SSU Baseball Aims For Playoffs With Help From Empire Prep Players

Posted By Press Democrat Staff Writer Michael Coit:

Staying late after practice, hanging out beyond the diamond, Sonoma State’s baseball players are a tight team confident they can defeat any opponent.

Joey Van Cleave

For the season’s first month Sonoma State wouldn’t fall. After a run of tight losses, Sonoma State has won seven of eight, solidifying the Seawolves return to the NCAA Division II national rankings.

“We just molded well together. You can just feel the energy,” said left fielder Steve Filippi, from Sonoma Valley High. “We felt before the season that this team could be good.”

Second in the California Collegiate Athletic Association and No. 16 in the nation, Sonoma State aims for a return to the NCAA West Regional playoffs after last season’s disappointing campaign. But playing in one of the nation’s toughest conferences – four teams in the national rankings –makes that task tougher.

UC San Diego – runner up in last season’s Division II College World Series – presents the latest challenge. The Tritons, ranked No. 21, are in Rohnert Park for a four game set opening today.

“Last year really left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouths,” said relief pitcher and closer Joey Van Cleave, from Windsor High. “This year every single person on the team is pulling in the right direction. We all have the same goal to win as a team and do whatever it takes.”

By any measure, Sonoma State has been better than their opponents. The Seawolves are outhitting the opposition owing much to an outstanding pitching staff. In the field, Sonoma State has made fewer errors despite more defensive chances with the baseball.

Like his players, Sonoma State coach John Goelz said the Seawolves greatest asset is its team play. Goelz is in his 26th year leading Sonoma State.

“We’re playing well together. We have guys that are dedicated and like minded,” he said, noting the importance of so-called chemistry in a close conference race. “The league is real tough. There are a lot of teams that can beat you.”

On the field, Sonoma State’s pitching has been the stellar facet of the Seawolves strong all around game. Sonoma State leads the conference in earned run average (2.98) and holding opponents to the lowest batting average (.219) so far this season.

The staff ace is Kenny Arnerich, who is 5-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 50 innings pitched. The other starters are Thomas Lee and Kendall Davis.

“Each of them could by number one starters for any other team. That’s what makes us so good,” Van Cleave said.

Leading the Seawolves in pitching appearances, Van Cleave has become the closer with four of the team’s seven saves. Van Cleave has finished eight games.

“Last year I beat myself. This year I’m just going right after them and see if they can beat me,” he said.

Hitting for average and power, O’Koyea Dickson leads the offense, batting .374 with six home runs and 29 runs batted in. Kyle Jones is hitting .372 with 11 doubles and 26 RBI. The Seawolves have outscored opponents 169-106. Cameron Cook, out of Analy High, has been a designated hitter and outfielder for the Seawolves.

Leading off for Sonoma State is Filippi, who tops the team in stolen bases and is second in runs scored in his sophomore season.

“I’m doing better with my overall approach in the field and going up to the plate,” he said. “I’m just more comfortable.”

Hitting is difficult enough, but offense is down and pitchers have a greater advantage across the college game due to changes in bat technology to improve safety this season. Metal bats have been deadened to perform like wood bats, limiting the speed of batted balls.

 Success at the plate demands that hitters swing at strikes and have quick hands to drive balls. Bats won’t make up for poor swings or hitting pitches off the strike zone.

“With those bats, if you throw strikes you’ve got a better chance. You can go after hitters more,” Goelz said.

Sonoma State’s formula for success has been strong pitching, timely hitting, good gloves – and home cooking.

Looking to improve on their 14-1 mark in Rohnert Park against UC San Diego, the Seawolves are confident they still can play better on any diamond.

“We haven’t even hit our stride together as a total team, but there’s been glimpses of it,” Van Cleave said. “We’re doing the things we need to win.”