Dana Daniels | Sun Staff Photographer

Cornell will open its season with a 14-game travel stretch, not arriving at Hoy Field until the beginning of April.

February 28, 2017

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Last February was a time of great excitement for the Cornell baseball program. After several lackluster seasons at Hoy Field, Cornell decided to make a change.

The Red tapped ACC powerhouse Clemson’s associate head coach Dan Pepicelli over the summer to lead the baseball team back to the top of the Ivy League. Although the 2016 campaign did not go exactly as planned, the team cannot wait to get back on the field for this season — which begins Saturday in a three-game series at the U.S. Naval Academy.

After arriving just a few months before his first game on the slate, Pepicelli’s inaugural season at the helm was by all accounts a rebuilding year. Cornell finished 14-24 with a 7-13 record in conference play — good for last in the league. However the team did have some impressive wins; a season sweep of Harvard, three out of four from Columbia and wins over non-league opponents Wofford and Bucknell demonstrated the team’s ability.

“We really struggled with depth last year, so you’d see these games where if you could stay right on the [game plan], we could beat anybody,” Pepicelli said. “We beat the best teams on the schedule which was a little strange.”

Following last season’s end, Pepicelli made several changes to the team — moves that affected the roster as well as the staff. As a result, the Red hopes to make significant strides on the diamond in 2017.

“We’ve made a lot of changes this year,” Pepicelli said. “We kind of reshuffled personnel here, and we added some depth. This is a much, much different program now. The roster’s different, the coaching assignments are different. This wasn’t a small change, there were a lot of big changes.”

“I think we’re a lot better than we were last year,” he concluded.

Along with the new changes, Cornell will be aided by several of the team’s key producers returning for another year. Four of its top five starting pitchers remain with the Red for this season, and its four most productive hitters will also be back in the lineup.

Junior Dale Wickham — second on the team in average, home runs and RBIs last year — will be the team’s every day right fielder. Senior first baseman Cole Rutherford is also back after leading the team in homers, RBIs and slugging percentage, despite undergoing a significant leg surgery in the offseason. He seems to have returned to form and “found his swing,” according to Pepicelli.

The team is also very excited to have senior infielder Tommy Wagner back in the lineup after missing most of last season. On the mound, seniors Tim Willittes and Paul Balestrieri will attempt to reassert themselves as front-of-the-rotation pitchers after each had issues at times last season.

“[Tim] really struggled last year, but he’s made some major improvements. I think a fresh start was good for him, and he has really responded to it,” Pepicelli said. “[Balestrieri’s] an anchor for the pitching staff, and I think he’s better than what his numbers were last year.”

Junior lefthander Justin Lewis will also feature prominently in this year’s rotation. Lewis appeared in 14 games for the Red last season and led the staff with a 3.63 ERA. The California native appeared both out of the bullpen and as a starter in four Ivy League contests, and was second on the team in strikeouts per nine innings pitched.

This year, the team will look to revamp its pitching and hitting. The players back from injury will help, but so should the squad’s seven new freshmen.

Kaleb Lepper is expected to be the team’s opening day center fielder — allowing Wickham to move back to right from center — and right hander Jeb Bemiss has a shot to make the starting rotation. Colby Wyatt and John Natoli are also expected to contribute out of the bullpen. The team also added junior Ryan Krainz — a transfer — in the offseason who will start at shortstop, enabling senior Frankie Padulo to return to second base.

The 2017 schedule that gets underway Saturday is particularly busy. The season’s slate consists of 40 games in under two months, with Ivy League play starting up on April 1. Within the Ivy  League, Cornell lies in the Lou Gehrig division, along with Columbia, Penn and Princeton.

In addition to four games against each of Cornell’s division rivals, the Red will play two against the remaining Ivy schools in the Red Rolfe division. On top of that, the team has non-league bouts against a wide range of schools. After three with the Naval Academy on the road this weekend, the Red will take on George Mason, Richmond, Campbell, Michigan St., Bucknell and Penn St. before finally playing its home opener against Brown. The 14-game stretch of travel to open the season will certainly be a test for Cornell.

“That’s tough, but it’s just the way it’s worked out,” Pepicelli said. “This is a beautiful facility here, and we’re going to try to take more advantage of that in the future, but … Ithaca weather is unpredictable in March.”

Once back home on Hoy Field, Cornell will play 20 of its last 26 against Ivy opponents. Despite finishing in the bottom half of the conference in his first season, Pepicelli has lofty aspirations in store for this season.

“I definitely want to win an Ivy League championship, and if we can be a factor halfway [through the season] like we were last year, I think given the adjustments we could do it,” he said. “That’s our goal that we’ve prepared for. I don’t shy away from that.”

It all gets underway this Saturday at 11 a.m. when the Red opens up a three-game set against the Midshipmen — including Saturday’s doubleheader. Navy (2-4, 0-0 Patriot) has a solid team, going 43-16-1 last year and earned a spot in the NCAA tournament. Regardless, Pepicelli is excited about the matchup.

“Navy is a great place for us to open up. They’re a tough opponent that had a great year last year, and we’re looking forward to playing them,” he said. “I want to see how good we are. My vision for the program is to be competitive no matter where we go.”

There are many intriguing aspects of this 2017 Cornell baseball team to watch for in what is just a two-month season, and it all gets started on Saturday down in Annapolis with Tim Willittes on the hill.

“We’ve got experienced guys who have almost all played college baseball before,” an eager Pepicelli said “Let’s go, and let’s see what we’ve got.”