By Josh Neuhart
Grace College Sports Information
WINONA LAKE – Grace College’s baseball team is filled with optimism for the 2021 season.
Nearly a year after COVID shut down the 2020 season, the Lancers are back on the diamond under head coach Ryan Roth.
Grace brings a young, talented squad to the field this year, one that gained maturity through the loss of a season one year ago.
While the spring season always has its share of cancellations and schedule changes in a normal year, that trend will only be amplified in a COVID season. But Roth and the coaching staff have stressed simplicity and focus during the preseason in preparation for any 2021 curveballs.
“We are thankful for the opportunity to compete and play the game we love again. Our goal coming into this unknown year was to keep our spiritual eyes focused on Jesus and our material eyes focused on our goals,” Roth said. “We want to keep the faith and not fear the storms. I feel that our team has embraced that.”
The Lancers will have a number of core returners to help buoy the team. Chris Griffin and Houston Haney both have previous All-Crossroads League honors to their names. Griffin was hitting .415 in a shortened spring season in 2020 and had six extra-base hits in 14 games.
Haney is a major factor at the plate and on the mound. He has a career ERA of 3.68 and will likely graduate with his name etched across multiple career hitting lists at Grace.
Jaron Mullet joins Haney as the only seniors on the squad, providing leadership and exemplary work ethic to a young team. Sam Newkirk is back for his third season; his play has the ability to “single handedly change games,” according to Roth.
RJ Snyder enjoyed a stellar fall preseason and brings spiritual leadership to the team, and Bret Wilhelmi and Philip Wertz have carved out roles in the bullpen.
The second-year Lancers are still freshmen in terms of eligibility (thanks to COVID), and Roth maintains that those players could be pivotal in Grace’s improvement this spring.
Alex Rich, Jeff Pawlik and Patrick Danforth have each earned a spot in the starting lineup to begin the year. Roth believes those three will be “cornerstone pieces in our lineup for the foreseeable future.”
The pitching trio of Kameron Koch, Tanner Clark and Ryan Bertke will feature starting on the mound. Hunter Schumacher, Mason Meyer, Nick Stoltzfus and Jake Decker will also earn innings from the bullpen, and Colin Carr adds much-needed depth at catcher.
A number of freshmen figure to see time right away. Evan Etchison, Austin Carr, David Melendez and Dalton Turner have impressed in the preseason, according to Roth, and Tyler Cwik, Isaiah Herbster and Caleb Farney will also see time early in Roth’s estimation.
The Lancers did lose several likely contributors to injury before the season began, including Ike Peterson, Kyle Aten and Cameron Woehnker. But Roth was confident the team’s depth would be enough to handle injuries.
Because of the pandemic, Grace will remain regional in its travels this year and forego its typical migration south during spring break. The Lancers have arranged a number of unique ballparks to play at this year, including Fort Wayne’s Parkview Field, Mason’s Prasco Park (Ohio) and Florence’s UC Health Stadium (Ky.).
Despite whatever challenges the 2021 season faces, Roth wants to equip the players to adapt what he calls a “veteran’s mindset.” That mindset will help the Lancers overcome its youth and inexperience and handle the ups and downs of any season.
The Lancers are thrilled to be playing meaningful games again. The squad has ambitions to reach the postseason, this time with a deep appreciation each time they hit the diamond.
“We want to be the best version of ourselves each time we step on the diamond. But I also want to see my players having fun day in and day out,” Roth added. “I see how hard these young men have worked, and they’ve earned every ounce of success coming their way this spring.”