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MAC Baseball Preview: Western Michigan Broncos

After a disappointing 16-38 year, including a dismal 8-19 record in the MAC, Billy Gernon and the Western Michigan Broncos look to rekindle the spark of the most storied baseball program in the MAC.

Last year, the Broncos failed to score runs.  Can they reach back to their past to ignite the most storied program in the MAC this year?
Last year, the Broncos failed to score runs. Can they reach back to their past to ignite the most storied program in the MAC this year?
WMU Media File

When you arrive at Hyames Field, you get the sense of history. The field saw the competition of the first two College World Series, and has even fielded a future president in George H.W. Bush, when his Yale squad made it to the 1947 edition. The same field saw 6 different Bronco teams play out their seasons en route to 6 separate College World Series appearances, including the infamous 1955 team that finished just outs away from a National Championship.

Now, the field has received a makeover. The Robert J. Bobb stadium complex helps house a more up-to-date clubhouse and chairback seating provides a comfortable atmosphere. The hills that run along the left field line are full of trees, once barren back when East Campus was the Main Campus. Right now, there sits about 2-4 feet of snow, depending on the drifts. But when you arrive for a game, you get the sense of history.

However, lately, the Broncos haven't provided a showing fit for the historic site.

With just one MAC championship since 1967, Western Michigan hasn't lived up to the historic standard. Current manager Billy Gernon understands what he's facing, and is looking to turn the Broncos back into contenders in his 4th season with the team.

"This program without a doubt has a great history," Gernon said in an interview Tuesday while his team prepared for their season opener seemingly just days away. "I've told our players that even though there's great history, the last 47 years there has been a lot of room for improvement, including my teams. I take it very personally, and I take pride at trying to help re-establish the tremendous history that's here."

Last season, Gernon seemed to be on the right path. After a 5th place finish in the MAC in 2012, Western Michigan started out 4-1 and 5-2 in the MAC and appeared to be headed for another solid season. Then everything seemed to suddenly fall apart as the Broncos would drop all but 3 conference games the rest of the way en route to a last place finish in the MAC.

"The bottom-line was that we didn't drive in runs when we needed to and make plays to get us off the field when we needed to. We didn't deal with too many injuries, so making the play when it counted just simply did not happen enough."

And Gernon is right. The Bronco offense was abysmal. Current junior Andrew Sohn led the Broncos in batting average (.337), home runs (2), and RBIs (36) and was one of the better players in the MAC at shortstop. The pitching wasn't much better, but the Broncos don't lose much from a team that showed flashes of brilliance last year.

"Sohn is one of the hardest working players I've ever coached," Gernon said on his junior short-stop. "He's hard-nosed, tough, and academically driven. Steve Laudicina, our number one pitcher, is one of the top arms in the [MAC] as well." Gernon also mentioned Jared Kujawa, Brent Sunde (the Michigan Gatorade Player of the Year in 2012), and Hunter Prince as potential break-through stars, but noted that Prince is still recovering from groin surgery.

As for the pitching corps, the Broncos do lose a couple arms, but look to reload after an otherwise weak showing in 2013.

"Gabe Berman had 5 saves and was really solid as a freshman last year for us, but no one person gave us a consistent performance," Gernon said. "Kurt Hoekstra should also give us some ammunition now out of the bullpen as well as Keegan Akin and David Brennan."

The Broncos start their season in Memphis against the Tigers on February 14th. They don't open their home schedule until March 25th when they hope to take on Northwestern (weather permitting). Their first MAC home game is against Ohio on March 28th, part of an 8 game stretch over 7 days, rather hefty for most NCAA teams.