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Baseball eyes first ever MWC crown

In their three seasons playing baseball at Grinnell, the Class of 2012 made three appearances in the Midwest Conference (MWC) Tournament, taking runner-up honors in 2010, but never winning a MWC championship. Head Coach Tim Hollibaugh has coached at Grinnell for eighteen years, but he has yet to win a MWC Championship. In fact, in the history of Grinnell baseball, the Pioneers have not collected a MWC crown. That could change this year.

Kainoa Inafuku ’14 hits during practice in the Fieldhouse. Photograph by Joey Brown

“The team goal is to get into the NCAA playoffs,” Hollibaugh said. “We want to win conference.”

Having never won conference, past Grinnell teams had much more modest goals than this year’s squad. But this year is different. For a senior class that has finished fourth, second, and third over the last three years in the conference tournament, respectively, winning the conference would allow them to end on a high note.

“I think [winning] would mean a lot. Going into my freshman season, the goals were just different. We wanted to just make the conference tournament. … There’s a different attitude now. I think our seniors, compared to the seniors four years ago, are much more motivated to win the tournament. It would be a much bigger deal for us. We’re assuming we’re going to make the tournament now. We think we’re that good of a team,” Pope said.

Hollibaugh recognizes the importance of the Class of 2012 and thinks they should be rewarded with a conference championship.

“It would mean a lot to them. The senior class has really helped elevate our baseball program in many areas, so to them it would be something that they deserve, but we have to earn it,” he said.

The players are prepared to earn it. Infielder Michael Goldfein ’12 stressed working on the fundamentals.

“The talent is there. It’s just a matter of becoming more polished as a team. … It just comes down to discipline,” he said. “One of the big differences between being good, but not great, is being able to stay focused on those smaller things.”

Each facet of the team has its own goals to focus on this year. The offense wants to strikeout less and hit better with runners on base, while the defense aspires to lead the nation in fielding percentage.

“For pitching, we’re trying to throw more first pitch strikes and not give as many free bases as we did last year,” Pope said.

“The main emphasis is playing every game like it matters and ultimately putting ourselves in position to be the host of the conference championship,” Hollibaugh said.

The Pioneers have already played four games, finishing 1-3 on two doubleheaders March 3 and 4, splitting two games with Millikin University and dropping two to Webster University. However, Hollibaugh is not too worried about the losses.

He lauded the pitching over the weekend, but saw a need for improvement in the offense.

“We didn’t execute our offense,” Hollibaugh said. “That’s gonna be an emphasis this week: getting more swings so guys are better prepared.”

One advantage that Webster had, besides being at home, was that they had already played two games outside, whereas Grinnell had not.

“Our offense was just not prepared to be outside this early,” Pope said.

Practicing indoors is much different than playing outdoors, which threw off the team, though simply being outside was valuable.

“When you get outside, it’s just different.  You see the ball different.  Your timing is off,” Goldfein said.

“Overall, there’s a lot of positive things that we can take from playing. And the most important thing is we played, instead of kept practicing,” Hollibaugh said.

Goldfein noted one advantage the Pioneers have is their talent, including a pre-season First-Team All-American, as chosen by, catcher Mike Nodzenski ’12.

“I think we have a very talented team. It’s really pretty rare that we play teams that I feel are more talented than us,” he said.

With this talent and a can-do attitude, the 2012 squad hopes to bring home the first conference title for the seniors, for Coach Hollibaugh, and for Grinnell by staying determined all year.

“Every game matters. We’re not just going out there and playing just to play, we’re trying to win every game,” Hollibaugh said.

The Pioneers are in action on Saturday, March 10 in Fulton, MO, where they will play a doubleheader against host Westminster College.

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