Jonathan Estrada and the Royals are looking to earn their first ODAC Tournament bid since 2002. (photo by Wayne Gehman)

Baseball Working Hard to Build a Championship Program

As what usually happens with a coaching change, EMU’s first-year skipper, Ben Spotts, is starting at the ground floor.  Spotts is taking a Royals program which hasn’t had a winning season since 2002, using the good pieces already in place, and implementing his style.

“(I expect) a team that is fundamental in what we do, competes every time out no matter who we are playing, understands the importance of hard work year round, and plays hard every day,” he explained.  “I have placed a big emphasis on making the routine play, pitchers throwing strikes, and staying within our ability level in what we do.”

Spotts, who was a long-time assistant at the perennial power of neighboring Bridgewater College, sees positive signs already.

“I am excited as we begin the 2013 season,” he said.  “The players have done what I have asked them to do since day one in the fall season and have been eager to learn and move this program forward in a positive direction.”

Despite having one of the best offensive seasons in program history, Eastern Mennonite finished 11-27 last spring.  The Royals batted .335 as a team, and broke EMU team records for hits, triples and at bats.  Gone from that team, however, are All-ODAC performers Dylan Smith, Beau Banglesdorf and Chris Rodriguez.

Spotts feels like he still has good group of offensive players returning.

“I think we can expect some consistency throughout our lineup,” he said.  “We lost some hitters to graduation who had good numbers but I feel we will have a solid approach every day and hope to be very aggressive on the bases.”

All-ODAC Second Team third basemen Justin Rodriguez (Miramar, FL/Pace), who was an ODAC Rookie of the Year candidate last spring, returns after batting .374 with four homeruns and 41 RBIs in his freshman campaign.  Senior outfielder B.J. Mortimer (Mechanicsville, VA/Lee-Davis) also returns.  He was among national leaders with his 12 sacrifices last year, adding a .304 batting average.

Junior Ryan McAlister (Bridgewater, VA/Turner Ashby) is back at second base after batting .312 with eight sacrifices and a team high ten stolen bases.  Also anchoring the returners are junior catcher Jonathan Estrada (Miami, FL/Doral Academy) with his .310 batting average along with senior outfielder Phillip Jordan (West Point, VA/Christchurch) and a .429 batting clip.

Spotts thinks that experienced core will help lead his team.

“I feel we will have a solid team defensively who can make the routine play, an offense that I think can be consistent one through nine, and three veteran starters on the mound,” he said.

The returning base of pitchers is a bit smaller, but does give EMU some experience.

As a junior transfer last spring, Daniel Stanley (Henrico, VA/Varina) led the Royals in starts, innings and strikeouts while tying for team highs in wins and complete games.  He charted a 2-4 record with a 6.25 ERA.  Classmate Casey Harlow (Louisa, VA/Louisa County) was also 2-4 last year with a save, notching a team best 4.28 ERA.  Adam Posey (Poquoson, VA/Poquoson) finished 1-3 with a complete game as a sophomore.

The trio of right handers will be the top three of Spott’s pitching rotation.  As a team, the Royals struggled to stop opponents in 2012, giving up a .345 batting average with a 7.81 ERA.

“I know this is a big question mark for our team this year,” Spotts acknowledged.   “I have three veteran guys who will be in a starting role so I am looking for them to log some innings and give us a good start every time out.  Coach (Bill) Buracker has done a good job with our pitching staff on giving them a solid plan every day to improve.”

With pitching depth being an issue at EMU for a number of years, Spotts knows it will be hard to turn that issue around in one year.

“We have placed a big emphasis on throwing strikes and competing every day on the mound,” he said.  “It takes time to build a staff that has the needed depth and roles for a 40-game schedule, but I am excited in what this year’s staff can bring if they are consistent every time they go on the mound.”

Among the newcomers to the team this year, two of the expected impact players will help give EMU depth on the mound and in the field: sophomore Mary Washington-transfer Kyle Armstrong (Greenville, VA/Riverheads) and freshman Austin Oliver (Gordonsville, VA/Orange County).  Brandon Carroll (Fredericksburg, VA/Stafford), a sophomore transfer from St. Andrews University, will see time at shortstop.

While the Royals aren’t expecting to win the ODAC this year, they are expecting to build towards that.

“Our goals are to get better every day and understand the work it takes to build a championship program,” explained Spotts, “to learn to compete and play hard every day, and to make the conference tournament.”

After being picked to finish last out of 11 teams in the ODAC Preseason Poll, Eastern Mennonite will be looking to turn some heads this spring.  Spotts’ former team, Bridgewater, was picked first in the poll, followed a vote behind by Lynchburg and one more tally behind by ODAC-newcomer Shenandoah.

Spotts says that as the Royals aim for that upper echelon, an expectation to work hard is the place to start.

“This year is a new direction,” he said.  “There is a foundation that is being laid this year for the future on what it takes and means to be a college-level baseball player and to compete every time we step on the field.”

EMU opens the season Saturday, Feb. 2, with a doubleheader at North Carolina Wesleyan in Rocky Mount, NC.  They play a single game at Ferrum College on Sunday.