior transfer Alec Saika will man first base for the Cougars. Saikal hit .312 last season for Broward College while adding eight doubles and 19 RBIs.
"He's a big, strong, rangy first baseman," Stoecklin said. "It's nice to have some length over at first. He's going to hit in the middle of the lineup. He has a lot of pop."
Redshirt junior Chase Greenis started the year at second base. Green, who spent two seasons at shortstop, missed nearly all of the 2013 season with a shoulder injury.
"He is one of our leaders, and we are happy to have him back," Stoecklin said. "The plan is as the season goes on his arm will get stronger, and we can move him back to shortstop."
Sophomore Skyler Geissinger started the year at shortstop after a standout freshman season. Geissinger was third on the team with a .261 average last season. He was second on the team with five homers. Geissinger hit .303 during OVC play and earned a spot on the OVC All-Newcomer team.
Sophomore Jake Stewart remains at third base after settling in there in 2013.
"Jake has great hands and an accurate arm," Stoecklin said. "He needs to continue to work hard and gain consistency with his swing."
Freshman Alec Nelson and redshirt junior Jake Michalak also could see playing time on the infield for the Cougars. Freshman Keaton Wright (Triad.), who began the year as the designated hitter, also is an infielder.
"He has the potential to be a big time hitter," Stoecklin said of Wright. "He has power and the ability to hit for average."
Five outfielders will vie for playing time for SIUE. Junior left fielder Nick Lombardo (Alton), freshman centerfielder Austin Verschoore and senior right fielder Devin Caldwell (Alton) will make up the starting outfield.
Caldwell is a three-year starter for the Cougars and has 23 home runs in his career to tie for 5th most all-time. He is seven away from tying the career record at SIUE.
"Devin will hit in the middle of our lineup and anchor the outfield," Stoecklin said. "He has shown flashes that he can be one of the best in the OVC."
Stoecklin said Lombardo will hit at the top of the lineup for SIUE.
"He's got great speed and can steal bases," Stoecklin said. "He has come a long way since his freshman year."
Verschoore has earned the starting nod thanks to hard work in the fall and preseason.
"He's an extremely hard worker and very competitive," Stoecklin said. "He has really hit the ball hard and takes great at-bats."
Junior Denton Reed and sophomore transfer Doug Putkowski also will challenge for time in the Cougar outfield. Reed is the Cougars' only switch hitter.
"He's got a lot of game experience," Stoecklin said of Reed. "He's going to see some time in the outfield."
Stoecklin said Putkowski could challenge for starts in center field but is battling some nagging injuries.
"He also has great speed and can steal some bases," Stoecklin said. "We need him to get healthy."