Chris Olean didn’t inherit a bare cupboard when he took over as St. Thomas interim baseball coach on Feb. 1 with the retirement of Dennis Denning.
The cupboard, in fact, was nicely stocked. Nineteen players returned from last season’s NCAA Division III championship team, including three starting pitchers and a fourth who has been tapped by Olean to be the closer. Five position players were back as starters at catcher, shortstop, first base, centerfield and rightfield.
Add several promising freshmen to the mix and you have a cupboard that actually is bulging. Olean is pleased. He believes a talent-laden roster is essential for a team that will play about 35 games in a two-month regular season and could play another 15 depending on how far it goes in the playoffs.
“We are two deep at every position,” he said. “Competition within the team is good. We’ll always play the guys who are hitting the best and pitching the best.”
It’s hard for Olean to choose one veteran over another in assessing importance or value because he strongly supports the team concept. His closest hint comes when he lists key factors for the 2010 season and cites pitching first.
“No. 1 is to keep Matt Schuld and Brandon Stone healthy,” he said. “Matt has to beat the other team’s No. 1 or we won’t move on. He proved he could do it last year. Brandon is the guy we’ll rely on when we have that one or two-run lead in the last inning.”
Schuld has turned into the same kind of dominating pitcher that Olean ’99 was during his 24-8 St. Thomas career. The senior from Armstrong set a school record with 12 wins last year, with nine coming against nationally ranked teams and a 10th against the Division I Minnesota Gophers.
Stone endured sore arm problems last spring and didn’t pitch in the NCAA regional tournament. Denning turned to the Roseville grad in the sixth inning of the national title game against Wooster, and he retired 20 of 23 batters with no walks in seven innings as the Tommies won 3-2 in the 12th.
Two sophomore starters – Bryce Gapinski and John Licht – combined to win 13 games as freshmen. Gapinski had three post-season wins and started the Wooster finale, while Licht recorded complete-game victories in elimination games against UW-Stevens Point in the regionals and Carthage in the nationals.
“I had a good year as a freshman, but I want to build off that and be sharper in certain areas,” said Gapinski, a lefty from Foley who had a 7-2 record and a 3.34 ERA last season. “I need to give up fewer walks and have a better approach to hitters.”
Licht starred at shortstop and pitcher at Minneapolis Southwest but set his sights on the infield at St. Thomas so he could play every day. Denning knew he was loaded with infielders last year and persuaded Licht to stay on the mound. He responded with a 6-2 record and a 3.66 ERA.
“I want to be more consistent,” he said. “I struggled last year at times, and I want to compete throughout this year the way I did at the end of last season. It’s a confidence thing – last year I wasn’t sure what to expect; this year, I do.”
The Tommie pitchers will rely on a defense that has led Division III in fielding percentage the last two years – .975 and .978. Making up the core are returning starters Matt McQuillan (centerfield), Matt Olson (rightfield), Roy Larson (shortstop), Tom Wippler (first base) and Brady Field (catcher)
McQuillan, a junior and three-year starter from Cretin-Derham Hall, is one of the best defensive outfielders in the country, with only one error in 115 chances last season. As leadoff hitter, he paced St. Thomas in on-base percentage (.449) and batted .400 in the national tournament.
“We need to do the little things right,” said McQuillan, who had five hits four four RBI in Friday’s Florida trip opener against Lawrence University. “We’re not a power-hitting team, so we need to take extra bases, play good defense and not swing at bad pitches.”
Olson was named the College World Series’ Most Outstanding Player with 11 hits and 11 runs, and scored the winning run in the title game. The senior from Anoka reached base in his last 41 games and already has two three-hit games this year.
“I just want to play consistently,” he said. “We all do. Coach knows what works and what doesn’t. He told us to keep the things that work and improve on the rest.”
Larson, a senior from Eagan, finished first or second on the team in total bases, RBI, hits, runs, extra-base hits and walks. Wippler (senior, Sauk Rapids) had only three errors (.993) last year and already has four doubles and eight RBI. Field split catching duties last year with Ben Wartman, who didn’t come out this year in order to concentrate on football, and the junior from Hill-Murray has responded to the heavier load by catching all but two innings so far.
Add it all up and Olean likes how the Tommies look on paper. Better yet, he likes the “feel” of this veteran team, its camaraderie and how well it plays in close games.
“These guys have been in key situations and they know how to deal with the pressure,” he said. “There aren’t too many things they haven’t seen. They make the whole team better.”