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February 16, 2009

2009 Season - After going 34-13 last year, optimism is the key word as Vikings get ready for 2009 baseball season

After an unprecedented run of success over the last decade-plus, the Augustana baseball team is poised to add to that tradition as one of the elite programs in NCAA Division III.  The 2009 season is just around the corner and the Vikings of veteran head coach Greg Wallace will start the campaign full of optimism.

Since Wallace took over prior to the 1998 season, Augustana has compiled a record of 333-145 (.697) overall and 139-88 (.612) in the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin. Some numbers jump off the page when looking at what the Vikings have accomplished over the 11 years. They have won more than 30 games a total of seven times, including each of the last four seasons. They have won at least 22 games the other four years. Prior to Wallace’s arrival, Augustana had only had two 20 victory seasons in school history and had only recorded 11 winning seasons since 1970.

Now, the program has appeared in three NCAA Division III national tournaments since 1999, including each of the last two years. The record for the Vikings over the last four years is a phenomenal 133-48 (.734) overall and 57-27 (.678) in the CCIW.

Things don’t figure to change much this spring as Wallace can point to 22 letterwinners back from last year’s 34-13 team that finished third in the NCAA Division III Midwest Regional. Of those 22 letter winners, there are nine players who could be considered starters returning and two starting pitchers back in the fold.

“We have a veteran oriented team that has certainly had plenty of success to fall back on,” said Wallace. “I think this bunch will have the mindset to do whatever it takes to reach our goals.”

The Vikings return an All-American, five all-conference performers and all four players who won MVP honors in some capacity for the team in 2008. Senior John Wagle (Rock Island HS, Rock Island, Ill.) is the returning All-American and he was also named to the NCAA Division III pre-season All-American team by as well. Wagle, senior Mark Ramos (United Township HS, East Moline, Ill.), junior Eric Izzo (Lockport HS, Lockport, Ill.), senior John Vezzetti (LaSalle-Peru HS, Peru, Ill.) and senior Don Hansen (Cary Grove HS, Cary, Ill.) were all named to the all-conference team last year. Wagle (offense), Vezzetti (defense), junior Matt Erickson (Marmion Academy, Channahon, Ill.) (pitching) and sophomore Vince Frede (St. Charles East HS, St. Charles, Ill.) (pitching) all won MVP awards last spring by a vote of their teammates.

“The strength of this team is that we have plenty of depth in different areas,” said Wallace. “We are getting great senior leadership and that is the kind of thing that can carry at team.”

Pitching, of course, is the key to any successful baseball program and the Vikings have a pair of juniors who are poised to lead what is a relatively young staff. Erickson and fellow junior Mike Pagano (Niles Notre Dame HS, Chicago, Ill.) led the team in earned run average a year ago. Erickson was 6-2 with a 3.72 ERA in 55 2/3 innings of work while tying with Pagano for the team lead in strikeouts with 58. He made the all-tournament team in the NCAA Regional as a freshman in 2007. Pagano was 4-2 with a 4.15 ERA in 69 1/3 innings and walked just 22 to go along with those 58 strikeouts. While Erickson and Pagano figure to handle the top two spots in the rotation, there are plenty of options for Wallace to choose from.

Sophomore Adam Doyle (Wheat Ridge HS, Golden, Colorado) was 4-0 as a freshman and worked 36 2/3 innings with 15 strikeouts. Sophomore Grant Loiselle (Bloomington Central Catholic HS, Normal, Ill.) gives the Vikings a lefthanded presence on the mound. He was 1-0 last year and worked just seven varsity innings but he could be in the mix for more time this spring. Transfers Kyle Murphy (Lane Tech HS, Chicago, Ill.) and Mike O’Neill (Peoria Notre Dame HS, Peoria Heights, Ill.) will be counted on for some major innings. Senior Kevin Dencker (Cary Grove HS, Fox River Grove, Ill.) and junior Jon Carlson (Glenbrook South HS, Glenview, Ill.) and Kevin Kulig (Benet Academy, Lemont, Ill.) are all experienced performers who piled up 37 appearances between the three of them last year. Dencker had three saves and 22 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings while Carlson and Kulig were each 1-0. Frede shared the pitching MVP award honor with Erickson last year and he posted three saves in 13 appearances while striking out 19 in 16 2/3 innings of work.

Sophomore Jordan Cealey (Peoria Notre Dame HS, Peoria, Ill.) and freshmen Josiah Martin (Canton HS, Canton, Ill.) and Mike Trotta (Niles Notre Dame HS, Chicago, Ill.) will be counted on as well.

Senior John Vezzetti (LaSalle-Peru HS, Peru, Ill.) will handle the catching duties and he was the team’s Most Valuable Defensive Player in 2008. Vezzetti was a second team all-conference performer after hitting .306 with 38 hits in 124 at-bats with 11 doubles, one triple, two home runs and 19 runs batted in. Backing him up will be junior Jarl Dahlgren (Rockford Auburn HS, Rockford, Ill.), sophomore T.J. O’Donnell (New Trier HS, Northbrook, Ill.) and freshman David Drew (Conant HS, Schaumburg, Ill.).

Three players who have earned all-conference honors (Izzo, Wagle and Ramos) will be in the infield. Izzo, a converted third baseman, has found a home at first base. In 2008 he hit .364 with 64 hits in 176 at-bats while scoring 48 runs. He had 10 doubles, two triples, four home runs and 37 runs-batted-in. Wagle started his career at second base, shifted to third base last year and will now be back at second base. He was an NCAA Division III All-American last year when he batted .419 with 80 hits in 191 at-bats while scoring 52 runs. He clubbed 15 doubles, five triples, a school record 11 home runs and had a school record-tying 60 RBI. For good measure he stole 10 bases. Wagle is third on the school’s career hits list with 185 and he is fourth in batting average (.388) and RBI (121), second in triples (10), tied for fifth in doubles (35) and tied for ninth in home runs (14).

The shortstop will be Ramos, a two time all-conference performer, who batted .359 with 66 hits in 184 at-bats last year and stole 16 bases. Third base will be a battle between sophomore Dave Hoffman (Cary Grove HS, Fox River Grove, Ill.) and junior Aaron Hopson (Rockford Boylan Catholic HS, Rockford, Ill.). Hoffman played second base last year and batted .333 with 36 hits in 108 at-bats while Hopson hit .341 with 42 hits in 123 at-bats. Hopson, who played in the outfield in 2008, had seven home runs and 37 RBI. Freshman Joe Moran (Niles Notre Dame HS, Chicago, Ill.) could see some time in the infield as well.

The outfield will be anchored by four year starter and multiple all-conference and all-region honoree Don Hansen (Cary Grove HS, Cary, Ill.) in right field. Hansen batted .311 with 52 hits in 147 at-bats in 2008 and he is the school record holder for career base-on-balls. As a freshman he hit a team-leading .448 and he has a career batting average of .355. Senior Kevin Schuetz (St. Charles North HS, St. Charles, Ill.) will handle center field and senior Myles Kurnick (Buffalo Grove HS, Arlington Heights, Ill.) will be in left. Schuetz batted .349 with 22 hits in 63 at-bats last year and Kurnick hit .276 with 29 hits in 105 at-bats. Freshmen Michael Barker (Grandview HS, Centennial, Colorado) and Anthony Concialdi (Fremd HS, Barrington, Ill.) could see time in the outfield as well.

“We really had a great fall,” said Wallace. “We are coming off a great season and this group of seniors has really accomplished an awful lot during their careers. We need to continue to show the same kind of work ethic that got us to this point in the first place and we will be fine.”