Baseball starts 2012 with many new faces, same expectations
By JORDAN FREEMYER
Special to UNCBears.com
GREELEY -- In his second season at the helm of the Northern Colorado baseball program, Bears coach Carl Iwasaki will look in 2012 to improve upon his team's second-place finish in the Great West Conference last season.
To do that, Iwasaki's program will lean heavily on a large crop of fresh faces, including 17 newcomers to the roster to go along with the 17 veterans.
"We're a whole different team," Iwasaki says. "Nineteen new players, great young talent, great veteran leadership: Adam Hilker, Tony Crudo, Ben Packard and Joe Willman. All those returners, but there are some other names that you're going to hear, too. I'm not even going to say them right now, but you're going to see them because they're going to make some noise, as well."
Iwasaki says he is really excited about his class of incoming players, which combined to win 16 state championships at the high school level.
"We have a good blend of four-year, high school freshmen that are just coming in and also some top veteran Colorado junior college transfers that came back here to finish their careers in Colorado," Iwasaki says.
Among the veterans, Packard will be a key cog in the Bears lineup this season. The junior designated hitter and first baseman hit for a .374 average last year and was second on the team with four home runs and 43 runs batted in in 2011.
Senior Casey Coy will also be counted on, both on the field and on the mound this season. He hit .306 with two home runs and 29 RBIs last season at the plate and went 1-1 on the mound with a 6.05 earned-run average.
"It's an honor -- I got elected by my teammates to be one of the captains," Coy says. "It means a lot to do that. These guys are a great bunch of guys, and we've been working hard and we're just excited to get the season started."
Senior southpaw Willman will be counted on to lead the Northern Colorado pitching staff after starting 13 games for the Bears last season and finishing with a 7-5 record and a 5.24 ERA.
Willman also finished 5-1 in Great West Conference play.
"I'm definitely excited for the year," Willman says. "We've got a good core of older guys and some hard-working younger guys that are ready to get right into it."
Northern Colorado will open its season at home this year, for the first time since 2009, when it hosts North Dakota State this weekend, starting with a single game at 2 p.m. Friday and then a doubleheader Saturday (first game is at 11 a.m.) and a single game Sunday (noon).
And thanks to a season-long sponsorship from College Credit Union, admission to all Northern Colorado home baseball games will be free of charge this season.
"We wanted to start at home," Iwasaki says. "We could have gone to Arizona or Texas this year, but we said 'Let's wait until later in the season to play nonconference, out-of-state games. Let's start at home.'
"And we're more than thankful for CCU's sponsorship," Iwasaki says. "The gate's open. There's no charge. We're inviting everybody."
When the Bears reach Great West Conference play in April, they will once again be chasing two-time defending champions Utah Valley, which was picked in the conference's coaches poll Tuesday to repeat as GWC champions. Northern Colorado finished second to the Wolverines in each of the last two seasons and was the third pick in the preseason poll.
The Bears expect to be in the hunt for the title this year, though, as they have been the last two years.
"We've been close the last two years," Willman says. "I'm tired of second place."
"It seems like the last few years that Northern Colorado and Utah Valley have been on top," Coy says. "I guess you could say it's a Great West rivalry, but we're looking forward to playing them this year. They're a fun team to play."
However, Iwasaki says it's important to look at the season as a marathon instead of a sprint, and that race starts Friday against the Bison.
"We'll play 60 games this season, with 56 in the regular season and about four in the postseason," Iwasaki says. "That, basically, is 540 innings, and we've got to be strong in all of them. We get to play Inning One on Friday."