It's finally next year. After a late season collapse derailed its NCAA tournament hopes last spring, the Ohio State baseball team is set to open the 2016 campaign in sunny Florida. The Buckeyes are playing in the Historic Dodgertown Classic in Vero Beach to start the season.
Ohio State will play four games in three days down south, looking to get the new season off to a fast start.
"I think you approach every season with a championship mindset, and if you ask any guy in that locker room and anyone on that coaching staff, that's our mission: to play for a Big Ten championship," head coach Greg Beals said.
The Buckeyes made strides as a program in 2015, attaining a national ranking for the first time under Beals and positioning themselves for a regional bid. But a horrid May that saw the team lose ten of its final eleven Big Ten games left the scarlet and gray on the outside looking in.
2016 promises to be another ultra-competitive year in the conference. Ohio State will need to rely on a strong core of veteran players if it is to bounce back from last season's disappointments.
"I believe with the talent on this club, the experience on this ballclub, if we're able to play at a high level consistently, then the winning and losing will take care of itself," Beals said.
That all starts this weekend against Toledo, Niagara, and Pittsburgh in the Sunshine State. Let's take a look at what the baseball Bucks will be up against in the season opening series.
Toledo is coming off of a 25-33 season a year ago and has been projected to be a middle of the pack team in the Mid-American Conference by its coaches. Head coach Cory Mee did see his team play well down the stretch in 2015, though, tallying a 16-11 conference record.
The Rockets return some nice pieces in the everyday lineup, highlighted by first-team All-Mac shortstop Deion Tansel. Tansel led the team with a .324 average and 12 stolen bases after missing the first 13 games of the season with an injury, and was also named MAC Defensive Player of the Year.
A pair of sophomores in reigning MAC Freshman of the Year AJ Montoya and Dalton Bollinger. Montoya had a monster offensive season in his first collegiate season, hitting .305 and leading the team with 17 doubles, nine home runs, 39 runs batted in, and a .502 slugging percentage. Bollinger was also solid as a freshman, putting up a .303 average with a pair of homers and 26 RBIs.
On the mound for Toledo against Ohio State in Friday's season opener will be first-team All-Mac lefty Steven Calhoun. The Tipp City, Ohio native was 7-5 with a 2.86 earned run average in 2015, striking out twice as many as he walked and yielding a .265 opponents' batting average.
In Sunday's finale, imposing senior right-hander Kyle Slack will on the bump. The 6-foot-8, 270 pound Slack sat out last season due to injury, but went 4-6 with a 5.47 ERA in 2014.
Niagara Purple Eagles
On paper, Niagara should pose little threat to the Buckeyes. The Purple Eagles went 13-32-2 in head coach Rob McCoy's seventh season in 2015, and have been picked to finish near the cellar of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference again this year.
Niagara struggled to score runs a season ago, but do return a pair of preseason all-conference players in first baseman Michael Fuhrman and third baseman Tanner Kirwer. Fuhrman, a senior, led the team with a .340 batting average last year, hitting four home runs, and slugging a team-high .490, and was named second-team All-MAAC.
Kirwer was also a second-team All-MAAC performer for the Purple Eagles, hitting .324 and stealing 24 bases as a freshman.
McCoy is expected to hand the ball to junior Daniel Procopio for Saturday's matinee with Ohio State. A righty, Procopio had an erratic sophomore season in 2015, posting an 0-2 record with a 5.40 ERA in 40 innings of work, but was named one of the five best 2016 draft prospects in the conference by D1Baseball.
The matchup in the second game on Saturday will be perhaps the best of the weekend, as the Buckeyes will face a top pitching prospect in the 2016 draft against Pitt. The Panthers are coming off a 20-32 season in 2015 under head coach Joe Jordano, and picked to finish dead last in the Coastal Division of the perennially tough Atlantic Coast Conference.
Ohio State will have to contend with junior T.J. Zeuch, ranked by D1Baseball as the No. 7 prospect in the ACC for June's draft. Zeuch, a Mason, Ohio native, went 4-6 in 14 starts starts a season ago, posting a 3.87 ERA. The righty struck out 90 batters in 88.1 innings of work, and held the opposition to a .265 average. At 6'7 and possessing pinpoint accuracy, Zeuch will provide a good early test for Buckeye hitters.
The Pitt offense brings back a few of its top performers from a season ago in senior center fielder Aaron Schnurbusch, junior left fielder Jacob Wright, and sophomore shortstop Charles LeBlanc. Wright hits leadoff, where he led the team with 32 runs scored and 15 steals. LeBlanc comes next, having led the team with .291 average, 12 doubles, and 30 RBIs as a freshman. And Schnurbusch hits cleanup, leading the Panthers with 19 extra-base hits while driving 26 runs.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, Feb. 19, 1 p.m. ET vs. Toledo
Tanner Tully (4-4, 4.32 ERA in '15) vs. Calhoun (7-5, 2.86)
Saturday, Feb. 20, 2:30 p.m. ET vs. Niagara
Adam Niemeyer (2-0, 2.16) vs. Procopio (0-2, 5.40)
Saturday, Feb. 20, 6 p.m. ET vs. Pitt
John Havird (4-0, 3.58) vs. Zuech (5-6, 3.87)
Sunday, February 21st, 2:30 p.m. ET vs. Toledo
Ryan Feltner (0-0, 0.00) vs. Slack (0-0, 0.00 ERA)