The Lenoir-Rhyne baseball team seemed to be hitting its stride when the COVID-19 pandemic halted the season last March. Although the Bears were 15-11 overall and 4-5 in South Atlantic Conference play, they had recently upset third-ranked Catawba and were coming off a three-game home sweep of Lake Erie when the season was postponed and ultimately canceled.
Due to last season’s premature end, the Bears may be even more excited than usual about taking the field in 2021. They were scheduled to begin the season with a home game against nonconference Coker today but that game was postponed to March 16 on Friday, so L-R is now set to start the season with a home doubleheader against the Cobras on Sunday beginning at 1 p.m.
“Opening day is always an exciting day, but it definitely feels like this one’s got a little more juice with it,” said L-R coach Chris Ramirez, who was hired as the 20th head coach in program history on June 5, 2019. “With last season being cut in half and just the full uncertainty that everybody’s been dealing with, you can definitely feel the excitement on the team for sure.”
If Mother Nature cooperates, Sunday will mark L-R’s first regular-season action on its new AstroTurf field, which was completed a few months ago. The Bears’ first six contests are slated to be held at home — two this weekend and four next weekend against SAC foe and eighth-ranked Catawba.
“Administratively we were able to keep our feet moving and build our facility, and for our players to leave for Christmas break and come back to the nicest field in the country was definitely a nice touch for our program,” said Ramirez. “... There’s so many benefits to having the turf field besides the weather and not having the tarp to worry about, just from a player development side, from a recruiting side, even from a community standpoint.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to host high school games, high school tournaments and summer events,” he added. “That would allow us as a baseball program to be able to impact local baseball here in the Hickory area.”
As for L-R’s team, it returns several players including a pair of pitchers recently selected to the Preseason All-SAC Second Team. Senior starting pitcher Alex Shirazi is back to anchor the rotation, while junior Ben Friebel will again serve as the Bears’ closer.
Shirazi made six starts a year ago, posting a 3-1 record and a 4.28 ERA to go with 31 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings. The Charlotte native allowed only three extra-base hits last season and threw one complete game.
In 12 appearances out of the Bears’ bullpen in 2020, Friebel was tied for the Division II lead in saves with six. The Jamestown, North Dakota, native also had a 1-1 record, a 0.50 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 18 innings.
Other hurlers to watch will be Catawba Valley Community College transfer Andrew Patrick, a redshirt sophomore who graduated from Bandys High in 2018, and freshman Joshua Lanham, a Georgia product who appeared in 10 games out of L-R’s bullpen last season (all college players earned an extra year of eligibility following the events of last year, and he’s one of several Bears who chose to take advantage of the rule to remain a freshman).
“Shirazi has been in our program and he’s done a great job,” said Ramirez of his No. 1 starter. “... We’ve seen him make a velocity jump in the past six months, he’s 90 to 92 (mph), he throws three pitches for a strike and he’s a guy that we know we can count on and rely on.”
Additionally, Friebel is “a sidearm guy who’s really competitive. ... He’s a junior college transfer last season with us, so he’s back. Those four (Shirazi, Patrick, Lanham and Friebel) are kind of the first four that are gonna lead us out there.”
When it comes to position players, senior outfielder E.J. Ranel is probably the most well-known returner. He only played in eight games (seven starts) in 2020 due to injury, but hit .280 with a double and an RBI in limited action. In 2019, he batted .286 with 46 hits and 30 RBIs in 45 games (41 starts).
“When people talk about Lenoir-Rhyne baseball in our league right now, I’m sure they think of him,” said Ramirez. “He’s kind of been the face of our program for the last three years and he’s back as a senior outfielder.”
Another player back from last year is redshirt junior Will Jones, who has previously played shortstop and outfield and will likely see time at third base and in the outfield in 2021. He led the Bears in batting average (.365), RBIs (26), doubles (nine) and total bases (46) a season ago, and was also tied for the team lead in hits (31).
Hickory High alumnus Bryce Stober will be L-R’s primary catcher again after earning 25 starts last season. He hit .325 with 25 hits and five RBIs, and is listed as a freshman again this year.
Transfers Drue Galassi (outfielder, previously at Western Illinois), Matt Mackie (first baseman, previously at Eastern Illinois) and Nick Clarno (catcher/third baseman, previously at North Georgia) are others Ramirez mentioned as key position players for the Bears. Galassi was a Division I All-American last year, while Mackie is “as professional and mature a player as we have” and Clarno is “an offensive guy that’s gonna play a big factor.”
L-R was picked to finish sixth in the conference, but Ramirez believes he has a group that’s capable of finishing much higher than that.
