PLYMOUTH, N.H. - After seven weeks of practice, the Plymouth State College baseball team is ready to play some games, and what better place to start than Ft. Myers, Florida.
The Panthers make the annual trip to the Sunshine State for the Gene Cusic Classic, beginning Sunday, Mar. 22nd. PSC will play nine games in six days for 14th year head coach Dennis McManus before returning north for a rugged 27-game New England slate.
Seven of the first eight games back in New England are home contests, including key in-state games against St. Anselm (the opener on Apr. 1st), Keene State, Colby-Sawyer and Dartmouth College. The Keene State doubleheader at Panther Field on April 4th opens the second year of Little East Conference baseball, as the Owls complete the move to the LEC and make-up what is now an eight-team conference. PSC competed in the inaugural Little East Conference Tournament in 1997, and is looking to make a return appearance in '98.
McManus returns 17 experienced veterans who led Plymouth State to a 22-17 record last season, for what should be another exciting year at the "Home of Hardball," PSC Baseball.
1998 P.S.C. BASEBALL OUTLOOK
The Panthers will face another difficult schedule, from the spring trip to the Little East Conference and a challenging non-conference New England slate. But McManus feels this could be one of the top PSC teams ever, if the young and inexperienced pitching staff comes through.
"I'm excited by the offense and the defense, which could be as strong as we've ever had," said McManus, who has led PSC to eight post-season berths in his 13 years. "Our strength should be up the middle, especially catcher and middle infield. The front line pitching should be OK; the only question mark is the depth of the staff. We have 10 solid arms, but there is a lot of inexperience."
PSC is coming off a strong campaign in 1997, one that saw PSC advance to the inaugural LEC post-season tournament and finish 22-17 overall. An indication of how strong the conference is - the top two LEC teams made the NCAA Tournament and LEC champion Southern Maine went on to win the national championship.
"We always have a goal to win more games than we lose," said McManus, "then to make the 20-win mark and finally, get into the Little East Tournament. We want to get into the LEC Tournament every year, and have a chance to win it and get into the NCAA Tournament."
While it may be tough to replace Jason Lewis, now an assistant coach after last season earning All-New England honors as a first baseman and All-Conference honors as a closer, McManus feels the returnees and a solid contingent of newcomers will be enough to lead PSC back to the post-season.
"We'll be formidable throughout the batting order," said McManus. "They will not be able to pitch around anyone. We should have a nice combination of average and power with no real weaknesses. Our team speed is good, too."
Here is a positional look at the '98 Panthers:
Two of last year's top starters return in junior Ben DuBois (Franklin, NH) and sophomore Adam DeChristopher (Brockton, MA). DuBois went 4-3 with a 4.39 ERA, starting six games but also showing his versatility by coming out of the bullpen six other times. DeChristopher led the team in wins, going 5-1 with a 4.80 ERA. He was the winning pitcher in PSC's upset win over Eastern Connecticut in last spring's LEC play-offs.
The rest of the rotation is still up for grabs entering the season. Senior Drew Shields (Pittsburgh, PA) will likely get some starts this spring after winning three games last season in his 10 appearances, including four starts. Other contenders for innings include sophomore Brian Neff (Salinas, CA), who saw limited action last season, and sophomore Corey Mastin (Newmarket, NH), McManus' top newcomer.
McManus feels good about the unit here, with veterans at every position. Junior George Gauthier (Rochester, NH) emerged as a top-notch catcher last season, and will be behind the plate again this year. He is comfortable handling the pitching staff and has a very strong arm. He also improved with the bat, raising his average to .271. Senior captain Mark Thompson (Manchester, NH/Memorial), a catcher-turned-outfielder, may still see action as a receiver to spell Gauthier from time to time.
The middle infield will be manned by sophomores Todd Steffanides (Fitchburg, MA) at short and Jason Freeman (Manhasset, NY) at second, with utilityman Jim Freda (Windham, NH) as a reserve. Steffanides took over at short at the start of last season, but suffered a season-ending injury in Florida. McManus is impressed with Steffanides' strong glove and excellent speed. Freeman earned the starting second baseman's job as a freshman in '97, when he batted .279 as a rookie, and Freda can fill in at either position after being one of only three Panthers to start every game last season
Senior Josh Norse (Brattleboro, VT) is the incumbent at third base. After hitting over .300 as a sophomore, Norse dipped to .239 last season, but is a four-year veteran and McManus is hoping for a strong senior season from him. Ben DuBois will spend much of the time at first base, although sophomore Jason Blye (Deerfield, NH) will handle the position when DuBois is pitching. Blye has shown some pop with the bat.
Two of the top newcomers are infielders Corey Mastin, who will also pitch, and Dakota Smith (Rochester, NH), who could also see action in the outfield.
PSC should have an excellent outfield, both offensively and defensively, led by senior Mark Thompson. The Panther captain is a dominant hitter from the left side of the plate, tying the school record for home runs in a season (9) last year. A career .300 hitter, he already holds the school mark for career doubles (31) and is on target to break the career RBI mark (107) sometime early in the season. Thompson also possesses an outstanding arm from his days as a catcher.
McManus plans to use Thompson in right field, with veteran Josh Egan (Sharon, MA) in left and top newcomer Ryan Moore (Meredith, NH) in center. Egan blossomed as a starter in '97, batting .315 with 11 extra-base hits. Moore has outstanding speed and a solid arm and should patrol center while adding to the offense.
McManus will likely use junior Mike Bence (Warwick, RI) at DH. Bence, who will also see time on the mound, hit five home runs last season and gives PSC another solid bat from the left side of the plate, an advantage in Panther Field.
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