By Ty Schadt, Sports Editor

The Asbury baseball team kicks off its season Feb. 9, when it will face Wright State Lake in what will be the first of a three-game series. It will be coach Manny Cervantes’s fourth season at the helm, and first with the group of athletes he initially recruited being upperclassmen upon being named head coach.

When Cervantes took over in 2014, he had one mission: change the culture of the program. He knew it would be a lengthy process, and even now, in early 2018, he acknowledges the fact that his team is still in that phase: the process. That word is something he preaches to all his players, because to him, it’s important that they all are on the same page and willing to do whatever it takes to earn success. Much to his satisfaction, he believes this 2018 bunch is in harmony with the ideal of process. “This is a cohesive group on and off the field. They have great chemistry and a mutual respect for one another,” said Cervantes.

This season Asbury will look to improve upon its 18-35 2017 record. Obviously, no coach wants to see his team finish a season of hard work with a lackluster record, but Cervantes knew it was just part of the process. While many programs must work through stages of transition to achieve success, the route there is anything but precise or universal. Changing culture is like navigating a maze with many entry and exits points; each team finds its own path, at its own pace.

So, what did Cervantes do this offseason? Recruited, and recruited hard. The result was a large crop of talented freshmen, mixed with some exciting transfers. Cervantes believes this group is the most athletic he’s had during his stint at Asbury. Combine that with many returning impact players, and you’ve got a recipe for making substantial progress in terms of turning a culture around.

And it appears that recipe has already produced some appetizing results. The Eagles went 4-1 during the fall portion of their schedule, defeating Kentucky Christian and Cincinnati-Clermont. “It energized us,” said Cervantes. “It obviously feels good coming in 4-1.”

As the Eagles transition from 2017 to 2018, the front end of the pitching staff looks sturdy thanks to returners like sophomore Will McDonald and junior Logan Reitter. McDonald posted a 3.71 ERA in 2017 and recorded a 3-1 record in 10 appearances. Reitter pitched in 16 games and tallied a 4.66 ERA, racking up 35 strikeouts along the way.

There are only two seniors on the roster: outfielder DJ Perkins and pitcher Christian Beckley. However, Beckley is nursing an injury that will keep him out the entire season.

Junior infielder Josh Blancet led the Eagles with a .330 batting average last year, and will be a highlight of the Eagles offensive attack in 2018. Also returning is sophomore infielder Colton Black, who batted .326 and had 25 RBI last season. Junior Alejandro Vivanjee led the team with 29 RBI in 2017, and will continue to be a staple of Asbury’s lineup. Sophomore catcher Joe Williams was consistent behind the plate and in the batter’s box during 2017, playing in 51 of the team’s 53 games and recording 41 hits.

Freshmen infielder/pitcher Brandon Pruitt and outfielder Riley Baumbick will look to contribute right away to the 2018 squad. Pruitt hit .390 in the fall, and Baumbick scored four runs in the five games.

Transfers Zach Thibault, Christian Colon and Josh Owsley, although new to Asbury, bring a unique bit of experience to the team. Thibault comes from Cabrillo College, where he played infield and tallied 15 hits in 32 games. Colon recorded a .231 batting average at Palomar College, and will serve as another catcher on the Eagles. Owsley was a pitcher at Kentucky State University, but served as an outfielder during the fall, where he hit .333.

The Eagles haven’t had a winning season since 2011, and it is uncertain how long that streak will last. Perhaps it all depends on the process. What is certain is that Cervantes is completely dedicated to his message, and has surrounded himself with a group of athletes that are too. Rome may not have been built overnight, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an integral moment when things aligned and a massive jump in progress was made. Perhaps this 2018 season could be that or more for the Eagles.

Photo by Mark Duffel