Many coaches tend to downplay preseason polls, but not Jeff Mercer.
Beginning his second season at the helm of the Wright State baseball program, Mercer said his Raiders not only are excited about being the unanimous choice to win the Horizon League, they are deserving of it.
“It’s obviously a testament to the teams that were here before, but we’re very good,” Mercer said. “If we go out and take care of the ball, we’ll have a chance to beat anybody in the country. We’re very athletic, very deep and talented positionally. On the mound we’re very talented. It’s an exciting time to be a Raider.”
It’s also challenging.
WSU returns six of the eight starting position players from a team that went 38-21 last year, including three victories against nationally ranked Clemson and South Carolina, and advanced to the HL tournament finals for the fifth year in a row.
But as strong as that group it is, including first-team All-HL second baseman Matt Morrow and second-team third baseman Seth Gray, it doesn’t mean all six will be back in the lineup this weekend when the Raiders open the season with a three-game series at Tulane.
“There will probably be some changes,” Mercer said. “We have five position players coming off redshirt years that could all be all conference. They’re really good players.”
One of them is sophomore outfielder Peyton Burdick, a second-team all-league selection as a freshman before blowing his arm out preparing for the 2017 season. Two others are outfielder Quincy Hamilton, a Centerville grad, and first baseman Zane Harris, who could continue WSUs run of four consecutive HL Freshman of the Year awards.
“We probably have three or four that any other year could win Freshman of the Year in the conference,” Mercer said while adding true freshman Damon Dues (Butler) to the list. “But those guys are going to have to work their way in. As talent goes, this class is terrific. It’s just going to be about opportunities. But they certainly have a shot to earn it.”
As strong as the offense is, with 2017 starters JD Orr, Zach Weatherford, Gabe Snyder, Adrian Marquez and Brandon Giltrow also returning, WSU might be even more loaded with arms.
Sophomore right-hander Ryan Weiss, a first-team pick and the HL Freshman of the Year with a league-best 2.13 ERA in 2017, will lead off a weekend rotation that also includes junior left-hander Zane Collins and sophomore righty Caleb Sampen, the 2016 HL Freshman of the Year who redshirted last season after undergoing a nerve transposition.
“We look at our staff and feel like we could roll anybody out there in any game and be able to win,” Mercer said. “I don’t know that we have a 1 through 3. I think we have three No. 1s. I know that’s cliche, but it’s the truth. Any one of those guys could roll out in a Super Regional and win a game any day.”
And Jake Schrand, who throws 90-94 with a breaking ball and slider, is another player Mercer said has the talent to be the league’s freshman of the year.
The bullpen will be anchored by senior Derek Hendrixson (Centerville), a second-team All-HL pick who was second in the league with nine saves in 2017, and junior Jeremy Randolph (Miamisburg), who was on the all-freshman team in 2015.
With the returning talent and postseason aspirations, Mercer said there will be no easing into things when the Raiders take the field at Tulane this weekend.
“These first few weeks are extremely important to us from an RPI standpoint,” he said. “With a program at the standard we’re at, the expectation is to go to the tournament every year. So from the very first game of the season, we’re playing for seeding into the NCAA tournament. That’s how I look at it, so we’re going to play this game like it’s the conference championship game.
“We’re going to put guys out there that are going to give us a chance to win every game,” he added.