MIDDLETOWN, Pa- "The ultimate goal is to get back to playing for a conference championship as we did in 2010."
Those words from Penn State Harrisburg Head Coach Jim Tetkoskie sum up the expectations for the upcoming blue and white campaign. Coming off last year's disappointing 7-28 season, the Lions have put 2011 behind them and are looking to turn things around in 2012. It was just two years ago that the team was on the verge of winning its first North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) title, and both Tetkoskie and his players are ready for a return to form.
The Lions' biggest downfall a year ago was their disappointing effort on the mound. For Tetkoskie, it has to feel good knowing that his current squad can hang its hat on that aspect of the game.
"I believe our pitching depth is probably our greatest strength," he said. "After being short staffed last year, we brought in some quality pitching recruits and a couple of transfers who will be called upon to help carry the load."
As important a part of baseball as pitching is, it wasn't the only area Penn State Harrisburg worked to improve on in preseason practices. Tetkoskie explained that last season took a lot out of his group as the year wore on and he didn't want to see a repeat scenario this spring.
"We went back to basics with the guys," he said. "This is something that too many teams take for granted, so we added a lot of drill work with the offense, defense and with our pitchers. We also have been working on the mental part of the game. Last season was not only physically draining on the guys but also mentally."
Senior centerfielder and 2011 NEAC first-team all-conference selection TJ Houseal (Maytown, PA/Donegal) heads up the Lions' list of key returnees. The four-year starter led the team with a .342 batting average and 19 stolen bases last season. Senior pitcher Mark Chimel (Middletown, PA/Middletown) and junior infielder Dean Kanganis (Mechanicsburg, PA/Cumberland Valley) are also back. This trio of elders will be called upon to lead the blue and white on the diamond this year.
Penn State Harrisburg also has a strong group of incoming youngsters joining last season's nucleus. Freshman Clint Hicks (State College, PA/State College) and junior transfer Jeff Bell (Kutztown, PA/Fleetwood Area) will help strengthen the pitching staff while Bell will also see time in the outfield and at first base. Isaac Polinsky (Orwigsburg, PA/Blue Mountain), a catcher and designated hitter, and John Cataldo (Pine Grove, PA/Pine Grove), an infielder, make up a freshmen combination that Tetkoskie expects to make an immediate impact this spring.
Another new face joining the team this season is first-year assistant coach Zach Pettis. The Camp Hill native has plenty of experience as he was a three-time all-conference selection while a member of Cedar Cliff High School's baseball team. He played collegiately at Temple University and is a welcome addition to Tetkoskie's staff consisting of longtime assistants Scott Ream and Mike Witman.
The Lions will face strong competition in the NEAC's West Division as Penn State Abington, Gallaudet and defending regular season division champion SUNYIT look to be the front runners in the conference. Tetkoskie also expects to play some tight games against Cazenovia and last season's division tournament champion Penn State Berks.
The skipper would like nothing more than to again compete for a conference crown. But as he said when asked about the team's immediate goals, before his players can take on the biggest challenge, they need to focus on playing complete games and executing the fundamentals in order to win ball games.
The weather is warming, spring is coming and the winds of change are blowing in Middletown.
The Lions' opening day comes this Saturday, Feb. 18, when they travel to Wesley for an afternoon doubleheader.