The Owens Community College baseball team had a banner year both on the diamond and in the classroom.
The Express posted the most wins in school history with 38 and reached the National Junior College Athletic Association regional tournament for the first time. The Owens baseball team also had the highest grade point average of all the athletic programs at the college. Six players made the all-conference academic team.
“We had a good year on and off the field this year,” said first-year head coach Bob Schultz. “This year [academics] was one of the biggest things we talked about. It was a great thing to set the record for wins, but our team had the highest GPA out of any in the Owens program. I think that holds as much weight as the wins.”
The team's season came to an end last month with a loss in the NJCAA regional tournament. But the Express finished with a 38-23 overall record and they took second in the Ohio Community College Athletic Conference with a 14-6 mark. The Express finished the season ranked 24th in the country in Division II of the NJCAA.
Schultz said he stressed to his players that they weren't at Owens solely to play baseball. He told the players that they came to Owens to receive an education and to eventually move on to a four-year college.
“Hitting the books is one of the biggest things we focus on,” Schultz said. “That part of it is just as important as the wins. We make sure they go to class.”
While Owens has a policy that requires students who carry less than a 3.0 GPA to attend two hours of study hall per week, the baseball program takes it one step farther.
“We have another one hour of study hall per week no matter what their GPA is,” Schultz said.
“Those study tables really worked out,” said shortstop Mike Valerius, who is headed to Ashland University to play on a scholarship. “We had the highest GPA at Owens. That was just another goal that we reached together.”
Valerius made the all-academic team with a 3.7 GPA.
Schultz, who was an assistant for five seasons at Owens before taking over as head coach, said the program had lost players due to academic ineligibility in the past.
“We didn't want that to happen to us this season,” he said. “It's too tough when you don't have enough athletes on the field.”
This season, the baseball team lost just one player to poor grades.
Another tool Schultz implemented was a requirement for every player to have their professors sign a sheet of paper stating that they had attended class. Schultz would collect the papers every two weeks.
“This is something new I brought to the table,” he said. “I wanted the players to be held accountable. The kids knew they were in trouble if they weren't in class.”
Valerius single-handedly proved that Schultz's new program was effective.
The shortstop from St. Francis de Sales High School broke six individual school records this past season. Valerius set new singles season marks for at bats (172), hits (82), doubles (16), triples (5), RBIs (61) and batting average (.477).
Valerius credited his father, Mike Sr., for teaching him the ins and outs of hitting.
“Ever since I was old enough to hold a bat he's been throwing to me,” he said.
Valerius also was just one home run shy of tying the school record for dingers. Valerius hit eight homers this year, which even surprised the young hitter.
“I'm more of a hit for average kind of hitter. I'm not known for my power,” Valerius said. “I just got on a roll. Everything just fell into place.”
Valerius also was named an NJCAA All-American.
“He was our clutch hitter all along for us,” Schultz said. “He always came through with the big hit.”
Three other Express players will join Valerius in moving on to a four-year college program. Fellow sophomores Nick Morris, Adam Bateson and Pete Anderson are all headed to the University of Findlay next season.
Bateson, a centerfielder from Elmwood High School, set a new school record for runs scored in a season with 75. The leadoff batter hit .397 with five home runs and 38 RBIs.
“He's very athletic,” Schultz said. “He's a very strong kid and he can run. He can bunt for base hits and he can hit for power. Our offense went as he went. He set the table for us.”
Anderson, a pitcher from Ontario High School in Mansfield, also was a team leader. At the beginning of the season, Anderson was a middle reliever, but he quickly found a spot in the starting rotation.
Another sophomore, third baseman Dan Vincent, led both with his arm and with his bat. Vincent, who is a Whitmer High School grad, was solid defensively and he drove in 50 runs, batted .370, had nine doubles and eight triples.
“He was keeping us in games himself,” Schultz said. “He hit to all fields and he made things happen.”
Freshmen take charge
While those four upper classmen provided leadership, the Express counted on a bevy of freshmen at the plate, in the field and on the mound. Fifteen of the 23-team members were freshmen.
“We had a lot of contributions from everyone,” Valerius said. “It wasn't just one or two players. We could count on everyone.”
“We were very, very young this year,” Schultz said. “It took us a while for the freshmen to come around. But they ended up playing real competitive ball.”
Owens started the season off 3-4 before it won 11 in a row. The Express also put together a nine game winning streak near the end of the season.
“We decided [after the first seven games] that we needed to get back to the basics,” Schultz said. “We concentrated on the fundamentals and doing the small things. Once we got back to doing that, the wins started to come.”
In fact, the Express became an offensive juggernaut. The team scored 10 or more runs in 15 games, set a school record with 41 home runs and finished with a .364 batting average as a team.
“We had some big ones (home runs) too,” Schultz said. “We had some walk offs.”
Six freshmen accounted for 25 of the team's 41 home runs. Eight of the Express' 11 pitchers were also freshmen.
Scott Zaciewski led the freshmen class offensively with eight home runs. He drove in 51 runs. Zaciewski, an outfielder from Whitmer High School, also had 14 doubles, three triples and had a batting average of .380.
“He was our clean-up hitter and he could change the outcome of a game with one swing of the bat,” Schultz said.
Fellow freshmen Zach Pettee and Matt Yenrick also played more like veterans than college rookies. Pettee (St. John's Jesuit High School) and Yenrick (Waite High School) both batted over .340.
“The freshmen had a huge year,” Valerius said. “We wouldn't have been half as good without those freshmen.”
Schultz said Pettee grew into his role as the team's catcher.
“He was a little raw at first. A catcher needs to control the game,” Schultz said. “By the end of the season, he became the quarterback of our defense.”
Yenrick, who carries a 4.0 GPA, was an RBI machine for the Express. He finished with 41 RBI and scored 35 runs.
“When he had guys in scoring position, he drove them in,” Schultz said.
Yenrick, a left-handed outfielder/first baseman, also went 3-0 when he was called upon to pitch down the stretch.
“Next year, he'll be a very key person,” Schultz said.
Some other freshmen that also will likely continue to play pivotal roles for Schultz next season include Tony Finley, Kyle Leppelmeier, Todd Wells and Nick Caputo.
Finley is a hard throwing right hander from Ontario High School. Wells is a 6-3, 210 pound left handed pitcher from Shelby High School who threw a no hitter this season.
Caputo, a pitcher from St. Francis, became the team's closer. The submarine-style hurler came on strong late in the season.
“His curve ball scared a lot of right-handers,” Schultz said.
Leppelmeier, a freshman from Edgerton High School, was a fierce competitor on the mound. He went 5-3 and became the ace of the staff. With 15 players returning next year who know how to excel in a collegiate educational and athletic environment, the future bodes well for the 2004 Express.
“Things are definitely looking bright for us,” Schultz said. “Next year they'll know what it takes. By stressing education, we give them the opportunity to continue their baseball career and education at a bigger school.”