Gannon baseball PSAC season preview

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The Gannon University baseball team aims to shake off its dismal 2014 Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference season finish, and look toward a strong 2015 campaign.

The Knights started that process during their annual spring training trip to Winter Haven, Fla., to compete in the RussMatt Invitational.

Gannon finished the invitational with a 6-4 record, and built off their 2-2 series record against Limestone College before the tournament in Gaffney, S.C.

The Knights currently sport an 8-6 mark in preseason action and they open their PSAC season Friday in a 1 p.m. doubleheader at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

Coach Nate Cocolin said he likes where his team is moving toward the regular season.

“In Florida, we faced four No. 1’s and four No. 2’s,” Cocolin said of Gannon’s opposing pitchers in the RussMatt Invitational. “That was the hardest gauntlet of pitching we have ever gone through.

“Our pitchers were able to hold us in games long enough and helped us come out on top a lot.”

Junior Aaron Cox comes into the season as Gannon’s pitching ace. Cocolin said Cox’s ability to gain control of all three of his pitches – fastball, changeup and slider – have made him a more dominant hurler. Cox agreed with his coach.

“I worked on my changeup a lot in the offseason, which has helped with getting ahead of hitters,” Cox said.

Senior catcher and team co-captain Jeff Bellanca said he has been impressed with Cox’s improvement.

“All three are well above average pitches,” Bellanca said. “And he’s nailing his spots.”

Cocolin said that the trip to Florida showed that he has a pool of talented young hurlers.

“I think we have the deepest pitching staff we’ve ever had,” he said.

Four Gannon pitchers have logged more than 10 innings through the first 12 games of the season. Cox has thrown 21 innings, senior Matt Tobin threw 16 2/3 innings, David Cricks added 14 1/3 and Brian Fisher posted 12 1/3.

Cocolin said that his pitchers might not be the most talented group that have come through the program, but said that they were the strongest from top to bottom.

Cox also plays a major role for Gannon at the plate. He said his maturation process in the batter’s box has been grueling, but he’s learned from his mistakes.

“Over the past two years I have made a lot of changes,” Cox said. “I want to start cutting down on strikeouts and work hard to hit for a better average.”

Cocolin said he has noticed the major difference in Cox’s plate presence. Cox finished his freshman season ranked second in the PSAC with seven home runs. Cocolin said that Cox’s early success led him to try to hit the ball over the fence every time he dug in during his sophomore season.

“When he doesn’t try to do too much he’s good,” Cocolin said. “He has worked on staying within himself and matured at the plate.”

The Knights have a talented offense beyond Cox, and these offensive standouts make up the team’s leadership. The Gannon captains include juniors Jared Wiesen, who batted .310 in 2014, and Mark DeVita along with Bellanca.

Cocolin said was proud of how his team captains have helped the Knights grow closer. He said that Bellanca showcased his leadership by example in Florida.

Cocolin said during a game in the Sunshine State, Bellanca was hit in the face with a pitch. Rather than receiving treatment on the bench, Bellanca decided to stuff his mouth with gauze and finish the game.

“Jeff has the respect of everyone on the team,” Cocolin said. “He is the toughest kid we ever had in our program.”

The Knights will need that brand of toughness to overcome its preseason fifth-place PSAC Western Division ranking according to the league’s coaches’ poll. Cocolin said that one of the biggest advantages that the Knights have had this season is the use of the indoor field house at Gannon’s new Recreation and Wellness Center.

Cocolin said that the majority of team bonding takes place on the Florida trip, but the team was able to spend a great deal of time together at the new facility before the excursion south. Wiesen agreed with his coach.

“The extra space lets us have a lot going on at once,” he said. “We aren’t sitting around anymore because we are able work on multiple things at once.

“It also helps with recruiting because new kids visit and want to be in that facility.”

Wiesen said that he believes the long hours spent in the new Recreation and Wellness Center, offseason workouts and the Florida trip have his team sitting in the position to make a move up the PSAC standings.

“We were able to shake off a little rust and get a lot of repetition,” Wiesen said. “We are playing pretty well.”

Bellanca said he is excited to get the PSAC season underway and is prepared to help his team leave behind a lasting legacy.

“Knowing this is my last year gives me the drive to make it a good last run for myself and the team,” he said.

CONNOR SONDEL

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