By Garth Shanklin
The University of Cincinnati – Clermont Cougars’ baseball team entered the season with one goal: return to the USCAA World Series and take home the title.
The squad took an important step toward that goal earlier this week, earning the top overall seed in the tournament after finishing the regular season 23-15.
It was an uphill battle for the team early on. The squad started the season dropping six straight contests to NAIA schools Cincinnati Christian, Union College and Madonna University.
In their first game against a fellow USCAA opponent, the Cougars knocked off Kent State – Tuscarawas in a pair of games for their first two wins of the season.
The Cougars evened their record at 7-7 in late March, sweeping a doubleheader against Clark State.
Head coach Keith Bauman was unavailable for comment, but assistant coach Griffin Williams said the team’s difficult schedule early on helped the squad realize just how good they could be.
“This is a byproduct of our schedule,” Wililams said. “Starting off the season down there, the level of competition was something that with a new roster opened our eyes a bit. After that, we said there are no more Unions in the schedule, and the guys responded the right way. Getting our feet wet against a good squad gave us a bit of a shot in the arm.”
The team flirted with the .500 mark off and on again over their next 10 games, before a 1-0 win against Miami Hamilton put them over the top for good.
UC Clermont finished the season winning 10 of their last 12 games, the only two losses coming on the road to Robert Morris Springfield on April 21.
Balance has been key to the squad this season. The Cougars rank in the top five of the USCAA in hitting with a .322 average as a team. The squad’s 234 RBI rank third in the league and the squad’s 271 RBI are also good for third place. The team’s 17 triples lead the conference.
Jake Murray leads the team offensively, ranking seventh overall in the nation with a .417 batting average. The center fielder’s eight triples lead the USCAA, and his .767 slugging percentage is good for third in the conference.
“Offensively, we do a good job of distributing our bats in the lineup,” Williams said. “Guys have great approaches when they go up there. We’re capable of putting balls in play when we need to and doing a job offensively.”
On the mound, the Cougars’ 4.07 team ERA is good for fourth overall. The squad has allowed 125 runs in 276 1/3 innings so far this season, while striking out an average of just over seven batters per game. The team’s 225 total strikeouts are good for fifth in the country.
Grant Christman leads the team in ERA, posting a 1.56 mark over 52 innings pitched. Jake Allen has tossed the most innings for the Cougars at 55 2/3, and his 56 strikeouts are tops among all UC Clermont hurlers.
Williams credited the pitching staff with improving over the offseason, adding it’s rare for teams to get top-five level contributions from both facets of the game.
“These guys worked really hard in the offseason to make sure they’re throwing strikes and keeping it low in the zone,” Williams said. “To their credit and to the defense’s credit, we’ve played pretty clean. Look at it on paper, it’s pretty impressive to get it from both sides. We’re really fortunate.”
Earning the top seed overall in the tournament is something the Cougars have had their eyes on since ending last season as the USCAA World Series runner-up.
“We challenged these guys after last year finishing as the runner up, we said if we can come back to this thing as the top seed it’ll make all the difference in the world for us,” Williams said. “We made that a goal of ours, it feels good. We told the guys we’re proud of you, now let’s go out there and show that we’ve earned it.”
Heading into the postseason as the top overall seed, the Cougars’ first test comes on Monday, May 15 at 4 p.m. against the winner of Bluefield State College and Central Penn College.