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2015 Baseball Season Preview: No. 22 Point Park opens up at RussMatt Feb. 28

Feb. 27, 2015

Senior LHP Nate Sphon leads the pitching staff and is one of the senior leaders on the Pioneers. Photo by Sam Robinson.


PITTSBURGH -- The No. 22-ranked Point Park University baseball team opens the 2015 season Feb. 28-March 6 at the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational. There, the Pioneers will play 11 games to begin their new season.

It is a year of transition for Point Park, which was 40-18 overall and 16-4 KIAC last year. The Pioneers have graduated 18 players the last two years with 10 of them finishing up their careers last season. That group made up much of the success that has accounted for three straight NAIA national tournament appearances, an NAIA World Series appearance in 2012 and four straight seasons ending the year ranked in the NAIA Top 25.

But the two-time defending Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament champions have plenty to be optimistic about for 2015. Despite the losses due to graduation, the Pioneers will look to continue where they've left off. For sixth-year head coach Loren Torres, the roster was already stocked with players who are now ready to take the place of the departed seniors. That, combined with some additions via transfers, the Pioneers' have the makings of a promising season.

Point Park opens the year ranked No. 22 in the NAIA Baseball Preseason Top 25 Poll that came out Nov. 12. The Pioneers are as high as No. 16 in Perfect Game USA's NAIA preseason Top 25. The Pioneers are picked as the preseason favorite in the KIAC Baseball Preseason Coaches' Poll for the third year in a row.

"What our identity will be for this year will be determined once we start playing games," said coach Torres, whose Pioneers have won 183 games in his five seasons for an average of 36.6 wins per year. "We have graduated a lot of players, but we have guys ready to step in. We may have a lot of new starters, but they are guys who have been in the program for multiple years.

"We are excited to get going. The goals remain the same for this year's team as in past years. Point Park University baseball will always strive to get to Idaho for an NAIA World Series and seek a national championship."

The Pioneers return 3 of 9 hitters to the starting batting order and 1 of 4 starting pitchers. Back as starters are senior third baseman Jordan Crowell (.360, 2 HR, 37 RBIs), senior first baseman Oscar Romero (.414, 3 HR, 44 RBIs) and junior outfielder Shane Conley (.388, 23 RBI, 23 SBs). Back in the starting pitching rotation for the fourth year is senior left-hander Nate Sphon, who has won 15 games and has a 3.37 ERA in his career.

Point Park's approach at the plate has never been about power, but of the Pioneers' 25 homers they hit as a team last year, returning players account for just seven of them. But what Point Park lost in that area, it has gained in speed. This year's squad has an uptick in overall team speed.

Another trademark of the Pioneers the last few years has been high batting average. Point Park was fourth in the country last season with a team batting average of .337. The year before, it led the nation with an NAIA-best .341 team average. It is once again an approach that Torres and his staff emphasize, one that focuses on hitting for high average and using its team speed to make things happen.

"We will be showcasing some more speed in the lineup than we've had the last couple of years," said Torres. "Our approach will always be to stick to the system, to hit for high average. We want to continue that, and the speed is an added dimension. There may be days when our hitting is off, but speed never takes a day off."

The lineup will look to Crowell and Romero to lead the production in the middle of the order. Crowell is a two-time All-KIAC first team selection -- in 2013 as the KIAC Player of the Year at third base and last year as an all-conference left fielder. The Cincinnati, Ohio, native is now back at third base, where he led the nation in hitting in 2013 at .441. Crowell's career average in his two years at Point Park since transferring from Northwestern Ohio is an impressive .395.

Romero is back as the Pioneers' cleanup hitter, where he was 21st in the NAIA last year with a .414 batting average, tops on the team. The Miami, Fla., native hit all of last year, his first since transferring from NAIA St. Thomas (Fla.). Romero racked up 75 hits as just the eighth player in team history with at least that many in a single season. Twenty of those went for extra bases with three homers and 17 doubles. That earned him All-KIAC second-team honors.

Conley, a junior outfielder from Carnegie, Pa., is back for his second year as a starter since transferring from Seton Hill. The speedy Conley hit .388 with 40 hits and 23 RBIs last year. He had a team-best 23 stolen bases and was caught stealing just once. He leads the returners in the speed department and is joined by several others who can run.

Conley will make the move over from center field to left field. That's because Demetrius Moorer will start in center field for the Pioneers. Moorer is a transfer from NCAA Division I Eastern Kentucky and a native of Homestead, Fla. An added benefit is that it's his second year in the program as he had to sit out a year following his transfer. Moorer started in left field and was a lead-off hitter his final year at EKU in 2013. He is a former All-Miami Dade County player at South Dade HS who hit .390 with 20 steals as a senior.

A very fast outfield has penciled in as the starter in right field Stefan Mrkonja, a sophomore from Aliquippa, Pa., and Hopewell HS. He played in 44 games and started 20 times last year as a freshman, mostly early in the year when he was hitting well over .300. He ended up at .262 with 16 RBIs on the year, and Torres is confident that he can be a big part of what he says has potential to be a very good outfield in the NAIA.

With Crowell at third and Romero at first holding down the corners of the infield, there will be new starters up the middle. Chaz Russo is back as an active player and will start at second base. The senior from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., had to sit out last year due to a class requirement taking a big time committment. But now he's back on the Pioneers' infield, where he started all 55 games at shortstop in 2013. He hit .364 with 47 runs, nine stolen bases and 10 sacrifice hits as an All-KIAC second-team selection.

