January 31, 2014

2014 Coker Baseball Team Preview

Cobras Enter 2014 with High Ranking and High Expectations 

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HARTSVILLE, S.C – As official practice begins for the Coker baseball team, there is nothing head coach Dave Schmotzer enjoys hearing more than the sound of bats cracking and gloves popping. The head ball coach is entering his 21st season at Coker and is excited to see if his team can top the historic 2013 team.

With a 38-16 overall record and 14-9 conference mark, Coker finished 2013 ranked No. 6 nationally. The Cobras received the program's highest national ranking (third) after capturing the 2013 Conference Carolinas and 2013 NCAA Division II Southeast Regional tournament titles. The tournament wins propelled the Cobras to their first-ever NCAA Division II National Finals appearance. Coker's season culminated with an eight-page feature story in Baseball the Magazine following the team's postseason run.

Without a doubt 2013 was one of the program's best seasons, which has landed the Cobras their highest preseason ranking in school history. They are No. 25 in the 2014 Collegiate Baseball News preseason poll.

"To be ranked in any preseason poll, especially a well-respected national poll, is an honor," said Schmotzer. "The ranking is a reflection of the great things we accomplished as a team a year ago, but it also shows the talent we have returning to garner a top-25 ranking. But make no mistake, this isn't 2013 anymore. We haven't proven anything yet."

On top of the team's success as a whole, a plethora of Cobras received individual awards and accolades, including Schmotzer himself, who was named the 2013 American Baseball Coaches Association/Diamond NCAA Division II Southeast regional coach of the year. Schmotzer received the award during a January banquet in Dallas, Texas.

"Being honored as the southeast coach of the year at that banquet was surreal," said Schmotzer. "Coaches receive these kinds of awards because of the players that are extensions of them on the diamond game after game. As much as I won this award, so did my players. I was an extension of them this time."

Schmotzer also enters the 2014 season just 12 wins short of 600 at Coker and 27 shy of 700 career victories. The Cobras will count on solid contributions from key returners to help Schmotzer pass these milestones after losing a lot of talent from a season ago, most notably in the pitching staff. One of the Cobras' biggest losses was pitcher/designated hitter Zach Loraine. The former All-American was drafted in the 21st round (No. 635 overall) of the MLB draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. Also gone, both via graduation, are last year's ace Dan Meyer and No. 2 starter Tyler Witzel.

However, the Cobras return all-conference selections Fico Kondla and Andrew Goot, gold glove winner T.J. Giczkowski and key cog Ernie Kirkwood this season. Schmotzer will rely on this group to continue the program's recent success.

Kondla, a first baseman, was the offensive catalyst for the Navy and Yellow last season as he played in all 54 games and hit a team-high .418 with 76 hits, 50 RBIs and 42 runs scored. His play earned him first team all-conference and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association All-Southeast Region second-team honors. Kondla was also one of 11 finalists for the Josh Willingham Award, which is given to the most valuable player in Division II college baseball. He enters 2014 on the Collegiate Baseball News 'Players to Watch' list.

Goot was a key member of the Cobras' strong pitching staff a year ago. He appeared in 34 games and went 8-0 on the season while striking out 62 batters in 66 innings of work. He was named a first team all-conference selection and received the 2013 Conference Carolinas spring scholar-athlete of the year for baseball.

A third baseman, Giczkowski was a crucial part of the team's success as he manned the hot corner to perfection for the Cobras. He appeared in all 54 games, hitting .358 with 64 hits and 53 runs scored. Giczkowski was a defensive juggernaut, compiling 35 putouts, 128 assists and taking part in 12 double plays. His defensive efforts earned him a 2013 American Baseball Coaches Association Golden Glove as a first-team selection in the Southeast region.

Kirkwood, an outfielder, was a solid starter for the Cobras last season as he posted a batting average of .314 on 49 hits with 27 RBIs and 26 runs scored.

Coker will rely heavily on the returning upperclassmen, but Schmotzer also has a core group of young players that may have big impacts this season.

Alex Hernandez and Matthew Prosser will be a pair of young pitchers to watch this season, as they are expected to step in and provide solid and efficient pitching for the Cobras.

Hernandez, a sophomore, saw action in 20 games as a true freshman, including eight starts. In 64 1-3 innings pitched, he tallied a 6-2 record with 25 strikeouts.

Prosser enters the season as a 2014 College Baseball News 'Newcomer to Watch.' The sophomore transfer from USC Salkehatchie went 4-3 with a 2.54 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 46 innings on the mound as a freshman.

As a unit, the Cobras are poised for another strong run, but they know that last year is the past and the slate has been wiped clean.

"Last year was a great time for the program, the college and the city of Hartsville," said Schmotzer. "However, last year is not this year and we cannot expect teams to just let us win because we were good last year. We have trained hard this preseason and we are looking forward to the challenge the SAC poses."

Coker begins its first year in the SAC this season and opens Saturday, Feb. 1 at home with a three-game series against Chowan University.

Story written by sports information graduate assistant Sharod Williams '13.