MOUNT VERNON – Snowballs will be replaced with baseballs – at least over the next seven days – for Seth Wing's Cornell Rams during a season-opening Spring Break stint in Tucson, Ariz.
The Rams take the field for their first outdoor practice Thursday. They begin a promising 2013 campaign at 10 a.m. (Iowa time) Friday in a doubleheader with Presentation (S.D.) College, a team they are scheduled to face six times this month.
Cornell plays a twin bill against Northland (Wis.) at 11 a.m. Saturday, followed by single nine-inning games against Marian (Wis.) Sunday, Bethany Lutheran (Minn.) Tuesday and Marian again Wednesday.
Wing's roster has grown to 35 players, providing more lineup options for the second-year head coach.
"Our overall talent and depth have improved," said Wing, coming off an 8-32 finish in 2012. "We have a good core group and a strong freshman class. It's a great blend of experienced players and hungry newcomers.
"The spring trip allows us to mix lineups and find our top nine players. It gives us an opportunity to compete and win some games."
The Rams recorded a five-win improvement last spring, despite dropping six one-run games. The team is primed to take another step forward with six position starters back, led by a pair of second team all-conference performers in senior shortstop Zach Rogers and junior center fielder Joe Gerace.
Rogers has started 101 consecutive games and ranks 11th on the program's all-time hits list with 111. He earned third team all-region honors a year ago, after leading the team in batting average (.358), doubles (9), home runs (4), RBIs (24) and slugging percentage (.545). Rogers also carried a 4.55 earned run average in 31.2 innings on the mound.
Gerace scored a school-record 42 runs during a fine first season in Mount Vernon. He paced the team with 51 hits – fifth-most on the single-season list – to go with a .338 batting average, eight doubles and 10 stolen bases.
Seniors Milton Kurschner (infield) and Ryan Nordtvedt (catcher) provide leadership with 75 and 64 career starts, respectively. Kurschner started all 40 games last season, recording a .401 on-base percentage with a team-best 181 putouts in the field. Nordtvedt anchors the defense. He hit .262 with 14 RBIs.
The Rams also return multi-year letterwinners in seniors Nick Norris (outfield) and Jim Nowak (first base), and juniors Alex Schnebbe (infield) and Kody Karjala (infield). Schnebbe led the group with 12 starts.
Cornell graduated its top two arms in innings pitched last season in Charlie Muir (logged a school-record 71.2 innings) and Justin Brown (46.0). Sophomore Kyle Stennes heads a capable staff, posting a team-low 2.45 ERA in 29.1 innings a year ago. Junior Jeremy Ryan and Quick bring back six starts apiece. Rogers and sophomore Tyler Thorne (2.81 ERA) are key relievers with experience.
The Rams will be bolstered by a deep class of 17 freshmen. Wing talks highly of the group.
"This group of freshmen is the foundation for the future of the program," Wing said. "They will make an immediate impact on the team this year, and going forward."
"The addition of Uby has been huge," Wing said. "Our defense as a whole will be greatly improved, and he is a big reason."
Cornell opens the home portion of its schedule April 2 against defending Iowa Conference champion Central, followed by home contests against Loras (April 3) and Robert Morris-Springfield (April 6).
The Rams will compete in the Midwest Conference for the first time since 1997. Cornell plays 16 games against the MWC South Division, starting with a home doubleheader April 13 against Knox. The five-team South Division includes preseason favorite Illinois College, Grinnell, Knox, Monmouth and Cornell.
The top two teams in the North and South Divisions qualify for the MWC Tournament. The Rams are picked fifth in their division.
"Our goal is to finish in the top two and have an opportunity to play for a conference championship," Wing said. "In all phases, we are a better team than last year."