Baseball may not be starting on time at the Major League Baseball (MLB) level, but luckily for baseball fans, college baseball is. Among the teams that will start playing is Slippery Rock’s own team. The team who opens their season this Saturday has a lot of hype around them already.
After a 23-14 season last year, The Rock was picked to finish second in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) west this season. Something that coach Jeffery Messer doesn’t want to go to their heads, and doesn’t think will.
“I don’t think any recognition or honors are spearheading our efforts right now, because our guys think that they’re number one in the conference, but they’ve just got to go out and play,” Messer said. “They think they’ve got a lot of unfinished business, because we didn’t feel we were able to really finish our season last year.”
The team has been practicing inside since they got back to school in their indoor facility, the barn. The weather usually doesn’t permit for the players to go on the field, but this spring semester so far has been a lot nicer than winters of the past. Messer has also had players use the parking lot outside of the stadium to throw.
Messer felt there was still a lot to work on when they got back, but he feels that they’ve made strides.
“We’ve been practicing since we got back to school, and we’ve been progressing very well,” Messer said. “Biggest thing this time of year is getting our pitchers arms ready to go and keeping our position players healthy.”
The Rock has a veteran core returning with over 20 players coming back from last year, and to Messer that sets them up well. That experience is one of many reasons that a late run could be in the cards.
“This is one of our stronger teams on paper going into the year that we’ve had, and a lot of that is just experience,” Messer said. “They’re still hungry and for some of them it’s their last year.”
The team also brings back the duo of Jon Kozarian and Connor Hamilton. The duo brings explosiveness to the lineup. Both of them started every game last season and made up a large part of The Rock offense. The duo combined for 10 home runs and 56 RBI’s.
“Both Hamilton and Kozarian are two of the better players in our region, and Kozarian led the PSAC in hitting last year,” Messer said. “We’re moving him from second base to shortstop, and he’ll continue to be a mainstay in our offense as well, and Hamilton just brings an edge behind the plate.”
Hamilton quickly became someone that pitchers loved throwing to. Messer talked about how they could throw a two-strike breaking ball and not worry about it getting past him. A trait that is extremely useful when it comes to making the pitchers comfortable.
Kozarian and Hamilton will return to The Rock lineup and give them a good one, two punch. Not only that, they bring leadership to the squad that is going to be crucial when it comes to team chemistry.
Both are looking to make a trip to the PSAC playoffs this season and go even further than that. Kozarian feels that everything has led up to this year.
After a disappointing year in 2019, The Rock had their year cut short in 2020 and then in 2021 experienced COVID-19 problems. The Rock got out to a record of 7-3 before the entire sports world was stopped in its track. Last year, the season also had problems that cut some games off the schedule. Now with COVID-19 slowing down, The Rock is hoping that this is the year that everything comes together.
“We got cut short a little bit last year with COVID-19, so the guys are hungry,” Messer said. “We’re still a little bit away, but right now we’re healthy and we’re ready to go for opening weekend against Davis & Elkins College (D&E).”
The team has already been taking precautions to avoid any health problems when it comes to COVID-19. But Messer said that the biggest concerns of COVID-19 come off the field when the players are interacting with people. So far, they haven’t run into any problems, but with the mask mandate dropped across campus, it’ll be something to keep an eye on.
“Knock on wood, we’ve been fortunate thus far, and we’ve had our cases, but I think going into the season we feel a little bit more confident,” Messer said. “Hopefully it’s on the downslide and we don’t lose anybody.”
The fear of losing a player is one that many teams have had to go through this year. If you look at women’s basketball, they went into many games shorthanded. But the hope is that with games being outside and COVID-19 cases dropping that no players will miss time. But of course, Messer feels that they’re prepared for if or when it does happen.
“We’ve got a lot of depth with the guys that we have returning and it’ll be the next man up, but hopefully that’s behind us and we can play a full season of baseball,” Messer said.
The Rock has four all-region players coming into this season, but once again they don’t pay attention to it very much. They just want to play ball.
“It’s a nice honor, but there’s so many polls out there now from sports writers to the coaches, there’s multiple different ones to be recognized by,” Messer said. “But it is nice to be recognized for basically what you did last year, and that’s what it’s coming off of, but every year they’re looking to have a better year.”
The team finally hits the field on March 5, when they’ll have a home series with D&E. For Messer, he feels that he’s ready to rock and roll in his 37th season as head coach and he also feels that his team is too.
“Honestly I think we’re probably pretty close to being ready right now, biggest thing right now is our pitchers getting some live work against live hitters and they’ve been doing that,” Messer said. “Game one is going to be new because we haven’t played anybody, but we’re going to be ready and there won’t be any excuses.”