PDT Sports Writer
When the names Jim Tracy and Terry Mulholland pop up into conversation, their impact on Major League Baseball is part of the discussion.
What many people don’t realize are they honed their skills at Marietta College before leaping to the pro ranks. As a part of five NCAA Division III National Championships, the Pioneer baseball program is well known for their success.
Last season, Marietta was able to hoist the title after winning the College World Series. This season, with three Scioto County locals on the roster, the Pioneers will defend their title tonight in the 2012 NCAA Division III College World Series in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Marietta—equipped with Wheelersburg alum Aaron Hopper, Valley graduate Zach Bukiewicz and recent West product Anthony Knittel—started defense of its title last night off with Whitworth (WA) College and the Pioneers are on the quest to make it back-to-back crowns.
Each player has a different paths, different viewpoints and different perspectives heading into the double-elimination tournament.
Hopp-ing the the spotlight
Hopper, a junior, has been a mainstay in the Pioneer lineup as the team’s everyday center fielder. Last season, he started in 48 of the 50 games he played and was fourth on the team in batting average (.358, minimum 140 at-bats) while playing right field.
This season, he is the only one on the team to not miss a start and is tied for second on the team in average (.362, minimum 140 at-bats), leads the RBI category with 55 and has been hit by pitch a team-high nine times. It’s just one of the many facets he feels has improved from last year.
“I’ve had to grow as a hitter, I’ve been moved from the five spot to the four spot and I’m getting pitched to a little bit differently this year,” Hopper said. “Defensively, transitioning to center and it’s kind of a big transition because you’ve got more ground to cover and I’ve adapted pretty well to that.
“Leadership as well. You know once you get to become an upperclassman, you kind of got to step up and be a leader.”
He said the pressure and expectations, both individually and as a part of the team, are not uncommon coming from the Pirate baseball program. As the team was on the bus ride Wednesday to Wisconsin, Hopper knows this is business is as usual but recognizes it’s a different year.
As the oldest of the Portsmouth-area players, he is glad to have familiar faces on the squad. When he first arrived on campus, the adjustment period was difficult with very few people he knew attending the school.
“It makes me a little bit more comfortable knowing that I have guys here that I know, guys I’ve played against and played with,” Hopper said. “I do know both of them pretty well through (American) Legion and high school ball.”
In his second season with the program, Bukiewicz is starting to make more of an impact on the program compared to a year ago. This season, he has started in three games and has played in a total of 14 contests, compiling a .300 batting average.
Coming primarily off the bench, Bukiewicz knows it’s a total team effort from every dressed member of the club.
“We have some good defensive replacements that come in late,” Bukiewicz said. “Everybody’s doing the little things that needs to be done.”
Bukiewicz and Hopper rely on each other to fix the other’s swing whenever there’s a slump. Most of the credit, according to Bukiewicz goes to his high school coach, Dean Schuler.
“We’ve been taught a lot of the same things so if we’re struggling, we can ask each other what we’re seeing or what you think,” Bukiewicz said. “The big thing is the terminology we use, it’s easy to understand what the other is saying.”
The foundation of a good player rests on what they have learned in other grades. Bukiewicz believes the lessons he learned from Schuler as well as what Hopper learned from his high school coach Michael Estep and and Knittel from Chris Rapp helped prepare them for what to expect on the college level.
“That goes a long way,” Bukiewicz said. “We know the game well so we can come in and understand what is going on at more advanced levels than maybe other kids who didn’t play in the (SOC II).”
Big Ant showing his talents
Some freshmen come in with the mentality they will contribute immediately to a team. While the dreams are there, they seldom come true.
Knittel’s situation is no different. The lefty has made three pitching appearances on the varsity squad and has a 5.40 earned run average.
Even though most of his time has been spent on the junior varsity team, Knittel made the trip to Wisconsin with the team. It is a position few in his class are able to do in this situation.
“It’s a great feeling, a great opportunity to be one of only five freshmen to make the postseason roster,” Knittel said. “Even though I’m not playing, I’m still in the dugout cheering on the team.”
Knittel has relied on older players such as Hopper and Bukiewicz to help get acclimated to college life, both in the classroom and on the diamond. When he was not traveling with the team, he spent most of his time in the weight room.
“I’ve learned something new every day that is making me better,” Knittel said. “Even though I’m not playing, I’m still a part of it.”
Another task Knittel spent doing throughout the year was mentoring his younger brother Brady. As a sophomore, Brady moved from second base to first base, one of the spots Anthony patrolled as a Senator.
“I always told my brother the same exact thing my dad’s told me,” Knittel said. “Never take anything for granted, work hard at what you do and I’ve always told him he wants to be good, he needs to go out there and get some work in on his own.”
The NCAA Division III College World Series runs through May 29.
Cody Leist can be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 242, or email@example.com.