Just a week into February, baseball season has already arrived at Northwest Missouri State.
As a result of conference expansion that pushed up the start of league play, the Bearcats make their earliest season debut in head coach Darin Loe's 14-year tenure today at 1 p.m. with the opener of a three-game set at Arkansas-Monticello.
The Bearcats Feb. 8 start date is nine days sooner than last year's and 17 days earlier than the one in 2011.
Emporia State and Central Missouri kicked off the MIAA baseball season a week before at D-II Invitational in Houston, Texas.
"What's happened with our scheduling is our conference has gotten so big we have to start conference games in a week," said Loe. "I felt it was real important we face a non-conference opponent before we play the first weekend of conference games. That's why we're going to go early. That's why we're going to go so far south to make sure we get three games in and hopefully get some wins under our belt."
Northwest is coming off its fourth consecutive sub.-500 season and second in a row that ended short of the MIAA Tournament.
The Bearcats posted an 18-32 record in 2012 that marked a two-game decline from the year before.
Despite returning most of their main bats from an offense that improved dramatically last year, the Bearcats were only picked to finish 10th out of 15 teams in the expanded MIAA.
A top eight finish is required to make the new MIAA first round best-of-three series that determines the four qualifiers for a double elimination tournament in Kansas City.
"I think you have to earn that respect," said Loe. "The last couple of years, I don't think we've earned that respect. We certainly do not believe we're a 10th place team. We're quite a bit higher than that, but you have to go out and prove it to people on a daily basis. Our guys are using that as fuel for the fire to go out and prove people wrong. We feel like we got the team on the field to do it. Now, you got to go out and do it 50 times."
The Bearcats should be one of the league's better offensive teams with six regulars back that hit .300 or better.
Among those are first-team All-MIAA junior outfielder Ryan Abernathy and four honorable mention All-MIAA honorees—junior Eric McGlauflin (3B/DH), senior Eric Swain (SS), senior Cam Bedard (3B) and sophomore Steven Garber (1B).
McGlauflin hit a team-leading .387 last year, way up from his .229 average as a freshman. He will start the year as a DH due to a shoulder injury from last season that's still not fully recovered.
Page 2 of 3 - Abernathy batted .378 in his debut season with Northwest and led the league in hits with 71. He'll play either left field or center. Also part of last year's junior college haul, Swain finished as Northwest's leader in home runs (10) and RBIs (41).
The Bearcat lineup will contain those five plus Jon Pomatto in right, Luke Lawyer at catcher, junior college transfer Brandon Huske at second and Tyler Durant/ Charlie Krueger splitting time in the outfield.
Northwest only graduated one of last year's position players—catcher Landinn Eckhardt— and center fielder Jake Kretzer decided not to return to the team.
Pitching-wise, the Bearcats added several new arms from the junior college ranks to bolster a unit that posted a 5.92 ERA last year.
Three of those—right-hander Austin Warren, left-hander Blane Reutter and left-hander Ryker Fox—are scheduled to either start or come out of the bullpen this weekend. Northwest returns senior left-hander Chase Anderson and senior righty Jace Anderson from last year's staff along with relievers Carson Smith, Pat Brady and long-man Marcus Garrett.
"We added a lot of experience on the mound we felt we really needed to get," said Loe. "We got some guys coming back bigger and stronger. We feel good about our staff."
Northwest will need to have five starters in place once it begins its conference schedule the following weekend at Northeastern State.
Under the new scheduling setup, every team plays five league games a week, two on the weekdays and a three-game set on the weekends.
Northwest Missouri State's softball team begins its season this weekend as well, traveling to St. Mary's (Kan.) for a doubleheader Saturday at noon.
Picked to finish eighth in the MIAA preseason poll, the Bearcats bring nearly everyone back from a team that finished 20-31 last year and 7-13 in the MIAA. Their roster contains 10 seniors and only one freshman.
Four of the team's seniors—pitcher Jenna Creger, designated hitter Kayli Schurman, second baseman Hailee Hendricks and third baseman Kristen Uthe were honorable mention All-MIAA selections last year.
In an injury-shortened junior season, Creger became Northwest's all-time strikeout leader and posted a 7-10 record with a 3.49 ERA.
Schurman, a junior college transfer, broke the program's single-season home run record with 15.
Hendricks hit a team-leading .333 with nine doubles. Uthe led the Bearcats in RBIs (40) and hit a career-best nine home runs.
Junior Jordan Ereth, senior Jordan Gadbois and senior Kristine Labertew comprise Northwest's returning outfielders.
The Bearcats also added freshman Madison Jones, senior Candace Miller from Oklahoma Panhandle and junior college transfer Sara Krysl.
Sophomore Anastazia Roseberry (1B), Hendricks, senior Rachael Schmitz (SS) and Uthe form the infield, with senior Kylie Cantrell behind the plate.
Page 3 of 3 - The pitching staff consists of Creger, senior Morgan Brunmeier, sophomore Abbie Vitosh and sophomore Paige Blythe.
Only Creger had an ERA below 4.00 last year.