Baseball Cardinals look to rebound

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MTT News's picture
By: 
Rob Reischel
Alec Morrison and Middleton's baseball team are aiming for a bounce back year./File photo

Surprised. Startled. Stunned.

But far from staggered.

Middleton’s baseball team was admittedly shocked a year ago when it went just 10-16 overall and plummeted to eighth place in the Big Eight Conference at 7-11.

But the Cardinals are optimistic that 2016 will be different. Much different.

Middleton returns the overwhelming majority of its team from a year ago. And Cardinals veteran manager Tom Schmitt believes his group is ready for a bounce back season.

“Our kids have gotten stronger and have become a closer group,” said Schmitt, whose team begins its season Thursday by hosting Monona Grove at 4:30 p.m. “They bring a determined attitude to get back on top. They have accepted the challenge and have set goals and a vision of how to get there. 

“We had a very good week of tryouts and a spring trip. We made good strides in setting the building blocks to a good season. The seniors have taken ownership in leading the team and they’ve been great teaching the younger players the Cardinal Way.”

Since Schmitt took over the Middleton program in 2003, the Cardinals have been one of the premier program in the state. Middleton won a WIAA Division 1 state title in Schmitt’s first season, has been to the state tournament six times under Schmitt, and been a dominant force in the Big Eight Conference.

But the Cardinals fielded one of the youngest teams around last season, bringing back just two regulars from their 2014 state tournament team. And the learning curve was awfully steep.

Middleton brings back virtually every key cog from 2015. And that should bode well for a Cardinals’ group that was bothered by its performance a season ago.

“Last year we did not play consistent baseball in all four aspects of the game,” Schmitt said. “Competing in the Big Eight takes mental toughness, skill and being able to have good depth in the lineup and on the bench. 

“So with the number of returning players we have, I hope that the natural maturation, along with the physical strength gains many of these guys have developed this year, will make a difference in the physical skills required to successfully compete.

“The number one thing that I hoped we learned and developed is how to stay mentally focused during the high and low parts in each game. Dealing with the game’s failures and remaining confident is a must. Having been in all types of games last year — blowouts, losing leads late, taking leads and protecting them — should help us this year by knowing what it takes to play good enough to win.”

It might have been natural for a coach to tear up his gameplan after a rough season. But Schmitt tried staying the course instead of searching for the panic button.

“I don’t think we need to change things that have made our program successful over the years,” Schmitt said. “We just need to get more consistent play and make plays when we have the opportunities to impact the game. 

“Given the depth that our young kids bring us, and the experience we have in our returning players, we should be able to compete again for the top of the Big Eight. We lacked the senior players and the impact players that we had been blessed with over the years. 

“So we learned the hard way last year and hope that pays off for our kids that have been working hard this summer and in the offseason. We will still teach the game and play the game with aggressive approach that has helped us build a solid program. We need the kids to have passion for baseball.”

Schmitt believes his team has exactly that. And he can’t wait to get the new season rolling.

Middleton’s pitching staff appears deep and talented, and should be a strength.

Senior right hander Alec Morrison will be Middleton’s No. 1 pitcher. Morrison was up and down a year ago, but had a huge win at Sun Prairie and could be poised for a big season.

“Alec Morrison will take the lead of the staff at this point,” Schmitt said. “He can mix three pitches during a start. He needs to pitch more consistently and with good composure. He has the stuff to be a front end starter. He will also be a middle of the order hitter.”

Senior lefty Adam Nutting will also start. Nutting flashed at times a year, but will be searching for greater consistency, as well.

“Adam had an up and down year, as well,” Schmitt said. “He would pitch very dominant innings and games, and then would come out the next inning or game and not be able to control his pitches.”

Senior Hunter Bindl will be Middleton’s closer and could get some spot starts, as well. Seniors Brennan Schmitt and Drew Finley Haag, along with sophomore Jimmy Frusciante will also factor in.

“We have a good amount of our pitching staff back,” Tom Schmitt said. “Pitching is always a key part of the success of a baseball team.”

Middleton’s every day lineup should have terrific upside, as well.

Sophomore catcher Alan Roden, third baseman Brennan Schmitt, senior right fielder Nolan Kouba, senior shortstop Ivan Monreal and junior left fielder Liam Belleveau are all key returnees. Finley Haag is also back in center field and Bindl returns at second place.

Tom Schmitt is also excited about sophomores Zach Shipley, Nolan Kelliher and Joel Ticknor, as well as juniors Marcos Arias and Ryan Land.

“We will have some good contact hitters,” Tom Schmitt said. “As we get going, we have options with the top and the middle of the order, as well as some good emerging young bats that will give us good options and depth in the lineup.”

The Big Eight Conference has produced the last four WIAA Division 1 state champions, and the league looks loaded again.

Janesville Craig is the defending state champion, the reigning conference champion, and the league favorites in 2016. Sun Prairie won three straight state titles between 2012-’14. Verona and Janesville Parker both should be extremely strong, as well.

But Middleton hopes to take many of the lessons it learned a year ago and use them to climb the conference ladder once again.

“What we have stressed over the years, even with the successes we had, was to be level-headed and stay true to what you have been taught and believe in,” Tom Schmitt said. “It was something that we have not had to deal with, so in some respects, it gives us a new desire to work hard to get back to the top. 

“It will be a challenge, as it is every year in our conference. Many teams have impact players. We need to play smart, have good depth and make plays. Reflect on what happened and set new a vision and gameplan for this year. 

“Losing is never easy, staying on top was never easy either. So we will stay true to what we do — work hard, develop and have fun playing good baseball.  

“Develop as we go through the season and be ready for a tournament run because we have found ways to win against these teams in the Big Eight. Playing consistent ball should help us get in the top part of the league again.”

 

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