(Photo via the GoHatters.com, seen here)
Entering 2018, Baseball America pegged the Stetson Hatters as the favorites in the Atlantic Sun Conference, projecting them to reach the NCAA tournament behind Preseason All-America right-hander Logan Gilbert. In the early going, that projection looks prescient, with Stetson off to a 17-3 start, and Gilbert performing even better than advertised as he looks to cement himself as a first-round talent in the upcoming draft. Given that success, one might be inclined to believe that Stetson head coach Steve Trimper has short-term objectives in mind. In a recent interview with CBBSN, he noted that, while he is pleased with his team’s performance in the early going, the Hatter staff is trying to recreate the sustainable success that they experienced under long-time head coach Pete Dunn, who led the team to seven regional appearances from 2002-2016.
Stetson is off to a good start towards re-establishing themselves thus far. Not only is their record stellar, but their underlying performance backs it up. In the most recent edition of CBBSN’s power rankings based on run differential and quality of competition, Stetson ranked among the top 25 teams in the nation. Even so, the Hatters are not looking forward to a conference title or postseason play; they have a more abstract goal in mind.
“We just wanted to change the culture to a complete win-at-all-costs culture,” Trimper said of his program. “That’s the biggest challenge and goal we’ve had so far. It wasn’t about, ‘hey, we’re going to go to Omaha, we’re going to win the conference,’ or anything like that.” On-field results are secondary, a natural offshoot of an improved mentality. What exactly does establishing a new culture entail? “Trying to play every game like it’s going to win us the conference championship or win us a regional… I think in college baseball, you can sometimes get a little bit lax. There’s a lot of games, a lot of practice time, and everybody has those slip-up games, and we just want to limit those.”
For Trimper, creating that focus and mentality begins at the top. “I felt strongly that we had to solidify our (coaching) staff,” Trimper said. “Obviously, Coach [Dave] Therneau has been a big jump in our success on the pitching side of things. We were really fortunate to hire Joe Mercadante, who has a ton of Florida ties, as our assistant coach and recruiting guy.” The staff’s message has trickled down to the players. “The players have bought into it tremendously,” Trimper affirmed. “They’ve competed extremely hard in practice, which I think has led to our complete level when we play outside competition.”
Therneau’s work with the pitching staff has been particularly evident. Stetson’s 1.89 team ERA leads the conference by nearly two runs, and they have a similarly stark lead in strikeout rate. Gilbert has been a big part of that, but not solely responsible. “Logan’s been getting all the press, [but] if you ask me the number one key factor for where we are today is Mitch Senger,” Trimper said of his team’s number-three starter. “Mitch was our biggest improvement, freshman-sophomore player. Last year, he was a lefty who had good velocity, [but] not a lot of command. He went away, he got stronger, and he’s sitting in the low-90’s. He developed that same slider that Logan has.”
Indeed, after finishing his freshman season with an ERA north of 8.00 and seven more walks than strikeouts, Senger has orchestrated a masterful turnaround this season. He is tied with Gilbert for the A-Sun lead in strikeouts with 50 (no other player has more than 34), and he sports a 1.86 ERA over his five starts. Trimper also noted that Senger’s development has an impact more far-reaching than on merely his starts, because it freed up the coaching staff to transfer former starter Brooks Wilson to the back end of the bullpen. Wilson has thrived in his new role, having not allowed a run in 18 1/3 innings, with 27 strikeouts and only eight baserunners allowed. Trimper also lauded the progress which junior right-hander Jack Perkins has made this season, while junior right-hander Joey Gonzalez has dominated in a midweek starting role.
With conference play approaching, Trimper is excited about how his team is playing, but he remains focused on the bigger picture. In addition to establishing a strong foundation on the coaching staff, Trimper’s player acquisition process is also tethered toward the creation of a culture – namely, by recruiting players who excel both on the field and academically.
“We’re looking for guys that are obviously serious about their baseball, but they also understand that getting a good education is extremely important,” he said of potential targets. Here also, his current group is succeeding, as Trimper noted that his players’ collective 3.35 GPA is a source of pride for the staff. In a state loaded with powerhouse programs, one might expect that it would be difficult for Stetson’s staff to lure their top targets to a small school in the Atlantic Sun. Trimper bristled at that notion. “Not at all,” he replied when asked how challenging it is to compete for recruits against more well-known schools in the state. “I think, at Stetson there’s a lot to sell. We’re trying to sell our program and sell ourselves that it’s a great place for a student-athlete to complete their education along with baseball. On the baseball front, we have an unbelievable stadium. We’re doing a ton of renovations in the coming years. It’s going to get us caught up with some of the [Power Five] schools, and we’ve already started those. It’s in a beautiful area, a great town, and we’re in the state of Florida. There’s a ton of talent here.”
In addition to that in-state talent, Trimper believes he has a leg up on recruiting the top high school players from the Northeast, due to his eleven years coaching at the University of Maine – “you want to talk about tough recruiting,” he quipped about trying to lure high school players from the South up to Orono – giving him connections to coaches and players in the area. While the weather, stadium renovations, and academics all give Stetson ample pull when it comes to recruiting, consistent on-field success would go a long way towards making the program a more well-known brand. With a new look coaching staff and a talented roster with a chance, even if not technically an objective of theirs, to find themselves back in the NCAA tournament this season, the Hatters are on their way to reestablishing the program, both on the field and off.