February 10, 2017

2017 Baseball Media Guide

MARTIN, Tenn. – With changes surrounding the University of Tennessee at Martin baseball program both on the field and in the locker room, the 2017 season could be a building block of success under third year head coach Rick Robinson.

“Anytime you can have a positive change in a program, I think the fans and the team get more excited about what is going on,” said Robinson. “I think that is what is happening with the trees and the new fence is that we are getting a positive change. Maybe ‘tearing down fences’ can be our theme for the year.”

Construction for the new outfield wall began in late January as the Skyhawks will be debuting their newest renovation right away. UT Martin opens the season with back-to-back home series when playing host to Buffalo, Feb. 17-19 and Arkansas Pine-Bluff, Feb. 24-26. This marks the first time since 2010 the Skyhawks have opened at home.

“Us having the first six games at home is really a huge advantage,” said Robinson. “I love playing at home. Having those early games at Skyhawk Field gives us the chance to get off to a good start.”

One of the biggest road trips of the year comes on March 3-5 when the Skyhawks travel to Greenville, SC to compete in the First Pitch Invitational at historic Flour Field and Latham Stadium. The trip will serve as a homecoming of sorts for Robinson. UT Martin will play three games in three days against Furman, Presbyterian and Big Ten powerhouse Michigan State.

“Luckily we get to go to Greenville, SC this year,” said Robinson. “That’s a special trip for me because it is only about 45 minutes from where I grew up so it will be a bit of a home week for me. It should also serve as a good early test for our team.”

Based on last season’s final standings, UT Martin will host five of the top six schools at Skyhawk Field. The OVC schedule sets up well for the Skyhawks as they play Tennessee Tech, Belmont, Morehead State, Austin Peay and Jacksonville State at home.

“One of the positives about our OVC schedule is that we have a majority of the top teams at home this season,” said Robinson. “That has to play into our success in conference play. We are playing the teams in the top half of the conference in Martin and we will get the chance to have the last at-bat in those games. We have to take advantage of that.”

Leadership will be key for the Skyhawks as returners Ryan Helgren and Dalton Westfall have been elected captains to guide the team this season. Helgren was UT Martin’s top hitter a season ago compiling a .321 average and tying for a team-high six homers. Westfall is coming off an injury-shortened 2016 season in which he recorded a 2-1 record with a 1.96 ERA in 4 appearances.

“We have two really good captains,” said Robinson. “Westfall and Helgren have done a tremendous job bringing the team together. All the returning guys are doing a great job of teaching the new ones what the expectations are and how to play the game.”

Tanner Wessling will lead a talented group of position players returning to UT Martin. The Kent, Wash. native notched five homers en route to a .290 average in 2016. Other positions players returning for UT Martin include outfielder Carson Shrode and shortstop and defensive standout Josh Hauser. The senior from Belvidere, Ill. started 54 games for the Skyhawks last year, driving in 30 runs and recording 55 hits but it is his defensive prowess that makes him such an effective player.

“Having Hauser back is important up the middle,’ said Robinson. “He led the OVC in fielding percentage last year and was one of the most consistent shortstops in the country. Defensively, we are going to be good in a lot of areas.”

Preseason injuries have forced UT Martin to make some changes behind the plate this season. Junior college transfer Keylen Steen will handle the bulk of the catching responsibilities. Last year’s starter Dan Kerwin, who led the squad with 16 doubles in 2016, suffered a setback in spring practice but will remain in the lineup throughout the year.

UT Martin will also be looking to improve on the base paths and create more opportunities for scoring in 2017. Freshman addition JoJo Allen will spell middle-infielders Hauser and Tyler Albright defensively and will look to help produce more runs through effective baserunning and productive at-bats. Other newcomers joining Allen are Ben Aslett, Creighton Eldridge, Robert Worley, Jordan Lambert, Caleb Brewer and Jonah Brody.

“We are definitely more athletic than we have been in the past two years,” said Robinson. “Our offense is still trying to find its identity, but I expect us to hit-and-run more to capitalize on our athleticism.”

Westfall, along with senior Alex Evans and redshirt sophomore Dom Bazzani are back to lead a Skyhawk pitching staff that set a school record in 2016 with 369 strikeouts. Evans’ eight victories ranked as the second-best single-season performance in program history while serving as the most wins by a UT Martin pitcher since 2010. Bazzani’s freshman season consisted of 71 strikeouts, ranking as the fifth-most in school history for a single season.

“It’s great that we are returning guys like Evans, Bazzani and Westfall,” said Robinson. “But we still need those guys to step up, improve and get better. We have to pitch better than we did last year because if those guys are good, it gives our team an opportunity to be really good.”

Returning contributors to the UT Martin pitching staff include Shane Seckinger, Collin Edwards and Jake Patzner. However, after an injury plagued preseason, the Skyhawks will rely on several key additions to the pitching staff including Hickory, Miss. native Peyton Cain and Cisco College transfer Kyle Laberge. Justin Pickle, Sam Folks, Konnor Aherin, Tyler Borski, Winston Cannon and Zack Denney will all be making their first appearances in the orange and blue as well and will look to leave their mark on a pitching staff that did not surrender a lead after six innings a year ago. The Skyhawks finished the season 17-0 when leading after six. UT Martin also recorded their first shutout since 2008 when the Skyhawks blanked Eastern Illinois 2-0 on May 14.  

“Cain is a guy we expect to come in and be right in the front of the pitching rotation,” said Robinson. “Laberge will also be in the mix of the weekend guys as well. All of these new guys have stepped up and done a really good job for us thus far.”

With several injuries in the preseason, the Skyhawks will call on incoming freshmen to be a big part of their success. Outfielder Connor Aube is garnering national recognition before he even has his first at-bat in a Skyhawk uniform.

“We have several new guys that could make an impact this season,” said Robinson. “We have two freshmen, Anthony Adduci and Connor Aube, who will be in the mix. Adduci has been one of our best guys offensively in practice and Aube was named Baseball America’s Preseason OVC Freshman of the Year so you would have to put them in there as a possibility to contribute.”

Although there are many newcomers on the Skyhawk roster, Robinson is confident that their additions in the offseason will give them a better chance at sustaining success this season.

“Our numbers and our ability to compete in the OVC are much better this year,” said Robinson. “We are far more athletic, and pitching wise we are further along. It’s hard to tell how that will translate to wins, but we are certainly better in those areas.”

Consistency will be key as the Skyhawks look to make a deep run into May and compete for an OVC championship. UT Martin will rely on timely hitting and good at-bats to produce offense and although the power numbers may not be the same, the Skyhawks have other ways of producing offense in 2017.

“We may not have a lot of power in terms of slugging numbers,” said Robinson. “But we have a lot of guys who really battle at the plate. We should have much better numbers on putting the ball in play and making it tough on opposing pitchers.”

UT Martin’s 18 OVC victories in the past two seasons are tied for the most in a two-year span and its 19 wins from a season ago tie for the most since 2011. With all the buzz surrounding the new renovations at the ballpark, the aspirations for the Skyhawks are to continually get better and make a deep run in the OVC.

“My expectations are that we improve every single game,” said Robinson. “As the season goes on, we have to continue to get better and better. On OVC weekends, we have to find a way to win a third game and if we can do that, we should be in good shape when it comes to qualifying for the OVC Tournament at the end of the year."

UT Martin will begin its 2017 campaign next Friday, Feb. 17 when welcoming Buffalo for a three-game weekend series. First pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m.