05/23/2016 11:06 PM -
The start of a new summer ball season usually comes with more questions than answers, but a strong six-player returning corps provides a foundation for success for the Northwest Indiana Oilmen this season.
The Oilmen boast the largest number of returning players in team history, including the club’s top two hitters from a season ago. Tyler Sroczynski (Trinity Christian / Dyer, Ind.) is back after posting a team-record .397 batting average en route to the league’s Most Valuable Player award. He ranked second in the league in hitting and led the team in average, home runs (3), RBIs (31), OBP (.493) and stolen bases (17).
While Sroczynski figures to be penciled into the leadoff spot in the lineup, the Oilmen will also have continuity in the middle of the order as Stefano Belmonte (Florida Gulf Coast / Munster, Ind.) comes back for his second season with the team and third in the league. Belmonte won a league title with Southland in 2014, then followed by batting .341 with 30 RBIs and a .434 on-base percentage a year ago with the Oilmen. He ranked second in the MCL in RBIs in 2015 after leading the league in that category in 2014.
“It’s a weight lifted off of you,” Oilmen manager Adam Enright said. “Every year we find somebody who steps up who ends up being a force in our lineup. Guys show up and you find a couple of guys who can do it. With (Belmonte and Sroczynski), there’s two out of the nine pieces you usually have to find.”
Sam Geraci (Parkland / Illinois Springfield / Steger, Ill.) has be converted from shortstop to pitcher and will see action on the mound for the Oilmen this summer. He figures to be a part of the starting rotation. The group of projected starting pitchers also includes Braden Niksich (Northern Illinois / Hobart, Ind.), returnee Christian Howell (Minnesota State Mankato / Aurora, Ill.), Max Siedlecki (New Mexico Highlands / Chicago), Luke Jaksich (St. Joseph’s College/ St. John, Ind.) and Reggie Johnson (Alcorn State / South Holland, Ill.).
After gaining late-inning experience as a freshman at Alma College, Eric Fronzak (Naperville, Ill.) could receive an opportunity to earn the closer’s role with the Oilmen. James Whiteman (St. Joseph’s College / Lakeville, Ind.) and Jay Gutierrez (Olney Central / Oak Lawn, Ill.) could also be looked to in the late innings.
Projected middle relievers are Hunter Clark (Eastern Illinois / Granger, Ind.), Josh Mutter (Northern Illinois / Frankfort, Ill.), Richard Yelnick (Parkland / Trinity Christian / New Lenox, Ill.), Clay Keltner (Cornerstone / Highland, Ind.), Jordan Petty (Purdue Norwest / Highland, Ind.) and Jamary McKinney (Chicago State / Chicago).
The Oilmen did not have any incoming freshmen last season, but this year four players will suit up for the Oilmen immediately after their senior year of high school. Three local pitchers – Petty, Jaksich and Niksich – will be joined by Lincoln Way West infielder Tommy Szczasny, a Northern Illinois signee.
“I’m excited about the graduating high school guys we have coming in,” Enright said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who either just graduated high school, or who played in college and haven’t played a whole lot yet. Those guys are going to be finding their way as far as college baseball is concerned.”
The Oilmen also have five players who have already completed their junior seasons, up from two last year. Belmonte, Sroczynski, Siedlecki, Brad Bohlen (Northern Kentucky / Chicago Heights, Ill.) and Chase Fieldhouse (St. Joseph’s College / St. John, Ind.) are all upperclassmen.
For the first time in team history, the entire Oilmen roster hails from either Indiana or Illinois. The Oilmen have 15 Division-I players, up from eight last season. They have 23 players that are either Division-I or Division-II, up from nine last season.
As Oilmen baseball enters its fifth season, one common theme over the years has been the team’s dedication to showcasing Northwest Indiana players. Belmonte, Sroczynski, Fieldhouse, Keltner, Petty, Niksich, Jaksich, Chase Dawson (Valparaiso / Chesterton, Ind.) and Alex Nisle (Saint Joseph’s / Schererville, Ind.) are all from the Region.
The Oilmen will also feature a talent catching trio: Blake Cleveland (Central Michigan / Nappanee, Ind.), Zack Forney (Eastern Illinois / Cary, Ill.) and Jake Perreira (University of Indianapolis / Grant Park, Ill.).
Other infielders include Josh Fewell (Heartland / Kokomo, Ind.), Jimmy Govern (Eastern Illinois / Libertyville, Ill.) and Bo Fletcher (Alcorn State / Chicago). Other outfielders include Jordan Flint (Eastern Illinois / Bartlett, Ill.), Chris Baker (UIC / South Holland, Ill.) and Cory Krolikowski (Minnesota Duluth / Bartlett, Ill.).
Enright is back for his second season as manager and fifth overall on the Oilmen coaching staff. With the exception of a hiatus for a portion of the 2013 season, Enright has been with the team since the first game in club history.
“The more you get to do it, the easier it gets,” Enright said. “Last year, the week before the season I was really scrambling to organize things. This year, the process is easier because I know what to expect. I know how to gather my efforts to get everything in place for the first couple of days. That’s the hard part, getting it going. Once it gets going, it’s pretty stress free from the administrative side.”
Aaron Furman returns for his second season as an assistant coach, while Steven Brewer joins the staff for his first year. Brewer, a former Trinity Christian College player, is an assistant coach at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles.
The Oilmen begin their quest to reach the postseason for the fifth straight year and win their first MCL championship since 2012 on Thursday at Bloomington at 7:30 p.m. The home opener will be Tuesday, June 7 against Michigan City at 7:20 p.m. at Oil City Stadium.