Milwaukee (0-0) vs. Tennessee (0-0)
Lindsey Nelson Stadium, Knoxville, Tennessee
Game 1: Friday, 3 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, 2 p.m.
Game 3: Sunday, Noon
Live Blog: UTSports.com
June 4th, when the Milwaukee Panthers hung with the Arizona State Sun Devils before bowing out, it occurred to me how huge this was. For the first time in nearly a decade, Milwaukee was in the NCAA Tournament in the sport that separates it from the other schools in Wisconsin Division I.
That’s big. What’s bigger? Doing it again.
That’s what Scott Doffek’s Panthers will attempt as they embark on a journey that takes them 9,769 miles before they even get a home game. The first leg of that journey brings them to Knoxville, Tennessee, where the Panthers will take on Rocky Top’s Tennessee Volunteers in a three-game set.
Chad Pierce takes the ball as opening day starter, a position he didn’t have last year. Pierce began 2010 as the Panthers’ #3 starter but finished the ace, fashioning a 7-5 record with a 4.03 ERA in 16 starts.
Doffek and assistant coach Cory Bigler are hoping that Pierce can be as dominant on Friday as he was in the middle of the season last year, when his ERA bottomed out at 2.32 in a victory over Cleveland State.
He will match up against Steven Gruver (most likely), a junior starter who finished 2010 with a 6.21 ERA in 12 games.
With the graduation of Ben Long, dominant hitter Paul Hoenecke will find himself in a full-time home for the first time in his career. Hoenecke, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel State Player of the Year as a junior and senior in high school, will take some games at catcher to make way for last year’s State Player of the Year, Ryan Solberg. Solberg is a 6’5” freshman phenom, and Hoenecke’s ability to play multiple positions will allow Solberg to get the at-bats he needs to get up to college speed.
While Hoenecke makes the move from second (mostly) to first (mostly), senior Cole Kraft goes back to his original position of second after spending 2010 at short. Kraft hit .350 as a junior shortstop, good enough to net him 2nd team All-Horizon League honors. Kraft will take the occasional day off to make way for Michael Porcaro, a freshman who figures to be the future at the position and leadoff hitter.
Kraft’s slide to second gives two young players the opportunity to win a starting job for the first time. Redshirt sophomore Alex Erdmann appeared in 29 games in 2010, batting .250; however, when you only count League games, Erdmann’s average jumps up big, to .353. The sophomore had five RBI and eight runs in 44 at-bats.
Freshman Tell Taylor (gotta love that name) was First Team All-SEC for Burlington in his senior year, during which he made up one half of a killer double-play combo with Porcaro. One would have to figure the familiarity between the two will allow them to start together when Porcaro takes the field. Taylor hit .403 with 37 RBI as a senior and has major upside.
Dan Buchholz, the mainstay at third base (and occasionally catcher) for the Panthers in 2010, graduated. That leaves another infield spot to be determined, as Sam Koenig gets the nod as a true freshman, but could split time with Jim Lundstrom and Nick Lingvay. Koenig tore through the Badger North Conference, batting .473 with six home runs, 29 RBI, 32 walks and 23 runs scored as a senior. He was a WBCA All-State second team player as a junior and senior.
Brandon Davis, a JUCO transfer from Fort Scott Community College in, you guessed it, Fort Scott, Kansas, will likely take over catcher duties from graduating seniors Shaun Wegner and Dan Buchholz. Drew Pearson played in 20 games and started three as a true freshman a year ago, but Davis is an established field general who threw out 40% of would-be base stealers at FSCC. The righty from Colorado batted .358 in 49 games as a sophomore, driving in 36 runs, scoring 27 runs and posting a .428 on-base percentage.
In 2011, Doffek will be counting on franchise centerfielder Doug Dekoning to lead the charge in the outfield. The two-time defending First Team All-Horizon League player is a career .315 hitter who will be no stranger to anchoring the Panther lineup.
Senior Sam Sivilotti spent 2010 as a designated hitter for the Panthers but will likely move to right field in 2011. Sivilotti batted .352 over 176 at-bats in 2010 before his season was cut short by injury.
Another injury – to All-Conference senior Tim Patzman in 2010 – paved the way for Jonathan Capasso to make his mark. Capasso, just a freshman when he stepped in for the injured Patzman, batted .310 a season ago and was successful in all four of his stolen base attempts. Capasso will likely be the everyday leftfielder in 2011, although he will be pushed for time by freshmen Derek Peake and Zachary Wisowaty, as well as JUCO transfer Mark Strey. Strey spent last season as a redshirt to buy himself more time to get ready after a dominant career at MATC.
On the mound, Pierce will be followed immediately by Jayme Sukowaty. Suko was one of the best pitchers the Panthers had in 2010 before a forgettable outing in the elimination game against #15 San Diego in Phoenix. While he only pitched 47 innings, he did pitch well in all but a couple games. Sukowaty got a no-decision against Wright State when he gave up one run in one inning of the 6-3 victory in the Horizon League Championship.
Besides the top two, Milwaukee’s pitching depth fills out nicely. The real gems are at the back end, with Cameron Amsrud and Greg Blohowiak. Amsrud was the 2010 Horizon League Reliever of the Year, and Blohowiak is as good on the mound (1.67 ERA) as he is on Twitter (2.1 posts per day @gbloho15).
Keep it locked here, because PantherU is going to be covering the Dirt Cats all season long.