Panthers Enter 2010 With a Purpose

Focus is on NCAA Tournament.

To University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Baseball head coach Scott Doffek, the vision is crystal-clear. (Take the poll here.)

While the fourth-year coach speaks of academic development and making administrative progress toward facility upgrades, his main focus is on winning the Horizon League championship and returning the Panthers to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.

“Our No. 1 goal is to win the Horizon League championship,” said Doffek, who a year ago guided the Panthers to second place in the conference with a 14-9 record before falling in the Horizon League semifinals. “Our blend of talented young players and established upperclassmen gives us a great chance.”

The Panthers return seven position players with solid starting experience from a club that finished 28-27 overall, including four that hit above .300 or above a year ago. That accomplished group is headlined by senior outfielder Tim Patzman, whose .389 batting average, 11 homers and 44 runs batted in all lead UWM in ‘09.

“We all have the mentality that we’re good hitters,” says Patzman. “Players come and go, but the older players do a great job of mentoring the younger guys which has built a strong hitting culture around here.”

Joining Patzman on the First Team All-Horizon League a year ago was junior outfielder Doug Dekoning, who hit .338 and led the Panthers with 44 runs scored.

Junior shortstop Cole Craft is projected to bat leadoff for UWM after hitting .333 in ‘09. Senior Ben Long’s promising ‘09 campaign was cut short after just 17 games. Long, who knocked in 44 runs in ‘08 as the club’s designated hitter, will man first base. Second baseman Paul Hoenecke looks to build off a strong ‘09 freshman year, when he was a member of the Horizon League’s All Newcomer Team after batting .286 and driving in 33 runs. Senior Dan Buchholz, a versatile player with some power, will get the first crack at third base.

Freshman Jonathan Capasso, junior Sam Sivilotti and Nino Guerrero will all compete to join Patzman and Dekoning in the outfield. At catcher, senior Shaun Wegner will see a lion’s share of the action. Wegner threw out 21 runners a year ago despite missing extended time due to injury. Chad Pierce, a transfer from the University of Arkansas, will also see time behind the plate when not pitching or serving as DH. The Panthers believe Pierce will be a difference maker in his first year in the black and gold.

“Overall, having a line-up mixed with left-handed and right-handed hitters should bode well for us,” Doffek noted.

Picked third in the Horizon League preseason poll behind Wright State and Illinois-Chicago, UWM will need a marked improvement in pitching to climb to the top of the league. Having such a prolific lineup should only help the cause.

“Knowing we can score runs at anytime makes things much easier for us as a pitching staff,” says sophomore pitcher Cameron Amsrud. “We’re never out of a game.”

Amsrud is the odds-on favorite to fill the closer role for the departed Craig Meier after posting a 5-1 record in relief duty in ‘09. Zoffek must also find replacements for Brad Lusti and Andy Hetebrueg who accounted for 25 of the club’s 55 starts last season.

This year’s opening day starter Kyle Schmidt went 3-4 with a 5.13 earned run average in 11 starts ‘09. Bob Stone, 3-0 in relief duty in ’09, and Lucas Annen, a pair of former Madison Area Technical College hurlers, will be key pieces. Pierce and freshman Eric Semmelhack figure to see prominent innings as well.

“The key to our success will be repeating quality pitches in critical spots,” says Zoffek.

Amsrud noted that pitching coach Cory Bigler’s offseason objectives inside the Klotsche Center were apparent.

“We focused on getting ahead in counts with first-pitch strikes, keeping the ball down in the strike zone, improve the velocity on off-speed pitches and as always continue to harp on the fundamentals of our mechanics,” he says.

In a hitting-dominated league, playing good defense takes on added importance. The Panthers posted a solid .965 fielding percentage a year ago.

With the nonconference portion of the 2010 in its infancy, the Panthers responded from dropping their first four games to Arkansas State – who has the distinct advantage of being able to practice outdoors over the winter – by winning in the Metrodome against Minnesota, their first win against the Gophers since ’98.

The Panthers then won three of four at last weekend’s invitational hosted by Austin Peay in Clarksville, Tenn. UWM now stands at 4-5 with a three-game series against hosting Arkansas this weekend. The real deal begins March 26 as the Panthers travel to Illinois-Chicago for their first Horizon League series.

UWM opens up Henry Aaron Field March 30 against Division II foe Wisconsin-Parkside before Horizon League-opponent Cleveland State visits April 2.


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