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The first thing administration tells you on your way to visit Lakeland University is not to worry – you are not lost. Once you hit the cornfields and the farmhouses, you are heading in the right direction. The school has a population of about 800 students, 500 of which live on campus in the middle of a Plymouth, WI cornfield near Sheboygan (hometown to LA Clipper Sam Dekker). Stepping on campus for the first time you would have never guessed that the school had any sports to offer if it wasn’t for the spacious, all-turf football field. In reality, there is a large athletic program that includes 18 sports, one of which is making a name for itself in the DIII baseball world. There is something special brewing in the middle of these cornfields and farmhouses.
This something special is the Lakeland University Baseball team.
When you walk into the Wehr Athletic Center on the north side of campus, the first sight you will see is the trophy case. Since Lakeland University was founded in 1862, there is an extensive number of trophies and awards filling the case with years of memories. However, there is still one that stands out from all the rest – the 2002 NCAA Division III Baseball Regional Championship trophy. Lakeland had a tough stretch the last several years, with the last winning season being in 2010 and not making the postseason since 2011. You may ask, why is the 2018 team so special? Why is there so much buzz on campus about them? This is the third “official” year of a rebuilding process, meaning for the first time a Bachar-Repay recruiting class is officially upperclassmen.
With any rebuilding process, it is a bumpy road at first. Placing freshman into key situations and starting roles over the past couple of years (2016 had seven upperclassmen on their 45-man roster) cost the Muskies some games with players making simple mistakes in the field and not coming up when they had to at the plate. The Muskies may have had a rough patch, but this is all behind them now. Those underclassmen that were thrust into tough situations and forced to grow up at 18-to-20-year-olds now have gained valuable experience that will be used to their benefit against their competition this year.
Talking with coaches Michael Bachar and Sean Repay, their expectations are as high as they have been in years “That winning mentality is finally getting there.” Bachar said when asked what his expectations are for this year. “It started with the class of 2016, then 2017 carried it through. What was expected of freshman, how everyone is expected to lift and put in some kind of work every day outside of practice. Now the underclassmen that have heard it from the small groups of upperclassman are finally upperclassmen themselves and they are pushing the freshman a little more.”
He spoke of how the team as a whole is finally attending weightlifting, growing together and doing the little things like staying after practice to take extra reps. When asked what his biggest change in coaching was for this year was, Bachar replied, “We’re finally seeing that winning mentality out of our players now. It is not just good enough for us to hit .300. If we have a player do that we push them a little more ask them to work on their fielding or putting a little more power into their swing. It’s not good enough to be good we want them to be great. There’s someone out there working harder putting more into the game and we have to push them more.” The 2018 Muskies are going to have to expect, and prepare, to become competitive this year if they want to make it to the postseason.
Junior P/1B Travis Regalado
The Muskies have eight of their nine starters returning from a year ago, while only losing three seniors. Among the list of returners is the big bat of junior first baseman and pitcher, Travis Regalado (.415 average, 6 HR, and 31 RBI). He was a Second Team All-NACC selection at first base and led the team in average, at-bats, home runs, doubles, and RBIs. Regalado took huge steps in his maturity as a hitter from his freshman year as he was able to hit to all fields instead of just a straight pull hitter. After another good fall season, the Muskies’ coaching staff expects more growth from Regalado as a hitter.
Junior P/DH Connor Hilburn
Another returner the Muskies will rely heavily on is junior Captain Connor Hilburn. Hilburn was the “ace” of the pitching staff the previous year. He led the team 46 2/3 innings and posted a 3-5 record with a 6.94 ERA. Hilburn is looking to have a bounce-back season from a disappointing 2017 where he spent the offseason pitching in the Northwoods League for the Bismarck Larks. Being a leader and captain of the team, he too has high expectations this year. “I want to be competitive. I want us to come out and be in games. At the end of the year, it’s all about making it to the tournament and that’s what we are all shooting for.” After talking to his pitching coach, Sean Repay, Hilburn has increased his fastball velocity from 85 mph to a steady 88-89 mph. Hilburn will be part of the key to success when it comes to the Muskies’ starting rotation this year.
Sophomore SP Dylan Royce
Every fall, college baseball teams always seem to have one returner come back and surprise his coaches and teammates. The Muskies are no exception. The entire coaching staff and several of the players from the Muskies interviewed agreed that Dylan Royce, sophomore starting pitcher, came back and opened the eyes of his peers and coaches. Royce, who just a year ago pitched 28 1/3 innings and posted a 9.53 ERA came back this fall for seven starts. Although shortened due to pitch count regulations, he did not give up a single run. When asked what had changed for Royce in just a couple of months, Coach Repay explained, “He has just become an overall better pitcher. He understands counts, he understands his pitches, and when he can throw them he is spotting up better, and his pitches have a ton of more movement along with just being a lot stronger. You can really tell Dylan put in the work this offseason.”
Even with the large number of starters and returners this season, the Muskies have a large recruiting class for 2018 who are expected to help out as well. Even though he is not considered a freshman, being ineligible to play a year ago, Jacob Plucinski will be considered a newcomer. Plucinski has a rare combination of power and speed at the shortstop position that has been missing for several years. Area scouts and the coaches for the Muskies have said there is a lot of buzz surrounding Polanski because of his smooth fielding ability, strong throwing arm, extreme speed for the shortstop position, and his ability to hit consistently at the plate. Bachar gave his opinion on this player as well. “If he puts in the work necessary over the next three years, he will be playing at the next level.”
Another name that was very popular amongst the coaches when talking about the freshman that stood out during the fall season was Ben Schecter. Schecter is a freshman from Los Angeles and will be playing second base for the Muskies. He is another reason why coach Bachar is so confident in his team up the middle of the infield. Schecter is another smooth fielder with very quick hands with the ability to steal bases. Several players have speculated that he is one of the fastest players that has played for the Muskies in several years.
“I am not going to sit here and tell you that we expect to win the National title or even the NACC title this year, but we do fully expect to make it to the tournament and to be in the postseason after a long absence,” Coach Repay said after answering what he expected from his team this year. He said the Muskies have a lot to look forward to this year. Returners that have put in the work in the offseason and saw results this fall. Rises from players that may have not fit into the future plans of the program’s success and a recruiting class that is full of potential big-time players. If the Muskies want to reach their goals of making it to the postseason and play in their conference tournament they are going to need their upperclassman to either repeat in production or step up their game in a major way along with having some freshman play roles off the bench in clutch situations. Overall, the Muskies have plenty to be excited about in 2018.