BRADFORD, Pa. – The University of Pittsburgh at Bradford baseball team is set to begin its 2019 season with three games this weekend at Bethany.
The Panthers enter the season under third-year head coach Zach Foster, a Bradford native and Pitt-Bradford graduate who became the first-ever player from the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference selected in the Major League Baseball Draft, taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008.
A season ago, Pitt-Bradford celebrated one of its most successful campaigns in recent time. The Panthers finished 17-16 overall and 10-8 in AMCC play, the 10 regular-season conference victories being the program's most since 2010.
As a result, Pitt-Bradford earned the No. 4 seed in the AMCC Championship Tournament and hosted Penn State-Altoona for the First Round.
"Our conference gets better and better every year," Foster said. "We have one of the top teams in the country in our league, with La Roche, but we have a lot of key guys returning and we're starting to bring in the right guys to go out and compete with the best in our conference."
Pitt-Bradford returns one of the NCAA Division III's top talents in Austin Parent, a 2018 First-Team ABCA and D3Baseball All-American catcher.
"We have arguably the best hitter in the country starting for us behind the plate," Foster said of his All-American. "He's very solid defensively, but he breaks the stereotype that catchers can't hit. We expect another big year from him, as long as he does not put a lot of pressure on himself. We're looking for him to play at the next level after this season."
The Gilbert, Ariz., native led the country in both batting average (.496) and on-base percentage (.616). He was fittingly named the 2018 AMCC Player of the Year and was selected as the 2019 Preseason Player of the Year, as well as a D3Baseball Preseason All-American.
Parent's classmate and battery partner Ryan Boyer is also back for the Panthers. A 2018 All-AMCC Second Team honoree, Boyer went 5-2 with a 4.45 ERA in 58.2 innings pitched while striking out 66 opposing hitters last season.
The Bradford native broke out this summer, helping the Jamestown Jammers summer league team to a title while earning Summer League All-America status – one of just two Division III players to secure that accolade.
"He's a guy we're building our rotation around," Foster said. "We want to make sure we line him up with the top teams in the conference. He's another guy we think has an opportunity to play at the next level. There's no doubt he's one of the best starting pitchers in our league."
"Ty is a typical leadoff hitter," Foster said. "Great plate discipline and very good defensively. And Sawyer is a base stealer who is also a sure thing in centerfield. He tracks the ball well and has a great arm."
Hoops started all 33 games as the Panther shortstop and earned a .354 batting average as the Pitt-Bradford leadoff hitter. Packard also started all 33 games, led the team with 12 stolen bases and hit .303.
Other 2018 regulars who return for Pitt-Bradford this season are junior outfielders Jason Lucarelli (26 games, .291 batting average) and Robert Sawicki (13 games, .256 batting average), along with junior third baseman Samuel Dreistadt (20 games, .254 batting average).
"Jason is a tremendous athlete," Foster said. "He's quick, he runs well, he's great defensively. So he should see more time out in the outfield this year. Sam is someone we're looking at to take over as our starting third baseman. He showed up in great shape this year and we're hoping for a solid year from him. Same with Josh and Sam Gwiazdinski. They'll battle for time in the infield."
The Panthers return a slew of arms from a season ago with nine pitchers back for 2019.
Juniors Andrew Bacha (4-4, nine appearances, 46 innings) and Alex Andrzejewski (4-3, 11 appearances, 44.1 innings) rejoin Boyer in the Panther starting rotation while senior Benjamin Hayes (16 appearances, 36.2 innings), juniors Nate Renick (nine appearances, 29 innings) and Zach Suchocki, and sophomores Drake Renn (nine appearances, 8.1 innings), Gwiazdinski (16 appearances, 19.1 innings) and Kyle O'Donnell (one appearance) add experience to the Pitt-Bradford bullpen.
"With Nate, we've taken him and put him in a priority role in the bullpen," Foster said. "Bacha has made huge strides, as we have him up to 85 MPH already. We expect him to be in the rotation pitching in some big games. Ben was our best and most consistent bullpen guys last season and Sam has made some big strides this offseason."
Foster expects many of his 20 newcomers to play vital roles on this 2019 squad.
Position players joining the squad this year are freshmen Tyler Aires (Ocean County, N.J.), Reid Tarnowski (Fredonia, N.Y.), Justin Dattoli (Seven Fields, Pa.), David Gebhard (Harrisburg, Pa.), Matt Hair (Frewsburg, N.Y.), Kai Joseph (Rockville, Md.) Jake McNabb (New Kensington, Pa.), Kevin Rehak (Pittsburgh, Pa.) and Kyle Young (Central Square, N.Y.), Noah Meyers (Leeper, Pa.), along with sophomore transfers Matt LaBadie (Troy, Pa.) and Taichi Ohkubo (Yokohama, Japan).
On the mound, Noah McMullen (Nazareth, Pa.), Yael Crespo (Silver Spring, Md.) and Jordan Green (Horseheads, N.Y.) come in as transfers while freshmen arms Aires, Tarnowski, Reed Bursic (Pittsburgh, Pa.), Logan Edmonds (Williamsport, Pa.), Alex Miles (Pittsburgh, Pa.) and Ben Suter (Nazareth, Pa.) all join the Panther pitching staff. Sophomore Wyatt Ruger (Youngsville, Pa.) is also set for his first collegiate baseball experience.
"Jake is going to be a huge part of our offense this season," Foster said. "Matt, Kevin Rehak, Reid Tarnowski and Taichi will all see a lot of time in the infield for us. And on the mound, Noah is an extremely hard worker who going to compete for a starting role for us. Logan and Reid both come in as freshmen with great stuff and pound the zone. They'll get a lot of innings for us."
Pitt-Bradford will play a doubleheader with Wells on Saturday followed by a single game with the most Bethany Sunday.
After a non-conference slate that includes a nine-game trip to Fort Myers, Fla., Pitt-Bradford will come home to host Mount Aloysius on March 23 for its AMCC and home opener.