A Season of Change for Cardinal Baseball

- Sam Corbett

by Sam Corbett


Back on May 12th, Jack Oberli swung right over the top of a fastball from Illinois Wesleyan’s Luke Costello. In an instant, North Central was eliminated from the conference tournament, ending their season. A 7-5 loss to the Titans was the program’s second loss of the day, previously falling to the host team Augustana Vikings, 7-4.

It was a rather disappointing ending to a team that returned several former All-American, All-Region, and All-Conference players. To many fans of the CCIW, it felt like the last ride for North Central’s dominance in the conference. The Cardinals would say goodbye to four starting pitchers who accounted for over 200 innings, a good chunk of the bullpen, and some heavy bats in their potent lineup. 2023 was supposed to be the magical run after a humbling exit against UW-Stevens Point in the 2022 Regional Round. Instead, 2023 ended on another sour note, with NCC not even making the conference tournament championship.

Players packed their bags and headed home, ready to start preparation for the 2024 season. Head Coach Ed Mathey saw his team’s leaders clean up their lockers for the final time. No more Rob Marinec, Jared Wojcik, Justin Rios, and Dom Listi in the middle of his lineup. No more Ryan Behling, Jason Shanner, Luke Lamm, or Rob Deischer on the mound in pivotal moments.

Mathey knew 2024 would be a fresh start; he didn’t know how fresh. On July 18th, during the middle of collegiate summer ball competition, Mathey’s longtime assistant coach, Joe Heller, was hired by local conference rival Elmhurst University to manage their program. Heller spent 15 years in Naperville as a player, graduate assistant, and assistant coach. Less than a month later, Mathey named Connor Christman, the 2023 Cardinal GA, as the new assistant coach.

“(Christman) has not only shown the ability to coach our student-athletes at a high level but has also shown an ability to communicate and relate to them as well,” said Mathey. “Growing up around the professional baseball evaluation world and having played NCAA Division I baseball (at Butler University), Connor has absorbed much knowledge to help our student-athletes be the best that they can be.”

North Central enters the 2024 campaign not receiving any votes in the Preseason Top 25 D3Baseball.com poll for the first time since 2016. That year, Mathey guided the program to a regional championship appearance.

The Cardinals go from a roster of 48 in the ‘23 season to just 39 this year. Many positions still have no named starter with Opening Day less than three weeks away. Mathey has lots of depth all around the diamond, but he’ll look to some familiar names to lead the way.

Junior southpaw AJ Kutcher and sophomore righty Gavin Gawronski look to log several starts for the Cards on the bump. Kutcher was the CCIW Pitcher Of the Week through his two starts the week of March 27th last year. Gawronski was recently named the program’s Newcomer Of The Year for his efforts in long relief last year, tallying a 3.04 ERA in a team-high 16 appearances.

Locking down games will be The Donkey, Nolan Shannon, a 2023 4th-Team All-American who was also named a 2024 3rd-Team Preseason All-American. With his blazing fastball that can get up to 93 miles per hour paired with his wipeout slider, the senior should be atop the conference’s best in strikeouts.

Offensively, seniors Trey Roach and Davey Fitzpatrick along with junior John Michael Scumaci should bring some pop along with good speed from senior Luke Lehnen and junior Joe Hamilton. Pima College transfer sophomore Peyton Burgh looks to hold down a corner outfield spot as well.

“Practice has been really fun because every day guys are pushing each other, more than last year,” said Roach. “We know we have more work to do and it’s going to take every one of us. We’re just excited to get things going outside.”

The Cardinals have many people doubting their abilities, and rightfully so. There are a lot of unproven pieces on the roster, but Mathey’s lit a fire under every single one of his players.

“We just want to prove people wrong,” said senior pitcher Anthony Raineri. “We lost a lot of good guys, we know that. But we know we’ve still got something special here. Our goal is to continue with their tradition. Mathey always loves saying ‘The standard is the standard.’’’

“Mathey, Connor, (Pitching Coach Tim) Stoddard, and the rest of the coaching staff have been preaching the same message to us since the fall,” said Shannon. “We need to have a next-man-up mentality, and to focus on our attitude and effort day in and day out.”

North Central begins its season the weekend of February 23rd down in Memphis, Tennessee in the Rhodes College Tournament with three games against Webster, Rhodes, and Franklin. They’ll also travel south to Louisville, Kentucky for the Derby City Classic and spend Spring Break between Port Charlotte, Florida in the Snowbird Baseball Classic and Adrian, Michigan in the Adrian College Invite.

Of their first 10 opponents, nine of them were regionally ranked to end the 2023 season. Over 40 percent of the entire schedule consists of teams receiving votes in the Preseason Top 25 Poll. Mathey wants his guys lined up against the best, partially because of how the NCAA selection process works. With a tough non-conference schedule, the Cards will have a boosted strength of schedule which could be a deciding factor come postseason play.

WONC Sports begins broadcasting the club on March 30th with a home doubleheader against the Wheaton College Thunder starting at noon.

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