Wes Kerr – The emergence of spring on the horizon means one thing to a group of 40 Davidson students: college baseball season is upon us. The start of their season has been plagued by the recent accusation of sexual battery against Ward Coleman ‘20, a infielder and right-handed pitcher. The Wildcats, as they move forward from this charge, are hoping to build off an outstanding 2016 campaign. Last year the ‘Cats combined a respectable 28-26 record, qualifying for the A-10 tournament on the final day of the regular season. Making the most of their spot, Davidson stunned everybody to reach the championship game, becoming the first ever 6 seed to do so. Dick Cooke, now entering his 27th season as the head coach, has built this program to be a contender every season even in a tough conference, and last year was no exception.“I thought our team last year was very resilient and competed hard and had stretches where we pitched well or swung the bats well. We battled all year and were able to get into our conference tournament. Clark Beeker, who as drafted by the Twins and Sam Foy provide holes to fill.”
The search will be on to fill these vacancies and replace an ace pitcher and reliable second baseman. From first look, this year’s pitching staff seems to be up in the air. “Time will tell how the nature of the staff will unfold. We are still in the process of determining potential roles.” However, there are a few in that group that we could expect to shine on the mound this season. Redshirt senior Durin O’Linger had a fantastic 2016 season, and looks primed to take the number one role this year. A season ago O’Linger posted a 7-5 record with a 3.39 ERA, good for second place on the team.
O’Linger’s highlights of last year included a complete game shutout on the road against a tough Saint Louis team, and four strikeouts against St.Joseph’s in an A-10 tournament win. Josh Smutzer should be another Wildcat pitcher in great contention for a starting position. He may have pitched one of his best games of his career when it mattered the most, as he gave up just two earned runs in the A-10 semifinals to catapult the ‘Cats to the championship. Reliever Westin Whitmire looks to be a force from the bullpen yet again. The Dallas product recorded a team high nine saves and only allowed eight earned runs across the season. He is called upon frequently when Dick Cooke is looking to shut down an opponent’s offense late in a game His achievements in the postseason closing out foes earned him A-10 All Championship Team honors.
On the offensive side, Cooke is expecting a few veterans to carry the team with their bats. “We hope for leadership at the plate from Jake Sidwell and Brian Fortier but many will need to contribute.” Sidwell, the starting catcher, was the first ever player to come to Davidson after being drafted. The Los Angeles Dodgers selection had an outstanding year at the plate in 2016, batting .309 with 54 hits. He reached base in 10 straight games last year, recorded a four hit game against Winthrop, and went a clutch 3 for 4 in the A-10 semifinal. The team’s top hitter, first baseman Brian Fortier, will be key to generating the offense this season. His remarkable .327 batting average led the team last year, reaching base in the final 20 games. In April, Fortier went off in a game at Richmond, going 4 for 4 with an RBI. A grand slam in the A-10 quarterfinals was big in being named to the A-10 All Championship Team.
The Wildcats definitely have the weapons to compete for the Atlantic 10 baseball title in May, but the competition will be even tougher this season. “The A10 is very strong with three teams (URI, VCU and St. Joe’s) receiving pre-season top 25 votes and there are some high profile players who may be high draft picks. That being said, our sole focus is on the first pitch of the first game against Georgetown.” The non conference schedule plays a huge part in the success and momentum of the team going into conference play. Now, just a week away from the first pitch on February 17, Cooke has laid down some expectations for this team starting in game one. “ I expect us to maintain a consistent focus every game and to stay locked in on a pitch by pitch approach. We need to make sure we’re consistent in our process day to day.” In 2017, the ‘Cats have all the key pieces on the mound and at the plate, and there’s no reason that they won’t make another run at the A-10 crown.