KEYSER — In mid-February each year, Potomac State baseball coach Doug Little readies his team to travel south in search of warm weather and stiff competition. He also knows that he is often putting his team in harm's way of losing some early games. This year is no different and he wouldn't want it any other way.
By Roy Harper
Potomac State College
KEYSER — In mid-February each year, Potomac State baseball coach Doug Little readies his team to travel south in search of warm weather and stiff competition. He also knows that he is often putting his team in harm’s way of losing some early games. This year is no different and he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I may have set us up for a horrible start this year,” said Little. “In our first seven games, we play some of the big boys. But when we get back home, we’ll have a good idea about how good we can be.”
Those “big boys” are all NJCAA Division I teams that have each made a recent appearance in the JUCO World Series, in Grand Junction, Colorado.
The Catamounts are set to open the 2020 season on Saturday when they travel to Sumter, SC for an invitational tournament where they face USC Sumter, who made a World Series appearance in 2015 and Walters State Community College, who was there just last season (2019), as well as in 2018, 2015, 2013, 2008, 2006, 2005, and 2003.
The following weekend, PSC heads south again, this time to Florence, South Carolina, to play a pair of games each against Florence Darlington Tech, who made their lone World Series appearance in 2017 and then against Monroe College who has made the trip to the western slope in each of the last two seasons, (2018 and 2019).
Potomac State is no stranger to the JUCO World Series as they have made appearances in 2004, 2005, 2006 and again in 2011.
“We’re excited to kick off the season,” said Little, who is set to begin his 23rd year at the helm. “This time of year, we are all just looking forward to playing some games, getting our cleats dirty and seeing where we stand.”
Potomac State’s home opener is scheduled at Golden Park on March 4 against Garrett College.
The Catamounts are coming off an impressive 32-13 record season a year ago. If they intend to continue the success, they will need some new players to contribute early in the year.
“We do not have a ton of experience, so we will look too some freshmen to grow up in a hurry and play some meaningful innings for us,” said Little.
The limited players that are returning seem to set up the Catamounts for some leadership and experience.
Sophomore Dale Houser leads the way after an impressive 2019 season. The Marietta, Pennsylvania, native hit .426 with 49 hits, eight doubles, six triples and two home runs with 37 runs batted in while playing in 33 games mostly while manning the hot corner.
“Dale is a versatile player for us who will play multiple positions this year, “said Little. “He will see time at third and second as well as the outfield. I do know for sure that he will be one of our nine hitters. He has worked so hard in two years and we really trust him at the plate.”
Hayden Almond is the other sophomore position player that returns for the 2020 season. Just like a year ago, Almond will man right field and hit near the top of the Catamount lineup. The Lynchburg, Virginia, native hit .403 with 56 hits, eight doubles, five triples and pair of home runs and 35 RBIs.
“Hayden was solidifying part of our lineup last year and we have no doubt that he is primed for another fine season,” Little added. “He really knows how to hit, has great understanding of the strike zone and can really spray the ball around.”
Another pair of sophomores that played contributing roles a year ago that return are Foster Conis and Connor Kelly. Conis was used primarily as a pitcher early in the 2019 season, but late in the year served as the designated hitter and spent some time in the outfield. The Ridgeley native and former Frankfort Falcon hit .311 in 45 at bats and is scheduled to get considerable time patrolling the outfield.
Kelly spent last season as the #2 catcher and makes the transition to the starter. The Fort Hill graduate and Cumberland resident hit .286 in 20 games a year ago.
“Foster and Connor are proof that hard work pays off,” said Little. “They are both quality young men, who paid their dues and we are counting on them big-time this year.”
Backing up Kelly will be freshman Caleb Taylor, (Morgantown), sophomore Christian Reyes, (Philadelphia) and freshman Jonah Clement, (Murfreesboro, Tennessee). Reyes battled injuries a year ago but is healthy now and will also see time at first base and as the designated hitter, as will Taylor.
Getting the nod at first base will be freshman Devon Neal, (Morgantown). The talented left-hand hitter was part of the 2019 West Virginia American Legion State Championship team along with Caleb Taylor and fellow freshmen pitcher-outfielder Colton Matthews, (Fairmont).
Providing depth at first base will be Reyes along with sophomore Justin Stone, (Berkeley Springs).