“Our mindset is every time we step on the field we expect to win, so we’re gonna go out there and take it one game a time, go win that one and then move on to the next,” said Ramirez. “... On the one hand, we haven’t done anything to be picked any higher than sixth so I understand the sixth-place ranking, but I think our guys in the dugout know that we’ve got the ability to finish much higher than sixth this year.”
While games will be closed to the public, they will be streamed live via www.lrbears.com. Ramirez hopes people will tune in and continue to support the Bears.
“We’ve gotten good attendance and a lot of people are interested in coming out to watch,” said Ramirez, “but they might have to hold off for a year and hopefully people can follow along online.”
2021 LENOIR-RHYNE BASEBALL ROSTER
#0 Bryce Stober, C - Freshman
#1 David Bell, INF - Freshman
#2 Michael Allen, P - Sophomore
#3 Ryan Healy, INF - Redshirt Sophomore
#4 Xander Ferlenda, INF - Redshirt Senior
#5 Luis Atiles, INF - Graduate Transfer
#6 Ray Stocum, P - Redshirt Junior
#7 Kai Montano, C - Freshman
#8 Wade Cuda, UTIL - Redshirt Sophomore
#9 Max Lecroy, OF - Freshman
#10 E.J. Ranel, OF - Senior
#11 Ian Foggo, P - Graduate Transfer
#12 Damian Pierce, 1B/OF - Junior
#13 Will Jones, INF - Redshirt Junior
#14 Topher Grant, INF - Redshirt Sophomore
#15 Mike McHugh, OF/INF - Redshirt Junior
#16 Lowell Schipper, P - Graduate Transfer
#17 Ben Friebel, P - Junior
#18 Brett Fulk, P - Redshirt Senior
#19 Nick Clarno, C/3B - Junior
#20 Zach Lambeth, P - Redshirt Sophomore
#21 Jacob Bebber, C - Freshman
#22 Andy Lopez, C - Junior
#23 Manny Montes, INF - Redshirt Junior
#24 Drue Galassi, OF - Graduate Transfer
#25 Jarod Large, P - Junior
#26 Joshua Lanham, P - Freshman
#27 Connor Smith, OF - Sophomore
#28 Ethan Smith, OF - Freshman
#29 Hayden Gresham, P - Sophomore
#30 Andrew Tilley, P - Redshirt Sophomore
#31 Chipper McGinnis, OF/P - Freshman
#32 Luke Henson, UTIL - Junior
#33 Tanner Moyers, P - Redshirt Sophomore
#34 Kanan Butler, P - Junior
#35 Austin Blevens, P - Redshirt Sophomore
#36 Jackson Benjamin, P - Freshman
#37 Alex Shirazi, P - Senior
#38 Andy Cook, P - Freshman
#39 Jackson Reid, P - Freshman
#40 Braden Houston, P - Sophomore
#41 Matt Mackey, UTIL - Graduate Transfer
#42 Jack Fortin, P - Freshman
#43 Thomas Mullinax, P - Redshirt Sophomore
#44 Caleb Fluno, 1B - Freshman
#45 Joey Cobb, P - Freshman
#46 Austin Curry, INF - Sophomore
#47 Michael Misenheimer, INF - Freshman
#48 Andrew Patrick, P - Redshirt Sophomore
#55 John Grigg, P - Redshirt Junior
#56 Call Verlanic, OF - Freshman
#57 William Stewart, P - Redshirt Freshman
#58 Andrew Dempski, OF - Sophomore
#59 Sam Fleming, UTIL - Freshman
2021 LENOIR-RHYNE BASEBALL SCHEDULE
Feb. 14: Doubleheader vs. Coker, 1 p.m.
Feb. 20: Doubleheader vs. Catawba*, 1 p.m.
Feb 21: Doubleheader vs. Catawba*, 1 p.m.
Feb. 27: Doubleheader at Queens*, noon
Feb. 28: Doubleheader at Queens*, noon
March 3: vs. Lincoln Memorial, 4 p.m.
March 9: at Tusculum, 4 p.m.
March 13: Doubleheader at UVa Wise*, 1 p.m.
March 14: Doubleheader at UVa Wise*, 1 p.m.
March 16: vs. Coker, TBA
March 20: Doubleheader at Anderson*, 1 p.m.
March 21: Doubleheader at Anderson*, 1 p.m.
March 27: Doubleheader vs. Mars Hill*, 1 p.m.
March 28: Doubleheader vs. Mars Hill*, 1 p.m.
March 30: at Lincoln Memorial, 4 p.m.
April 2: Doubleheader vs. Wingate*, 1 p.m.
April 3: Doubleheader vs. Wingate*, 1 p.m.
April 7: vs. Tusculum, 4 p.m.
April 10: Doubleheader at Limestone*, 1 p.m.