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Local athletes take the field for Juniata College baseball team

The Juniata College baseball team took the field this season with a different style of play. Third-year head coach George Zanic intended to rely on the team’s defensive strength, along with a deep and talented pitching rotation to carry the Eagles this season.
The loss of some of the best offensive threats in school history due to graduation, led coach Zanic to change styles from past seasons power – wait for the three-run homer, to take advantage of defense, speed and aggressive play on the bases.
The new style of play begins on the mound with the Eagles using a deep pitching staff. Steve Brink (Central Columbia), Jayme Fye (Philipsburg-Osceola) and freshman Eric Bridenbaugh (Central) will all be near the top of the Juniata rotation. Brink tied for the team lead in wins last season and had the second-best ERA on the squad. Fye is a transfer from Slippery Rock.
Senior Josh Finafrock (Waynesboro) should find some time on the mound once he recovers from a knee injury. Freshman Darren Hake (Red Lion) could move into the starting rotation. Juniata’s bullpen is also deep with hard-throwing Ryan O’Donnell (Lebanon) and lefty Nate Capp (Camp Hill) will see much of the middle relief chores, while Eric Hatten (Dubois) will get the first opportunity at the closer’s job.
“I’m real happy about the depth of our pitching staff,” Zanic stated. “We have some real versatility with those guys and some good strong arms. I think our pitching will be a strength.”
The Juniata depth continues around the infield and behind the plate. Zanic has a choice at just about every infield position and has the availability of switching in and out as players get hot or cold.
“The guys realize nothing is guaranteed,” said Zanic, “and that they are going to have to work hard in order to get playing time. There are a lot of options and I see all of them as positive.”
The outfield situation is less chaotic. Kodi Hockenberry (Red Land) will roam center field, while left and right field are both up for grabs. Injuries befell both candidates for left field so Zanic will juggle that rotation and there is a group of five freshmen battling for the final spot in right.
Adam Camberg, (Altoona) who saw action in 10 games last year as a sophomore, will handle the cleanup and designated hitter spots in the lineup.
Whatever combination Juniata College uses, it is a good chance that it will be young. The Eagles feature a roster that includes 19 freshmen or sophomores, most of whom are ready to step in and contribute.
“I think this has been the best recruiting class since I have been head coach,” said Zanic. “The new guys are talented and they are exciting. This season will be a challenge as guys are going to have to step up and assume responsibility. I know we have the talent to be very, very competitive.”
Juniata has gone 8-9 overall through an early trip south and the regular season back in Pennsylvania including a 3-4 log in Commonwealth League play. Zanic has been very pleasantly surprised with his offense, which is doing unexpectedly well, but the defense the third-year coach was hoping for has let the Eagles down repeatedly.
“The offense has been phenomenal. We certainly didn’t expect it to be this potent,” said Zanic in comparing his early thoughts to the season thus far. “The offense has been a very pleasant surprise. We graduated from leadoff-to No. five from last year’s lineup, where we had some of the best offensive contributors in the history of the program at Juniata. The defense, which we were counting on, however, has let us down. We are making too many mistakes. I guess part of that is because we are starting six freshmen.”
Zanic has three local athletes on the Eagles squad in sophomore Matt Garner (Bellwood-Antis) and freshmen Troy Beaver (Bellwood-Antis) and Will Russell (Tyrone).
Russell has had several setbacks this season, initially being sidelined with mono. Then when he was able to play, Will suffered a hip-flexor in just his second game back and is on the shelf again.
“With his prowess on defense, Will would have had a good chance to break into the lineup at second base,” Zanic said.
Beaver, who along with Garner are both members of the Juniata College football team, was the victim of a cheap-shot in the Eagles’ final football game and isn’t ready to play just yet following knee surgery. Before the injury, Zanic had Beaver penciled in as his leadoff hitter and starting center fielder.
“In the change of focus I envisioned this year, Troy fits right into the mold,” explained Zanic. “With his athleticism, I picture him hitting first or second when he is able to come back.”
Garner played on the baseball team last spring and is one of the leading returners, although he has been hampered by a knee injury also.
Garner has settled down in right, batted .417 during the team’s trip South earlier this spring and had five hits during the last week in March along with three RBIs.
“If it is possible for a sophomore to be a team leader, than Matt Garner is our leader,” emphasized coach Zanic. “Matt epitamizes what a college athlete should be. He has a 3.95 grade-point-average and even battling with a knee injury, he is the guy everybody else looks up to. He is always getting the game-winning hit, or saving the game with a super catch. Matt is so mature, I forget sometimes that he is only a sophomore.”