Picked to finish dead last in the Atlantic 10 last year, the baseball team overcame an 0-9 start and won nine of its final 10 games to end the regular season fifth in the conference. They would reach the A-10 tournament for the first time since 2006, finishing in the top four in the conference.
But even after last year’s comeback story, one of the best GW baseball seasons in a decade and a conference Coach of the Year award for Gregg Ritchie, things won’t get easier this season. Eleven seniors have graduated, while 15 freshmen have joined the roster. The team was picked to finish in the middle of the pack, seventh out of 15 teams.
The team – built around speed and veteran pitching – will have ups and downs for the young team, Ritchie said. But the second-year head coach will rely on seniors like pitcher Aaron Weisberg to snap the Colonials out of inevitable funks on their way to another A-10 tournament appearance.
“They’re going to carry you and lead you that way. They’re not going to allow you to say, ‘Oh my gosh, we just lost two, we lost three, we lost five or in some cases nine,” Ritchie said. “We expect to be there.”
The Colonials open up their season with a three-game series on the road against UNC Greensboro on Friday.
The Lineup: Six new faces
Though the team lost a few key players from graduation last year, senior Aaron Weisberg said he believes the freshmen are doing a great job “filling the void.” Six first-year players will likely appear in the starting lineup – evidence that the staff believes they are capable of surviving while continuing to learn.
“There’s a certain maturation of those guys that you have to allow to happen naturally and kind of grit your teeth because it’s going to be athletic chaos at times,” Ritchie said.
Freshman Colin Gibbons-Fly will be the designated hitter in the third spot with fellow freshmen Bobby Campbell, Eddie Mahala, Cody Bryant and Andrew Selby filling other spots in the order.
Ritchie said “pieces will be moving” as both the freshmen and upperclassmen try to prove they’re worthy of a spot in the opening games of the season. Senior Owen Beightol, typically an outfielder and a three-year starter for GW, will start this season at second base and bat cleanup.
Ritchie, a former Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach, insists the team is centered around speed rather than power, with GW’s special brand coming in grabbing extra bases – turning singles into doubles. Last year, the Colonials stole 108 bases, the second best in the conference.
The left-handed batter Ryan Xepoleas, a junior transfer playing in his third year of eligibility, will lead the order and provide the spark Ritchie wants to power the entire team.
“He’s a confident base-stealer,” Ritchie said, “He has instincts. He knows how to steal all the bases, and he’s on board with the aggressive mindset, so he has got to set the tone.”
The team’s special addition may be Mahala, a freshman third baseman recruited from Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey. Richie said the ball has a distinct sound off his bat – he compared it to his days as hitting coach for the Pirates, when he would turn his back on the batting cage and know the moment reigning National League Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen started to swing.
A veteran pitching staff
GW will have a solid duo at the top of its rotation: Weisberg and fellow senior Luke Staub. At the back of the pitching staff will be senior Craig LeJeune, one of the top 50 “stoppers of the year” by national baseball writers.
Staub comes back after a season where he went 4-6 with a 3.44 ERA and two shutouts, building on that momentum by making his summer league all-star team after boasting a 1.58 ERA.
Weisberg also lit up the All-Valley Baseball League, being named his team’s pitcher of the year last summer. Last year for GW, he went 6-4 with a 3.32 ERA and two complete games last season
LeJeune became the Colonials’ lockdown closer in the final frame last year, but will start this year on the bench; the senior has an elbow injury that should only put him out a couple of weeks. Freshman Eddie Muhl, a 6-foot-4 righty with a three-quarter delivery, is expected to fill in for now, and will be a key part of the rotation all season long.
In other injuries, sophomore Max Kaplow is near 100 percent after recovering from an arm injury he sustained last year that set back the breakout freshman. The lefty, who assistant head coach Tom Sheridan said has the “guts of a burglar,” is slotted as the third man in the rotation.
Coaches also expect freshman pitchers Brandon Ritchie and Andrew Piccin to make big contributions. Sheridan compared Ritchie, a 6-foot-2 righty, to Staub. He added that Ritchie is the kind of pitcher who is not satisfied with anything less than perfect, but needs to save some in the tank and not beat himself up over every pitch.
“You may not see it over a short period of time, but from the beginning of the season to when the A-10 conference series starts, there’s going to be a guy that’s going to emerge out of that young group that’s going to be a vital factor for us there,” Sheridan said.