It’s easy too look back at the 2015 season of Bradley baseball and give a long, endearing sigh.
During what was the best Bradley baseball season in 50 years, the Braves made the NCAA Regionals for the first time in 47 years.
Head coach Elvis Dominguez got emotional as he reminisced about the season, calling it “special.”
“As a coach, I’ve been fortunate enough to have gone through it a couple of times and done it like that,” Dominguez said as his voice started to tremble. “But to do it with that group of young men, in a place like this … it made it that much more worthwhile.”
However, junior pitcher Matt Dennis said the Braves can’t dwell on the past too much.
“Last year was a milestone year for us,” Dennis said. “Obviously, you want to build off of that … Whether it’s a good year or a bad year, you’re going to say it’s a new year.”
This season, a new year will feature a lot of new faces.
The special 36-win Bradley team will be missing key contributers who either graduated or decided to play professionally.
Second baseman Chris Godinez and ace pitcher Elliot Ashbeck were both drafted and will find themselves playing in professional farm systems this spring, while catcher Drew Carlisle, center fielder Issac Smith and pitcher Steve Adkins graduated.
Additionally, Carlisle recently signed a professional contract with an independant baseball club and is preparing to play ball this spring.
The players that have left the team leave a hole that, according to Dominguez, is unfillable by anyone.
“You just hope that the other guys that are coming up actually got a taste of it and the hard work those guys put in,” Dominguez said. “You hope that kind of carries on.”
Even though the departing players leave behind a combined total of 108 RBIs and 20 wins, Dominguez said the most irreplaceable thing isn’t a statistic, but rather the leadership and authority last year’s players possesed.
But, there are returning players that Dominguez said he was glad didn’t depart the Hilltop early.
“[Leffler’s] one of those guys that I’m glad he’s back, from a selfish standpoint,” Dominguez said. “He’s really going to solidify our infield again.”
Along with Leffler at short, junior Spencer Gaa will man third base, senior Paul Solka will anchor first base and sophomore Alan Beer will replace Godinez at second base.
Juniors Carson Weber and Evan Gruener will return to their spots in right field and left field, respectively, while Andy Shadid, a freshman from Peoria, will take over Smith’s spot in center field.
Preseason All-Conference selection Ian Kristan will take over catcher as full-time this season for the Braves, and Dominguez said he has high hopes for the sophomore from Mundelein, Illinois.
“He got a lot of big hits for us last year,” Dominguez said. “You throw a freshman into the Missouri Valley, and they could either stay level or crumble. He stayed level the whole time.”
However, with a couple new faces at different positions, Dominguez said the biggest question mark lies in the team’s closer position.
“Having [Dennis] at the back end of a game when it was the eighth inning and we had the lead, we all knew it was over,” Dominguez said. “We’re still trying to find who that guy is going to be at the back end to solidify everything.”
Dominguez is currently considering three pitchers for the closer closer role. Those players are juniors Nate Stong and Eric Scheuermann, and Beer, who will play multiple positions, similar to what Ashbeck did last season.
Dennis, who was an All-American at closer last year, will transition to the Braves’ Friday starter and will be the top pitcher Bradley’s opponents see.
He said the transition’s challenges lie in staying consistent through numerous innings.
“When you’re closing, you can go out and give it everything you have,” Dennis said. “Starting, you want to make it through seven, eight or nine innings. You’re going to not necessarily have to change stuff, but you can’t go out there and try to just pump it by people.”
Dennis, who posted a 1.51 ERA in the bullpen last year, has not been a starting pitcher since his high school days.
“I guess you could say I’m unproven in that role,” Dennis, whose last start came as a freshman, said. “All those guys could say ‘You have big shoes to fill,’ but the mentality we [have] to bring is ‘Bring your own shoes to the party.’”
Dennis will have to stay consistent through a schedule that will provide a greater challenge than last season.
The Braves open up their challenging schedule in a series against Austin Peay University this weekend, with matchups against Gonzaga and NCAA Regionals participant Notre Dame looming.
Dominguez said Austin Peay is a potential 40-win team.
“We’ll have our hands full, and it doesn’t get any easier,” Dominguez said. “I’m hoping we can survive the first three weekends and actually get into a routine. The key is how we respond to adversity.”