NEW ULM - After losing only one senior from the 2012 season, the Martin Luther College baseball team thinks this could be one of the best seasons in the programs history.
MLC was picked to finish sixth in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference preseason coaches' poll, but the team thinks it has a great chance to finish in the top for and make the UMAC postseason tournament.
"We believe we will be able to compete and have an opportunity to win every game we play," senior captain Joe Janke said. "Our goal in the regular season is to play well enough to make the conference tournament, and I think that we have a very realistic shot at attaining that goal."
The Knights have good reason to be optimistic since they are returning eight players from last year's lineup. The Knights are also getting back Janke and junior utility player Joel Hering, who both took last season off. Janke was named All-UMAC in 2010 and honorable mention All-UMAC in 2011.
Junior catcher Aaron Stokke was named to the Honorable Mention All-UMAC team and led the Knights with 17 RBI and six doubles last season. Stokke was also second on the team in batting average (.336).
Stokke will be joined in the heart of the lineup by sophomore outfielder Andrew Nemmers, who led the team in batting average (.338) and slugging percentage (.408) as a freshman in 2012, and junior outfielder/pitcher Jake Ziel, who hit .299 in 2012.
Outfielder Joe Schmudlach and infielders Galen Holzhueter, Brad Essig, Ben Edmundson and Tyler Dorn also return after starting last season.
"We have a strong group of veterans this year who will be expected to play at a high level for us," MLC head coach Randy Cox said.
A talented group of freshmen will give Cox something he has not had in his first three years - depth.
"Our new players add a level of depth that we have not had in the past," Janke said. "This is the strongest and deepest team I have been a part of at MLC."
Freshmen Matt Olson and James Hemmelman look to make contributions in the infield this year, while Dillon Rannow will be looked to make immediate contributions in the outfield.
The Knights have what may be their strongest pitching rotation ever led by Janke and Ziel. Janke was the team's top pitcher in 2010 and 2011, while Ziel was the ace for the Knights last year. Ziel led the Knights in innings (59.2), strikeouts (54), wins (three) and ERA (4.83) in 2012, and was named honorable mention All-UMAC for his performance.
Janke and Ziel will be joined in the rotation by Nemmers who showed improvement over the course of his freshman season. Olson will round out the normal starting rotation for MLC.
Freshmen Travis Kretsch, Hemmelman, Wyatt Weimer, and senior Dorn will form a solid bullpen for the Knights.
The Knights are coming off their annual spring trip to Florida. The team had the most success out of any MLC team to play in Florida going 4-4 for their trip.
"I was very happy with our performance in Florida, especially that of our pitching staff," Cox said. "We need to improve on our fielding, but that is something that will come once we are able to start practicing outside."
MLC would have started UMAC play last weekend but the weather would not allow it. This weekend's games have also already been canceled, so it is up in the air as to when the Knights will be able to begin UMAC play.
"While we will inevitably struggle at times and take a few on the chin, but this team has perseverance which, I believe, will ultimately lead to success," Janke said.