This year has brought a change in the North Coast Athletic Conference baseball schedule.
In previous years, the conference was divided into an East and West Division with five teams in each league. All of the West teams would play each other in a four-game series, and all of the East teams would play each other in a four-game series. The top two teams from each division would qualify for the NCAC Postseason Tournament.
With Earlham out of the NCAC and now in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, conference weekends have changed. The league is no longer is separated into divisions, and all the NCAC teams play each other once in a doubleheader.
“On paper, the new system looks great, but we will just have to wait and see,” said Wabash coach Cory Stevens. “We were in favor of it because we liked the idea that we got to play everybody. The only concern that we have is make-up policies.”
Wabash (7-12) gets its first look at how the new conference schedule will work out when the Little Giants host a pair of league doubleheaders this weekend. Wooster comes to the new Wabash Ballpark for a 1 p.m. first pitch on Saturday, while Wittenberg comes to Crawfordsville for a 1 p.m. Sunday doubleheader.
“We are going to get tested in the conference right away,” Stevens said. “Wooster has always has a good program and Wittenberg also has a great program. Wittenberg is playing well now.”
Wabash is 4-1 at its new facility. The last time the Little Giants played at home, they pounded out 23 hits en route to cruising to a 15-7 nine-inning win over Dominican on Tuesday. The Little Giants lost at Division I Purdue 9-3 on Wednesday.
Brian Lares, who was 5-for-5 against Dominican, leads the Little Giants with a .408 batting average. Out of Lares’ team-high 29 hits, he is second on the squad with nine doubles and lead the team with three triples.
“When Brian gets hot, he gets very hot,” Stevens said. “He can give you multiple looks on offense. He can drive the ball and he also has good speed.”
Junior Andrew Swart will start Saturday’s first game. Coming off a three-hitter in last Saturday’s 8-2 win over Wilmington, Swart is 2-2 with a 2.27 ERA. He leads the team with 23 strikeouts and has allowed only eight earned runs in 31 2/3 innings pitched.
At this point, Stevens said he won’t mix up his pitching rotation for this weekend. Senior Brian Van Duyn will pitch the second game Saturday, then sophomore Chris Widup and junior Luke Zinsmaster will pitch Sunday.
“The thing that I have learned is that if you look into things too much and you really try to play matchups, then it ends up backfiring on you,” Stevens said.
Wooster is the only NCAC team to already play league games. The Scots, who were ranked 17th in the preseason National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association/D3baseball.com poll, played Kenyon in Port Charlotte Fla., on March 18, beating the Lords in a doubleheader 5-2 and 10-6.
The Scots will be in for a weather shock in Saturday’s doubleheader. Wooster completed its spring break trip to Florida on Thursday. After playing in the warm elements of the Sunshine state, the high temperature in Crawfordsville on Saturday is scheduled to be 39 degrees. Wabash practiced outside Thursday and today to prepare for the weekend’s cold temperatures.
Wooster brings back three position starters from last year’s 34-9 team. Leading that group is shortstop Greg Van Horn, who was selected as a second-team preseason All-American by d3baseball.com and preseason NCAA Division III Player of the Year by Baseball America.
The Scots return three of their top four pitchers from last year, led by senior Justin McDowell. He finished last spring 8-3 with a 2.64 earned-run average.
McDowell has started this season 2-0 and has a 2.08 ERA. In 13 innings pitched, he has allowed three earned runs while striking out 11 batters and walking five.
Wittenberg comes into Saturday’s home doubleheader with Allegheny with a 9-7 record. The Tigers have rebounded from a five-game losing streak by winning two straight games, beating Trine 4-0 in the second game of a doubleheader last Saturday, then beating Heidelberg 3-1 on Tuesday.
Junior Matt Hampp is batting .460 for the Tigers. He has a team-high 23 hits, including six doubles.