Baseball ready to escape cold weather for Southern temperatures

The Indiana University of Pennsylvania Crimson Hawks men’s baseball team opens up their season this weekend at the Riverside Spring Classic, hosted by Millersville University in Williamston, N.C.

The Crimson Hawks will take the field Saturday at 10 a.m. for the first of four games that will continue through Monday. They will challenge the host Millersville University Marauders, who finished the 2013 regular season atop the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Eastern Division. The Hawks will also play Tiffin University and LeMoyne University

IUP has never played either university in their team’s history that dates back to 1933.

The start of the 2014 campaign has been greatly anticipated by the Crimson Hawks, who have yet to practice outdoors since early in the fall due to winter weather. During the getaway temperatures are expected to be in the mid-60s.

Saturday was supposed to be the opening day for IUP against Penn State Greater Allegheny on a full turf field, but winter weather forced that game to be postponed until March 5.

In similar fashion, the Riverside Spring Classic was set to begin Friday and be completed by Sunday, but due to rain, they’ve pushed the entire schedule back 24 hours.

Jeff Ditch, entering his ninth season as the team’s head coach, expressed his lack of concern about the wait his team has dealt with.

“I wouldn’t say we’re in midseason form yet, but with all the indoor hitting and pitching we’ve done, there’s no reason our guys shouldn’t be ready for game one,” Ditch said.

Jared Weed (senior, marketing), co-captain of the team, is one of two seniors on the roster who has spent all four years playing at IUP.

“My final decision was between going to IUP and Millersville, so it’s going to be fun for me because I know a lot of those guys,” Weed said.

Weed has appeared on the mound in at least six games every year since he was a freshman in 2011, most of which were in relief.

Ditch described Weed as an “easy decision” to fill the void that was left by last year’s No. 1 pitcher Stephen Cooke.

Aaron Lupia (senior, health and physical education), the other team captain, has appeared in 147 of 149 games since joining the squad as a freshman in 2011 and is the team’s only senior position player.

“Our pitching depth is something we’re going to need to work on,” Lupia said. “We got most of our core guys back from last year, so we have a lot of experience and guys that have played some full seasons at the college level, so that’s always good.”

Lupia will take Robbie Zinsmeister’s role as the teams lead-off hitter. Lupia etched out a .261 average last season as compared to the .342 Zinsmeister posted in 2013.

Lupia noted his ability to “work the counts” as the main reason why he shouldn’t have trouble taking over as the team’s lead-off guy.

He has managed to walk 84 times in his three years here, which leads the team by a large margin.

The team will also have infielders Dylan Tice (junior, exercise science) and Ryan Uhl (junior, finance) returning this year. The two of them are the only returning players that hit over .300 in 2013.

Though the players are confident they can fill the gaps left behind by the graduating players, the coaches seem to think otherwise. IUP has been picked to finish sixth in the 2014 PSAC West preseason baseball coaches’ poll released Feb. 4.

Ditch, who became IUP baseballs all-time winningest coach in 2013, has earned 193 victories to date. He described his method of picking the preseason rankings as being an “educated guess.”

“It’s very difficult to choose,” Ditch said. “If you look from year to year, I don’t think the coaches get it right that often. Of course, when we’re picked to finish sixth, we hope that the coaches didn’t get it right again this year.”

Last year, there were 14 teams in the conference, seven in each division. This year Lock Haven University has moved from the West to the East, and University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and Seton Hill University will make the transition from the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to the PSAC West.

Each PSAC division will now have eight teams.

O’Neill, their junior catcher and No. 2 hitter, has just transferred in from Seton Hill.

He said he’s been able to provide the Crimson Hawks with all of the aid they’ll need to slow the Griffins.

“I played with Seton Hill for a few years so I know a few things about them,” O’Neill said. “Now we kind of know what to prepare for whenever we play them, but never the less, it’s still going to be a tough couple of games.”

Lupia also had a few concerns regarding this year’s preseason rankings. He called it “bulletin-board material” and said the team plans on using it as “motivation” throughout the year.

“No one was talking about us in the beginning of the season,” Lupia said. “We struggled at first but then turned it on at the end.

“This year we have a great core group of guys that can get us to the championship again.”