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MSU baseball growing with leadership, sights set on Big Ten championship

February 5, 2017
The Spartans come together to finish their practice on Feb. 3, 2017 at McLane Baseball Stadium at John H. Kobs Field. The Spartans are preparing for opening day on Feb.17, 2017.
The Spartans come together to finish their practice on Feb. 3, 2017 at McLane Baseball Stadium at John H. Kobs Field. The Spartans are preparing for opening day on Feb.17, 2017. —
Photo by Jon Famurewa | and Jon Famurewa The State News

It’s a scenario likely to have been envisioned by head coach Jake Boss Jr. thousands of times, and one he was so close to last season.

After recording the final out, he would be the first to hoist the Big Ten championship trophy as the team mobs the field. After accepting the team’s award he would hand it off to the Spartan team he led through the 53-game regular season, starting with the seniors then downward chronologically.

The vision is one Boss has lived through before, having led the Spartans to a championship in 2011, and since then has secured consistency in the program and a culture starving to go back.

“We’re tired of being close,” Boss said Friday after the team’s first open practice of the season. “It’s time to take that next step and elevate that program another level.”

After the team concluded practice on Friday, a short speech from Boss was followed by a chant from the Spartans. Mimicking its motto from last year, a collective shout echoed through the team’s hitting facility.

“Big Ten champs.”

It was a mantra last season’s team fell just short of. After finishing 36-20 overall, the best start in school history, and 13-11 in Big Ten play, MSU was on the cusp of a berth in the Big Ten Tournament championship — but a baserunning mistake in game one against Ohio State University proved costly as the Buckeyes ultimately overtook MSU for the spot in the winner-take-all championship game.

“That was the worst part — knowing you were not going to see some of those guys on the team again,” senior catcher Matt Byars said. “Knowing this was the last time that team was going to play together, but I don’t want to say it was regret or anything like that because we left everything we had on the field. We’re just adding fuel to the fire for this year.”

Byars will return to the Spartans as the only player to be drafted by a Major League Baseball organization after infielder Jordan Zimmerman, right-handed reliever Dakota Mekkes and left-handed starting pitcher Cam Vieaux all left MSU to pursue professional careers.

Byars, along with junior outfielder Brandon Hughes and redshirt-sophomore Alex Troop were named to Perfect Game’s preseason All-Big Ten team. Hughes hit .303 last season with a team-high 17 stolen bases in 55 games while Troop played in 12 games as a position player and four games as a pitcher before sustaining a season-ending injury to his hand early in the season.

MSU will also have to fill the void left by third baseman Justin Hovis and right fielder Kris Simonton, both of which started at least 45 games for the Spartans last season and graduated with fellow senior infielder PJ Nowak.

Despite the loss of talent, the Spartans will return a similar core of players to the field in 2016, but with the added wisdom of another season under their belts. A team saturated with young potential a year ago now has the experience to connect the dots and chase a championship with the addition of nine freshmen to the roster.

“The leadership is probably the best we’ve ever had,” Boss said. “People have asked me about how we are going to be and things of that nature and I’ll tell you this team is really, really good. That doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what happens on the field. I think this team might be the closest group we’ve ever had. Again the leadership is as good as we’ve ever had, the work ethic is as good as we’ve ever had.”

Five of MSU’s nine freshmen are coming into the season listed exclusively as pitchers, giving depth to a staff already filled with a number of arms, in addition to left-handed freshman Bryce Kelley who is listed as a left-handed pitcher/outfielder combination.

The two incoming position players, Danny Gleaves and Joe Stewart, are listed as outfielders, a position in need of depth. Sophomore Marty Bechina will slide to third base in Hovis’ absence, leaving an open spot for a corner outfield position.

“There’s a lot of them,” Boss said of the incoming class. “I think you look on the mound first, Mason Erla has gotten up to 94 one the mound, with electric stuff. Mike Mokma won a state championship right here on our field less than a year ago and I think he’s going to see significant innings. … Position player wise, Danny Gleaves is a guy I think can be a special player here for us so he’s probably the guy who leads the way for us on the playing surface.”

The Spartans start the season on Feb. 17 when the team travels to Abilene, Texas to take on Abilene Christian University. Boss has not decided who will start for the Spartans but indicated it could be Troop or redshirt-junior Ethan Landon who started 15 games for MSU and posted a 2.75 ERA in 85 innings pitched.

“We’re even better than we were last year,” Landon said. “We got that taste of it, that we were so close, we got so many guys returning that have had the experience and I think now we have that behind us. We know we were that close if we can just get over that hump we can make some serious noise.”

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