NORMAL - Entering his fourth season as Illinois State baseball coach, Jim Brownlee believes it is time to establish the Redbirds as a winning program.
"I thought we had to do that last year, to be real honest," Brownlee said. "This is obviously a critical year. One of my ex-players called and said we've got to stop talking about it and get it done. I agree with him."
The Redbirds have yet to have a winning season under Brownlee, coming closest with a 26-27 record in 2005.
"We have a lot of veterans back," Brownlee said. "We have a nucleus, position wise. That's going to help us, and I feel like we've got a little bit of chemistry."
All-Missouri Valley Conference outfielder Matt Bolt returns to start in right field, having started all 108 games of his first two seasons and posting a .312 career batting average.
"We've got a lot of experience and a lot of talent. I think this is the year when we all mesh together," Bolt said. "I think we've got the mentality to do that. Our play in all three categories (hitting, pitching, defense) is much improved."
A career .306 hitter, catcher Jay Molina marks his fourth year as a starter. Molina batted .294 and started every game behind the plate last spring, but Brownlee said relief is on the way in freshman Kevin Dubler.
"Dubler has done a really good job, so much so we'll probably be able to move Jay to the outfield a majority of the time and play him some at first base," said Brownlee. "He (Dubler) throws very well. I think he'll stop the running game if he gets any help at all from our pitchers."
Joining Molina as part of the left field picture is senior Chris Frank of Minier. Frank started 42 games and batted .280 as a junior. Freshman outfielder Mike Tokarski has shown impressive defensive ability.
Speedy center fielder Kris Jenkins hit .300 and swiped 15 bases last season.
Sophomore shortstop Ryan Anetsberger batted .329 while starting every game as a true freshman.
"I have to keep working harder and harder," Anetsberger said. "I didn't lead the conference in hitting. I wasn't up there in every category. I want to work hard and be on top of all the teams, not just Illinois State."
First baseman Kyle O'Brien batted .311 last spring, but could be limited in the early going by off-season knee surgery. If so, junior college transfer Darren McEvilly would take over.
Blake Schoonover of Lincoln returns at third base. Transfer Jesse Griswold is the likely second baseman, with Normal Community graduate Mike Kelley also available.
Freshman Gabe DeMarco is the front-runner for at-bats at designated hitter.
"We hit .240 in the DH spot last season," Brownlee said. "I think that spot will be well over .300. We've shored that up a great deal. We have a very good offensive team."
The ISU pitching staff must deal with the loss of Eric Theisen. The junior right-hander had a torn labrum in his shoulder surgically repaired and will sit out the entire season after posting a 6-0 record and 3.00 ERA last season.
Hard-throwing right-handers Dan Frega and Kitt Kopach will be counted on as ISU's most experienced starters.
"Kopach and Frega have to have big years," said Brownlee, who expects freshman Ian Berger to be the third starter when his team opens its season Friday through Sunday at the Texas-Arlington Tournament.
NCHS product Luke Baughman figures to get plenty of innings in relief, while juniors Collin Korab and Mike Hlavacek and freshmen Dan Sorce and Jim Sajewich also figure prominently in Brownlee's pitching plans.A lefty, Sorce could be ISU's closer.
"Our goal is to win the Valley, and our goal is to be good in the (NCAA) regional," said Brownlee, whose team was 9-15 in conference play last spring. "You might say that's kind of wild. But we've crawled enough. Now it's time to start running."
See Scoreboard for schedule, roster