ST. GEORGE – Anticipation and expectations have never been higher for the start of Dixie State baseball. The Trailblazers, who open their 2017 season this weekend, are ranked nationally as high as ninth in one poll. The team is stacked in all areas with not only experience, but winning experience.
“We have 14 seniors on our roster this year and 23 players that have NCAA tournament experience,” said Dixie State head coach Chris Pfatenhauer. “We have been anxious for the season to start and seeing that opposing dugout with different uniforms in it.”
The Trailblazers finished with an overall record last year of 40-14 and second in the PacWest with a 26-10 record behind Cal Baptist. In the preseason conference poll, one point separated Dixie State from the Lancers for the top spot.
“In my four years as head coach, we have split the conference championship,” said Pfatenhauer. “We have two and Cal Baptist has two. It is definitely the biggest rivalry in the PacWest.”
In 2016, the teams split four games at Bruce Hurst Field. CBU won the conference and grabbed the No. 1 seed in the West Region. Dixie State met the Lancers and was eliminated 8-6 in the NCAA playoffs to finish their season.
Dixie State begins the year with a national ranking of No. 9. The PacWest is particularly strong this year with two other teams in the national rankings. Predicted to finish third and fourth in the conference are nationally-ranked No. 11 Point Loma Nazarene and No. 23 Azusa Pacific.
Dixie State’s pre-conference schedule pits them on the road this Friday, Saturday and Sunday against perennial CCAA contender Cal State-San Bernardino. The Blazers then return home for 18 straight games. First, they will play against future RMAC foe Colorado Mesa. CMU is nationally-ranked just above the Trailblazers at No. 8.
Dixie State will then host several teams playing in a round robin format, followed by a series against Montana State-Billings before entering conference play.
Gone are All-PacWest performers shortstop Tanner Morache and first baseman Sam Hall, who led the team in slugging percentage (.610), on-base percentage (.462) and RBIs (52). “We lost two pretty good guys,” said Pfatenhauer. “But the guys returning and the guys filling have also performed well for our team.”
Drew McLaughlin will anchor the infield. McLaughlin is the PacWest preseason player of the year and has been named All-PacWest in each of his three seasons at Dixie State. He led the PacWest in batting average (.404) in 2016, ranking in the top-50 nationally. He set a single-season record last year for hits (91) and is Dixie State’s all-time hit leader with 217. Last year, he ranked second in the conference in runs (55) and ninth in on-base percentage (.439). He also safely hit in 47 of 54 games, including 27 multi-hit games.
Replacing Hall at first base is Ryan Rodriguez, who is also a preseason All-PacWest selection. Rodriguez was the designated hitter last year. He hit .335 with a slugging percentage of .459. Cam Gust will also see time at first base. Gust was second on the team in home runs (5) and led the team last year with error-free fielding (1.000).
Bryce Feist and Tyler Mildenberg both return and will again split playing time at third. “Right now, Feist is the most-improved over last season and will probably start on opening day,” said Pfatenhauer. “But we platoon at several positions. Some of that depends on how our guys are playing, but a lot also depends on if we are facing right-handed or left-handed pitching.”
Replacing Morache will be senior transfer Tyler Baker, who played at Edmonds Community College before spending a year at Point Loma. Baker was the top hitting infielder in the Northwest Athletic Conference as a sophomore where he hit .375 and had an on-base percentage of .416.
Behind the plate will be returning PacWest performer Reece Lucero and Jake Davison. Lucero was third on the team last year in hitting (.375). He also had an on-base percentage of .440 and had a fielding percentage of .990. Davison was not far behind with a fielding percentage of .982.
Other players that will see playing time in the infield are catcher/infielder Logan Porter, Wyatt Branch, Kade Cloward, Jake Engel and Dixie high alumnus Braxton Ipson.
“Branch and Ipson won’t see much time on the field but will help us out offensively,” said Pfatenhauer. “Ipson will see time as the DH and will also pinch hit for us. Branch will pinch hit and run for us. Engel is recovering from injury. He will see some action behind (Tyler) Baker.”
Four players will start at varying times, depending on game situations. All four return from last year. Miles Bice, Jerome Hill II, Trey Kamachi and Trey Reineke all saw considerable playing time.
Kamachi is a former All-PacWest selection. He hit .340 last year and tied for second on the team with five home runs. He was third on the team in on-base percentage (.452) and fifth in slugging percentage (.451).
Hill roamed center field and led the outfield in fielding percentage (.991) and hit .309 last year. Bice was known for much of the year as the hardest player to strike out in NCAA baseball. In 165 at-bats he only struck out six times. He ended up fourth in the NCAA last year in that category. He was second in fielding for the outfield (.989). Reineke played the least last year, but is expected to see more playing time this season. He batted .286 with a slugging percentage of .429.
The Trailblazers return two All-PacWest performers in their starting rotation. Desert Hills alumnus Dylan File is the preseason PacWest pitcher of the year. Mason Hilty was PacWest newcomer of the year last year. Joining them in the starting rotation will be Aaron Pope and Tanner Howell.
File, a former PacWest freshman of the year, finished 6-1 last year with a 2.99 ERA. He led the team in innings pitched (90.1) and strikeouts (74). He won his first four starts of the season and did not allow a run in his first 15.1 innings pitched. He threw a seven-inning shutout at Holy Names, striking out nine and throwing only 77 pitches.
Hilty, a transfer from College of Southern Idaho, went 10-1 with a 3.44 ERA. He struck out 72 and set the DSU single season wins record. Pope went 3-2 last year with an ERA of 3.98. Howell is returning after sitting out most of the last two years with injury. “Howell will surprise people this year,” said Pfatenhauer. “He has more than regained his form from two years ago. He has gotten better.”
Among those pitching in relief will be Matt Mosca, Brad Danzelsen, Tyler Burdett, Trevor Sanders, Walker Williams and Jose Rosales-Rodarte.
“Rosales-Rodarte is even better than last year,” said Pfatenhauer. “The entire bullpen is filled with veteran leadership.” Rosales-Rodarte allowed only .125 hitting percentage against opposing batters. Burdett and Williams both had sub-2.00 ERAs last year.
“Since the changes made in bat size and ball regulations, we have stressed our emphasis in recruiting on pitching and defense,” said Pfatenhauer. “We have been fortunate with our offensive output. The players are already skilled or have developed those skills here.”
Pfatenhauer in his fifth season as Dixie State’s head coach. In his four years, he has been named Pac West coach of the year, won two conference titles and gone to the NCAA tournament every year. Overall at DSU he is 140-67. In the PacWest he is 99-37.
After their opening series, the Trailblazers will have 18 straight games at home. In years’ past, the team would have several series on the road before seeing their home field. Dixie State’s recent rise in prominence accompanied by the cooperative St. George clime has attracted more and more teams looking to add the Trailblazers to their pre-conference lineup.
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