SALEM - With opening day 11 days away, the Salem baseball team prepares for a new season and a new conference. The Quakers leave behind the All-American Conference for the the NBC. Admittedly, Salem doesn't know much about its new league, but then again the new league doesn't know much about the Quakers.
"I don't know a whole lot about the NBC as far as who's who, the big players or anything scouting report wise, but I do know it's a very, very good baseball conference and I know it's very, very competitive," sixth-year Salem head coach Aaron Alejers said, "It's just a totally different conference than what we're used to and in a totally different location from the teams we're used to playing. It's definitely a challenge knowing how good teams are, but not knowing the tendencies and characteristics of certain players. They don't know anything about us either so hopefully that equals things out. We don't know what to expect from them and they don't know what to expect from us. What we do expect is very good baseball."
The Quakers also expect an improvement on last season's 6-14 mark. After all, Salem returns seven lettermen and only has to deal really with one big loss in the graduation of All-AAC pitcher Kenny Saltsman.
"Kenny was a really big loss," Alejers said. "We did lose five seniors and four of those five were pitchers so we did lose some arms, but we do return quite a bit of players and experience from last year."
Among those seven returning lettermen stands just one senior - Jon Fortney. Fortney, a third baseman and pitcher, was a First Team All-AAC selection and a two-year starter in 2011.
Brendan Webb, another two-year starter and All-League First Teamer, returns at shortstop as well as the mound. He leads a group of five returning juniors. Keaton O'Brien is back in left field. He too made the All-ACC First Team and led the Quakers in batting last season. Zach Economous also returns to pitch and will man one of the corner bases. Storm Haueter was an All-ACC Honorable Mention as a utility player. The versatile infielder/outfielder will again be used in the utility capacity. Jake Carner, the Quakers' quarterback in the fall, is also back. He may play the outfield and can fill either battery position as a catcher or a pitcher.
The only sophomore letterman is middle infielder Alex Weikart. Weikart will be used at second or short and will also pitch.
"Those guys gained some valuable experience last year in the field," Alejers said. "Anytime you have seven lettermen back, it's a good thing."
Where the Quakers will be without experience is pitching. Salem has a lot of bodies to put on the mound, but few have substantial time at the varsity level.
"Right now, we have 16 pitchers on the J.V. and varsity and that's nice," Alejers said. "But having lost four pitchers from last season and with Kenny pitching probably a third of our innings, we don't have a lot of experienced pitchers. Kenny pitched all of our big games and we relied on him to keep us in games. Webb and Economous probably pitched 12 innings on season. Weikart might have threw seven or eight. We have a lot of arms but just not a lot of varsity experience."
The Quakers do have a promising pitcher prospect in senior Mike Dennison. Dennison, who can also play first, was to play a big role in last season's rotation, but was injured early.
"Mike had one start last year before he was injured," Alejers said. "We're glad we got him back and are hoping he'll pick right up and step in."
Alejers said two other newcomers could make an impact this season - sophomore Jordan McGuire and freshman Trace Jenkins.
Despite the pitching questions, Alejers is confident his defense will be key.
"Our defense is definitely our strength," he said. "That's what we're counting on. We're a great defensive team and I want us to show that. As for as competition goes, I don't really care about the wins and losses. If we lose 2-0 or 3-1 and play the kind of defense we're capable of, I'll be happy. I always stress the little things and we still have a lot of work to do, but we have the potential to really be sharp on defense."
If Salem has a weakness, it's lack of power at the plate. But that, according to Alejers, has been the Quakers' achilles heel for years.
"I've been around Salem baseball for 12 years now and we've always lacked the big bats," he said. "We just don't have power or that big bang at the plate. To compensate for that we have to be smart. We have to be smart on the bases and we need situational hitting. We have to understand hitting in situations and we have to get our bunts down. And when we do get on base, we have take that extra base when the defense gets lackadaisical and gives it to us. Hopefully, I'm wrong. Hopefully we'll come out of the gate hitting triples and doubles, but if not we have to be smart on offense."
All and all, Alejers is happy with the 2012 Quakers. They still have a way to go, but they're showing a desire to get there and the work ethic needed to pave the way.
"I like this group," he said. "They are working hard and getting after it and our first goal is to improve as a team. The new league will be a challenge, but these guys want to get better and are working hard at it. We have a really positive crew and hopefully we'll surprise a few people coming off a 6-14 season."
Alejers is assisted by Jeff Aneres and Charlie Peters.
The Quakers open the season March 26 at home opposite Lisbon.