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Pitching to guide Wesleyan baseball

DWU pitcher Lucas Schultz hurls a pitch during a baseball game last season at Cadwell Park. (Aaron Saunders/Republic)

Last year, the Dakota Wesleyan University baseball team relied on its veteran hitters to carry it throughout the season.

But this season, the roles have reversed and the Tiger pitching staff will be counted on to help propel Wesleyan into the top three of the Great Plains Athletic Conference.

Wesleyan returns a bevy of pitchers, including seniors Kevin Hatcher, Chris Housley and Kyle Larson and junior Zac Custer, who will be counted on to lead the staff. Last season, Hatcher finished with a 3.86 earned run average and two wins, while Larson had a team-leading four wins and a 4.67 ERA. Housley went 3-3 on the mound with a 3.95 ERA and Custer was 2-2 with a 4.50 ERA.

"I think this is the deepest pitching staff that we have had since I have been here," fifth-year DWU baseball coach Steve Gust said. "We lost two guys, but we bring back most our pitching depth. I think that our pitching depth is what is going to help us contend for a GPAC title."

The Tigers hit .314 in 50 games last season, en route to finishing 24-26 overall and 11-11 in conference play.

Gone from last year's lineup is GPAC player of the year Michael Lukkason, along with Erik Nockleby, Toby Kaplan, Tim Cusick, Kirk McBreen and Nick Tadlock.

Lukkason hit .401 with a team-leading 13 doubles and 43 RBIs. The shortstop also garnered honorable mention All-American honors. Lukkason's lineup mates, Nockleby, Kaplan and Cusick, also hit over .300, with Cusick adding a team-high nine home runs.

Despite heavy losses to the lineup, Gust says he expects his squad to fair just fine.

"We lost some really talented players no question about it," Gust said. "Those guys were fantastic players. You can't replace guys like that, but we are going to have a different style of offense this season. We are going to do a little more hit-and-run and bunting."

Returning to the Wesleyan lineup this season are sophomores Cole Wenande, Tyler Waddle and Neil Nagle, junior Tyler Johnson and senior Cody Silveria. After playing third base much of last season and hitting .336, Wenande, an Alexandria native, will play second base. Joining him up the middle will be freshman shortstop Ben Spitznagel or senior Sam Schumacher. Nagle and Silveria will each play first base, while Waddle and Johnson will platoon at third base. Manning the pitchers and handling duties behind the plate will be junior college transfer Ben Ladner.

Returning in the outfield for Wesleyan is sophomore centerfielder Jonah Johnson. Johnson will be joined by sophomore Pierre native Jared Neilan in right field and junior college transfer Dylan Oberembt in left field.

"We are really excited about the year," Gust said. "We have a lot of new faces but we have a good mix of older guys and new guys, and we think it is a talented group from top to bottom."

The Tigers kick off their season with a doubleheader against Southwest Minnesota State University Saturday in Pittsburg, Kan.