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MSU Billings’ GNAC champs open baseball season Thursday

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BILLINGS – The two-time reigning Great Northwest Athletic Conference baseball champion Montana State University Billings baseball team makes its highly anticipated 2021 season debut this weekend, as the Yellowjackets set out to continue the most successful five-year stretch in program history.

Winners of four of the last five GNAC regular-season titles, as well as the 2019 conference tournament, the Yellowjackets were off to a promising 11-6-1 start last spring when the coronavirus pandemic brought the 2020 campaign to a halt midway through. “We are ready to get after it in Colorado this week, especially after the disappointment of getting shut down early last year,” said senior first baseman Daniel Cipriano. “It was crushing, especially with how many older guys we had on the team last year. We were still able to get some good work in during the fall, and I think we are really well prepared.”

MSUB received votes in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association national top-25 preseason poll [sportswriters.net], and the team enters the year ranked No. 4 among the NCBWA west region rankings. “We are so optimistic and excited, just for our guys to be able to get out and compete,” said second-year MSUB head coach Derek Waddoups. “It will be fun to get on the field and have competition against someone wearing a different jersey. We are really talented, and I think we will be competitive. It will be exciting to see our guys compete this weekend, and I know our guys will show up ready to go.”

Courtyard by Marriott Leadoff Weekend at Grand Junction, Colorado

Thursday, February 25 – New Mexico Highlands University – 11 a.m.

Friday, February 26 – #5 Colorado Mesa University – 12 p.m. Doubleheader

Saturday, February 27 – New Mexico Highlands University – 11 a.m.

The Yellowjackets will face a stern test right off the bat, with Friday’s doubleheader against preseason No. 5 Colorado Mesa University highlighting a four-game set in Grand Junction, Colorado. For the games on Thursday and Friday, live video will be available online here [portal.stretchinternet.com] and live statistics will be available online here [cmumavericks.com]. For Saturday’s game, live statistics will be available online here [cmumavericks.com].

MSUB is scheduled for one more non-conference series, with four games at University of Colorado Colorado Springs running March 4-6. After that, the ‘Jackets will jump straight into their 32-game GNAC schedule as the race to the conference title runs through May. MSUB’s first home series is set for March 19-20 against Saint Martin’s University at Dehler Park, and this year’s GNAC Baseball Championships are scheduled for May 20-21 at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho. Per GNAC mandate, no fans are allowed at MSUB home baseball games during the 2021 spring season.

Nine seniors stack up at the top of MSUB’s 2021 roster, and nine total players on the team were active members of the 2019 roster that won the program’s first-ever conference tournament title and advanced to the NCAA D2 West Region Championships for the first time ever. “We have a lot of guys who were on that team and experienced that moment, and that is a really good foundation we can build off of with that core coming back,” Cipriano said regarding the Yellowjackets’ returners from the championship team. “I hope we get off to a good start this year. Last year we were able to hit the ground running right away, and I think that was really helpful.”

“We are two years removed from that, but we still have 12 guys who were key contributors to that team,” Waddoups commented on MSUB’s 2019 regional run. “Our goal is to keep taking the next step, and we have a lot of experience from that run that helped us get a good start in 2020. That still carries over, and they can lean on those experiences.”

Headlining the crew is the All-American first baseman Cipriano who was the 2019 GNAC Player and Newcomer of the Year. The senior didn’t miss a beat in the abbreviated 2020 season, slugging seven home runs and driving in 24 in just 18 games played. Overall in his 68 games in a Yellowjacket uniform Cipriano owns a slash line of .386/.500/.803 and figures to be the centerpiece of another powerful lineup this spring.

In his third season in the program last spring, Tanner Cantwell came to life and hit .365 with four homers and 15 RBIs in his first 18 games of the year. Cantwell finished off the short season by earning both GNAC and NCBWA West Region Player of the Week, and will look to pick up where he left off this spring.

The ‘Jackets will also look for power from senior third baseman Chris Arpan, who is a .330 career hitter with 14 home runs and 52 RBIs in the 64 games he has played in a Yellowjacket uniform. Arpan has reached base at a clip of .440 in his two seasons with the ‘Jackets, while slugging at a clip of .621.