At shortstop, sophomore Jake Horew won the starting job in the preseason. The Chartiers Valley HS product showed great flashes of his talent last year, although most of that was on the pitching mound. Horew was the No. 5 starter in the rotation and was 6-2 with a 2.05 ERA in nine starts. He will be a part of the Pioneers' bullpen as one of the main options out of there, but his main duty will be at shortstop. When he got a chance to hit, he batted .417 (5 of 12) with 1 HR and 3 RBIs last year.

Also in the mix at shortstop is junior Cole Johnson, a native of Jupiter, Fla., who spent the last two years at Tallahassee (Fla.) CC. He was an All-Palm Beach County performer at Jupiter Community HS. Senior Zach Zimmerman, from Greensburg, Pa., is the backup at second base. He hit .389 (7 for 18) in limited duty last year as a capable backup and top option as pinch runner.  At third base, Andres Herrera is the backup to Crowell. Herrera is a sophomore from Miami, Fla., and Brito Private HS. He was a three-time All-Miami-Dade County selection who hit .423 as a senior.

At designated hitter, junior Andy Chacon won the job in the preseason. The Miami, Fla., native is a transfer from Pensacola (Fla.) State College, where he spent the last two years. He is a former All-Miami Dade County three-time selection at Westminster Christian, including his senior year of 2011 when he was a first-team pick at .454 with 16 HRs and 52 RBIs to register as one of the top prep hitters in all of the Miami that season.

At catcher, the Pioneers have two newcomers who will spit the duties. One is a senior transfer, Robert DeSantiago. The Arleta, Calif., native started 28 games at NAIA Virginia Intermont last year, but the school cancelled its baseball program. He provides a big backstop at 6-2, 210 pounds. He will split time with freshman Chris Hernandez, an All-Miami Dade County player from Doral Academy Charter HS in Miami, Fla. Junior Brandon Savka is another catcher who hit .429 (3 for 7) in nine games last year.

Other backups come from the outfield where Edberg Dominguez and Logan Linder are the fourth and fifth outfielders. Dominguez is from Caracas, Venezuela. He went to high school at Brito Private in Miami, Fla., where he was an All-Miami Dade County selection hitting .385 in 2013 as a senior. Linder is a sophomore from Burgettstown, Pa., and a transfer from NCAA DI Niagara. He started 31 games at Niagara following his high school career as a four-time all-state player at Weirton Madonna HS in West Virginia.

The pitching staff has been a backbone of the program the last few years. But gone from last year's team are starters Manny Perdomo (8-3, 3.63 ERA), Isaiah Marsh (8-1, 3.24) and Alex Mateo (8-3, 2.27) as well as the top two arms out of the bullpen, Jon Corcoran (4-1, 1.78) and Toby Eigner (6 saves, 2.25).

That leaves Sphon as the leader and veteran of the staff. He will be joined by several newcomers in the main part of the starting rotation. Sphon is 15-9 in his career. He had a great ERA of 2.89 and held batters to only a .251 average last year. But he didn't get the run support and had a 3-4 record on the year.

"The pitching staff has a lot of new guys, but I am confident that they can get the job done," said Torres. "They attack the strike zone with good stuff and are strong competitors on the mound."

Nolan Krivijanski is among the newcomers. The 6-4 right-hander from Pittsburgh, Pa., and Central Catholic HS is a junior. He started his college athletic career as a quarterback for the football team at nearby Duquesne University. He then transferred to California (Pa.) for baseball. But he is now in his second year at Point Park and his first as an active player.

Another newcomer is left-hander Jason Kim, a junior from LaCrescenta, Calif., and a transfer from NAIA Biola (Calif.). He went to Biola last year but had to sit out. His first two years of college baseball were at Glendale (Calif.) CC, where he had a 2.29 ERA in 15 games and 19.2 innings as a reliever in 2013.

Robert Rodriguez is another transfer who joins the Pioneers from St. Thomas (Fla.) University. There he had an ERA of 3.57 combined across his two years pitching for the Bobcats. Like Krivijanski, he is a right-hander who attacks the strike zone with the style Torres likes.

Earning the right in the presesaon to be the main starting rotation were Sphon, Krivijanski, Kim and Rodriguez. There are seven other arms on the pitching staff for a total of 11 pitchers. That includes two-way players Horew and Zimmerman.

Jarrad Brown is one of the few returning arms. The junior from Erie, Pa., was 3-1 in 10 games last year and started four times. He is back for his second year with the Pioneers since transferring from the PSU-Behrend.

Ben Jarboe is a newcomer to the staff who has transferred from the defunct Virginia Intermont program, just like his battery mate there, Robert DeSantiago. The right-hander pitched in 17 games and made eight starts at VIC last year, and his 64.0 innings pitched were second on the team.

Anthony Garofalo is a sophomore from Plum, Pa., who is in his third year in the Point Park program. After spending time on the JV roster, the left-hander has moved up to the varsity staff. Garofalo was chosen as the WPIAL Class AAAA Pitcher of the Year as a senior at Plum HS in 2012 when he was 6-0 with a 1.86 ERA.

Rouding out the pitching staff are Keenan Smith, a sophomore right-hander from Deerfield Beach, Fla., and Luis Romero, a freshman right-hander from Venezuela. Smith is in his third year at Point Park but his first on the varsity roster. Romero is a newcomer this season.

Defensively, Torres feels the Pioneers have one of the fastest outfields in the NAIA. Infield defense in solid up the middle and at the corners, Torres said. Behind the plate, the Pioneers will have to break in a pair of newcomers, but Torres noted that the job of controlling the running game lies mainly with the pitchers.

Follow the Point Park athletics website for updates on the Pioneers throughout the year and beginning this coming week at the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational Feb. 28-March 6.

Follow the Pioneers on Twitter @PointParkSports and Facebook.com/PointParkAthletics