By Cody Shook, Sports Editor
Last season, the baseball team finished with a 29-25 record and a third place finish in the Mountain East Conference. Only losing six seniors, the 2017 squad has their sights set high this season with team goals of a conference championship and a regional tournament bid.
There are 50 games scheduled for the 2017 season, and opening day for the Hilltoppers is Feb. 16 against the Concord Mountain Lions in Beckley, W.Va. Then, they will travel down to Murfreesboro, N.C. to take on Chowan University on Sat. 18 and Sun. 19.
Last year when West Liberty and Concord faced off, Concord took three out of five games. But in the 2015 season, the Hilltoppers came away with the series win taking three out of four games. The last time that West Liberty and Chowan met up was in the 2015 season, and the Toppers prevailed in the first series of the year taking three out of four games.
The Hilltoppers did lose a few key assets, but they are returning most of the starting line-up and a majority of the pitching staff. Leading the way this year on the mound will be hard throwing right hander Greg Stagani. Last season he was second in the MEC in strikeouts with 81, and he was NCAA Division II National Pitcher of the Week for his 14-strikeout, one-hit shutout against West Virginia Wesleyan.
Sean Pare, a senior pitcher that had five wins and a 3.75 era, Yale Hughes a senior right hander that had four wins and 50 strikeouts and Justin Retzer, a junior right hander that mostly came out of the bullpen last season fill out the rest of the weekend rotation. The bullpen will feature a crafty senior lefty in Tory Fuscardo who posted a 2.87 era in 15.2 innings, lefty Nick Naumann who pitched 10.1 innings and had a 2.61 era and right hander Cody Shook who gave up one run in 6.2 innings.
At the plate, the Hilltoppers return senior designated hitter Michael Adams, a righty that has tremendous gap power and batted .377 last season with three homeruns and 39 runs batted in. Making the transition from second base to shortstop will be junior Ethan Estes, who batted .310 from the right side and had a .987 fielding percentage.
Returning to the infield where he was 1st-Team All-Conference his freshmen year is Vincent Haddox, who went through a bit of a sophomore slump last season batting .268 with 71 total bases but will look to bounce back this season in a big way. Lefty first baseman Tim Hughes will return for his senior season after hitting .266 with seven homeruns in his junior year.
The team got some good news on Jan. 31 as they earned a preseason regional ranking where they checked in at number 10 in the region. Other Mountain East Conference schools that cracked the top ten were West Virginia State at eight and Shepherd University at four. Adams and Stagani earned preseason second-team all-region honors.
Stagani is very excited to get outdoors and get the 2017 season underway as he notes that this team is an experienced group that is also very talented.
“I’ve been around these guys since August and I am very confident with what we will be bringing to the table each weekend,” Stagini said. When asked about his expectations for the season, they were simple: “Get to Beckley for the conference tournament and move on from there.” With all of the senior leadership and tournament experience, this team has certainly set its sights high for the upcoming season.
The Mountain East Conference preseason poll came out on Feb. 8 and the Hilltoppers came in at the number three spot in the north division receiving zero first place votes. Shepherd came in on top of the north division getting nine first place votes and Notre Dame came in at the number two spot receiving three first place votes. West Virginia State is on top of the south standings receiving nine first place votes.
The first home games for the Hilltoppers will be at the end of March on the 26 and 27 against Concord and UVA-Wise. For more information on Hilltoppers baseball, be sure to log onto Hilltoppersports.com for schedules, stats and the roster. Look out for the Trumpet each week for more game previews and player profiles.