No one has been in the MSUB program longer than fifth-year senior catcher Andrew Schleusner, who has played in 127 games and holds a career .291 batting average over the last four years. Schleusner enters the year as the GNAC’s active leader in doubles with 30, and has driven in 82 runs in his time at MSUB.

Sam Powers got off to a red-hot start at the plate in the 16-game 2020 season, hitting .382 with three home runs, 10 RBIs, and a .618 slugging percentage. A healthy Powers will be a cornerstone both of the outfield unit for the ‘Jackets as well as the batting order.

Among MSUB’s infield unit are senior Tanner Parker and juniors PJ Ausmus, Ryan Roche, and Carson Green. Parker got a taste of action with 12 starts last spring, while Roche and Ausmus are each veterans with playing experience in each of the last two seasons. Green is a transfer from Walla Walla Community College, where he hit .538 with two home runs before his 2020 season was canceled after just eight games. Brandon Koszuth, who started 22 games as a junior in 2019, sat out last spring with an injury and figures to be another solid addition to the team this spring as well.

Juniors Will Riley and Justin Lutz are each back on the roster this spring, and will play key roles as versatile options all over the diamond. Riley projects to see time both in the infield mix and as a corner outfielder, while Lutz will platoon with Schleusner behind the plate and see innings in the outfield. Riley hit .270 in 16 games last spring, while Lutz redshirted in his first year at MSUB after transferring from Spokane Falls Community College.

In the outfield, Hayden Foltz is a transfer from College of Southern Idaho who will compete for major innings after helping his team to the JuCo World Series as a freshman. Returner Dylan Johnson will be an impact player both on the mound for the ‘Jackets and at an outfield spot, while freshman Brayden Clark is a newcomer who could compete for innings in center field right away.

MSUB’s pitching rotation is headed by proven returners in left-hander Dylan Barkley and righties Matthew Houlihan and Brooks Zimmer. Barkley, who won seven games and ate up 67.0 innings as a staple on the team’s 2019 championship rotation, posted a 4.50 ERA with 36 strikeouts and just eight walks in the 28.0 innings he tossed last spring. Houlihan made headlines in his first season on the mound, striking out 25 hitters in 21.0 innings and posting a 3.00 ERA in five starts. Zimmer, whose last action was as the Yellowjackets’ closer in 2019 when he saved six games and had a 2.50 ERA, will be another key rotation arm for MSUB.

Coming off a redshirt season in 2020, the Yellowjackets have high hopes for Connor Redmond who projects to be another key starting pitcher on the staff. The right-hander transferred to MSUB from NCAA D1 Cal Poly, and will be a front-end arm this spring.

Along with Johnson’s arm in the bullpen, the ‘Jackets have numerous options in relief. True freshman Logan Siblerud will contend for major innings, while returners Tyler Elliott and Cort Dietrich will be heavily relied on as well. Elliott pitched in 10 1/3 innings over eight appearances last spring, while Dietrich held a 2.00 ERA with nine strikeouts in his 9.0 innings of work.

Seasoned veteran Sterling Lay provides the ‘Jackets with a formidable left-handed option out of the ‘pen, while Mason Abrath adds further depth both as a reliever and potential spot starter in the rotation. New to the MSUB pitching staff this season is senior Blake Tritch, who transferred after a four-year career at NCAA D1 North Dakota State University.

Right-handers Andrew Ellingson, Michael Zaske, and Braelen Pippin, and lefties Ty Wilson and Hunter Runion are all back as well after being members of the team in the abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Waddoups begins his second season in charge of the Yellowjacket program, holding an overall record of 11-6-1 after his first year was interrupted by the pandemic. Alumni Matt Hape and Jarrod Molnaa, who were both pitchers on championship-winning teams during their Yellowjacket careers, are on the staff for their third and first seasons, respectively. Graduate assistant coach Joey Cooper is in his first year on the coaching staff as well, after a successful playing career at Cal State Northridge.

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