The infield will be a work-in-progress early in the season as Little feels like there are some options, especially in the freshman class. Besides Houser, the infield will most likely be made up of freshmen: Graham Brown, (Middletown, Maryland), Josh Hoffman, (Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania), Trevor Thomas, (Wheeling) and Zack Whitacre, (Ridgeley).
“Our infield is young but talented,” said Little. “We have some options, we have depth, but we will need whoever is out there to take care of the ball, make routine plays and be solid behind our pitching staff.”
Providing depth in the infield will be Mason Mitchell, (Charlottesville, Virginia), Bryce Turner, (Broadway, Virginia) and Nick Wright, (Martinsburg).
In the outfield, Almond will man right field with Conis expected to get the opening day nod in center field. Freshman Preston Taylor will get the start in left field. The sweet-swinging lefty from Charleston had a strong fall campaign to win the job.
Other outfielders in the mix are sophomore Jake Ours, (Moorefield) and freshmen Matthews, Dylan Dunkley, (Murfreesboro, Tennessee) Easton Petitt, (Barboursville), Tobin Cain, (Berkeley Springs), and Evan Moreland, (Keyser).
Potomac State finished 14th in the country in hitting a year ago and will need to duplicate those numbers to make a post-season run.
“I have two great assistant coaches in Coach (Don) Schafer and Coach (Andrew) Kowalo and they prepare our hitters as well as anyone in the country,” added Little.
But Little knows, as cliché as it is- pitching, and defense wins games.
“We say it all the time, but it all starts on mound, but we also need to back those guys up be making plays and only giving the other team three outs an inning.”
On the mound Potomac State will have some innings to fill that were lost by graduation.
The loss of Colt Webb and Brett Whiteman from a year ago means that PSC must replace a combined thirteen wins and 180 strikeouts.
The kitchen is not bare however for the Catamounts as Little does return three sophomores that will be counted on to lead the rotation.
Brandon Schaeffer, (Auburn, Pennsylvania) had a stellar freshman campaign going 7-1 with 2 two saves with a 1.82 ERA that was good enough to the 14th best in NJCAA Division 1 all in 54 1/3 innings pitched. The southpaw struck out 85 and walked just 15 in 12 appearances.
“Brandon can pitch. It’s as simple as that. He knows how to pitch to contact and how to also miss bats when needed,” said Little. “He is a frontline starter and as long as he throws strikes, he will win a lot of games.”
Conis had an equally impressive freshman season, going 5-0 with eleven appearances. In 30 2/3 innings he struck out 28 and allowed just eleven runs and an ERA of 2.64. He will mostly work from the bullpen but is expected to make an occasion start as well.
Fellow sophomore Tyler Bradford is also expected to pitch at the top if the rotation. A year ago, the Beverly, OH native made 11 appearances, four starts and finished with a record of 3-0. He pitched 23 innings striking out 36. His role looks to expand this season.
Little: “We are counting on Brandon. He has all the tools to be really good. He just needs to put it all together, we like his competitiveness and makeup.”
A trio of sophomore lefthanders that have battled back from injuries are Andrew Liller (Keyser), Tanner Champ, (Petersburg) and Austin Cross (Kearneysville), who all look to eat up innings for the Catamounts. Returning righthander Garett Haggerty (Purgitsville) worked just 6 1/3 innings last season will be also counted on more in 2020.
“Again, this year we have more lefty’s on our staff than righthanders,” said Little. “We hope that translates to some success, but no matter which hand they throw with we need a group of guys who can throw strikes and get outs.”
The remaining of the staff will be made up of freshmen. “They are untested but have a chance to be good. They are a hard-working group and will be counted on from the opening weekend to the Region tournament.”
Heading the group is righthander Ashton Staubbs from Martinsburg and lefthanders Jonathan Money, (Sykesville, Maryland) and Avery Heiple, (Friedens, Pennsylvania). This trio looks to pitch in the opening weekend as Little searches for the right mix to make up the rotation.
“Those three have improved from the fall, are starting to figure out what it takes to pitch at this level and will be forced to grow up quickly out of the gate,” said Little.
Ben Bartilson, (Scott Depot), MacHugh Messier, (Madison, Connecticut), and Daniel Matos, (Davie, Florida) will fill out the bullpen for PSC.
"We are looking forward to getting started. Our guys have been working hard since August and they know that we will only be successful if we continue to keep up that effort throughout the season," said Little. College baseball is a grind, but this is the part of the year that we look forward to the most."