BELLEVUE, Neb. -- The Bellevue University baseball team, winners of back-to-back NSAA Regular-Season titles, will shoot for their third-straight 50-win season and eighth-straight NAIA National Tournament Appearance in 2018.
Last year's squad posted an overall record of 51-11 with a 23-1 mark in NSAA play en route to their 16th regular-season conference title. With a strong group of returners and a highly regarded recruiting class in place the Bruins were a near-unanimous pick to top the NSAA and are ranked ninth nationally to open the season.
The Coaching Staff:
The Bruins have qualified for the NAIA National Tournament in each of Head Coach Duane Monlux's first seven years at the helm including the 2016 season in which they reached the Avista-NAIA World Series for the 12th time in program history.
Monlux's top four assistant coaches all return including associate head coach Mitch Schmidt and pitching coach Shawn Malley as well as both Richie Moore and Jake Aylward.
Like many teams across the NAIA, Bellevue will have a lot of new faces on the roster prompting Coach Monlux to say, "Just like any season with a lot of new players, we will have to figure out our team chemistry early. We will have to figure out both our rotation and lineup."
The Bruins will see three starting infielders return from last year's squad including two-time all-NSAA pick and Gold Glove winner Matt Evans (.364/.439/.422, 14 XBH, 41 RBI) at third, all-NSAA shortstop Diego Iribarren (.360/.426/.519, 19 XBH, 45 RBI), and first baseman Riley Baasch (.367/.436/.601, 21 XBH, 37 RBI) who was BU's breakout performer last season as a redshirt-freshman.
Brandon Salmon (.295/.376/.386, 15 RBI, 26 SB), who appeared in all but three games and made 25 starts, will be the most experienced outfielder returning to BU.
Bellevue welcomes several impact position players to the squad for 2018, including OF/2B Kory Longaker (Edmonds, Wash.), OF Austin Alexander (Adger, Ala.), and IF/C JT Patterson (Calgary, Alta.). Longaker slashed .347/.409/.512 with 22 XBH and 22 RBI last season at Shoreline CC, Alexander produced a .377/.450/.719 line with 20 XBH and 29 for perennial NAIA powerhouse Georgia Gwinnet, and Patterson recorded a .361/.454/.688 slash line with 22 XBH and 44 RBI at Northeastern JC.
Hunter Kelly (.416/.521/.675, 12 XBH, 17 RBI) will compete with a pair of newcomers – Patterson and Travis Tanaka (Aiea, Hawaii) – for playing time at the catcher position. Tanaka slashed .349/.426/.454 with 12 XBH and 22 RBI at College of the Desert last season.
The team's offensive prospects look, and should be a strength of the club, strong according to Coach Monlux, "I think we have a chance to be solid offensively. We have a couple quality hitters returning from last year and have added some real solid hitters as well."
The pitching staff, which has finished with an ERA ranked in the top five in the NAIA in three of the last five seasons (2013, 2015, 2017) and top 25 in each of the last five years (24th – 2016, 16th, 2014), welcomes back three starters off last year's staff in LHP Colten Barnes (9-2, 3.18 ERA), RHP Reid Feeley (9-0, 3.45 ERA), and LHP Zach Wilson (8-1, 2.02 ERA). Also back are a pair key bullpen pieces in RHP Max Dwyer (9 Saves, 3.50 ERA) and LHP Dylan Thorpe (2-1, 4.73 ERA) who will have a chance to start some games for BU in 2018.
New to the staff for this season are RHP Junior Ramirez (Queens, N.Y.), RHP Brandon Desjardins (Calgary, Alta.), and RHP Stephen Knapp (Huntington Beach, Calif.). Ramirez appeared in 12 games (5 starts) for NAIA National Runner-Up Faulkner with a 4.56 ERA last season, Desjardins made 10 starts at Spokane Falls CC going 2-4 with a 3.14 ERA, and Knapp started 12 games and totaled 15 appearances for Golden West College posting a 6-5 record, 4.40 ERA, and a pair of saves.
As for the staff as a whole, Coach Monlux had this to say, "I think we have a little more depth in our bullpen than we have had in the past. We graduated a couple of very good front end arms from last year. We will have to see how we stack up on the front end of our rotation this season."
Bellevue opens the 2018 season on Thursday, Feb. 8 against Oklahoma City at Jim Wade Stadium. First pitch is slated for 3 p.m.
"We have an extremely difficult schedule this year, especially early in the season," says Monlux, "We will have to be ready to play right away when we open the season up. Starting at Oklahoma City is always a challenge."
The early season will certainly test BU as 11 of their first 14 games come against teams that were either ranked or receiving votes in the NAIA Preseason Top 25 Coaches' Poll. The other three games in that time will come against an improved Culver-Stockton team and a pesky Briar Cliff side.
In addition to their conference schedule – which features four games each against NAIA National Tournament qualifiers Jamestown and Mayville State – the Bruins will also play games against local rivals York (Mar. 16-18), Midland (Mar. 13, Apr. 24), Doane (Mar. 20), NAIA Tournament qualifier Clarke (Mar. 27), Peru State (Apr. 2), Morningside (Apr. 10), and Park (Apr. 17).