A 30-win season, the second in a row, didn’t seem in the cards for the Milwaukee Panthers baseball team heading into 2016, especially considering that 21 of their 35 players hadn’t taken the field for the Panthers before… but they did just that. That overachievement, with largely a cast of newcomers, has expectations sky-high as the 2017 campaign approaches.
Following their 39-win 2015 campaign, the Panthers weren’t thought too highly of coming into 2016, being picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Horizon League. Milwaukee surpassed those expectations in a big way by going 17-11 in conference play, which was good enough for second. In fact, considering all of the new additions, the Panthers coming one game away from a Horizon League Tournament Championship game berth and a chance at the NCAA Tournament was a tremendous accomplishment.
The youth moment that propelled the Panthers to their great finish was led primarily by Horizon League Player of the Year, Daulton Varsho. The sophomore catcher led the league in hitting with an average of .381. He also collected 51 RBI’s and a league-leading seven triples. Another key part of this movement on the diamond was junior college-transfer Billy Quirke. The second baseman hit .273 with 22 RBI’s and posted a fielding percentage of .957. Those numbers were good enough to earn the first-year Panther second-team all conference honors.
The youth movement continued to the mound where non-seniors collected 16 wins and amassed an ERA of 3.54, in 2016. One of those non-senior arms, Adam Reuss, was surprised by the success the Panthers had in 2016 and commended the young guys for coming in and performing.
“I think we overachieved as a team,” Reuss said. “We had a bunch of new guys, so they had to come in and fill the roles which I think they did and we actually had a pretty good season.”
Not to be outdone by the youngsters, the Panthers also received considerable contributions from several seniors…most notably pitcher Brian Keller and outfielder Luke Meeteer. Keller led the Horizon in strikeouts with 103, tied for the league-lead in wins with 10 and finished top-five in ERA at 3.10. Meeteer was a very strong second punch on offense for the Panthers after Varsho. He finished second in the conference in batting, hitting .362 and fourth in runs, with 53.
To get to a point where the Panthers were only one game away from the NCAA Tournament took immense resiliency. Milwaukee started the season 4-12. But the competition was strong, playing teams like Kansas State, Arkansas State and Texas Tech, and the Panthers learned a great deal from those early-season matchups.
“ Personally, I like playing those better teams, then you kind of know where your team’s at,” pitcher Jay Peters said. “That’s where you want to get to.”
One could tell the Panthers learned a lot as they rattled off six-straight wins upon returning to the Midwest in three-game sweeps of Illinois State and Youngstown State. The Panthers strong form continued throughout the remainder of the season, as Milwaukee would only lose three series the rest of the way… one of which was to the Iowa Hawkeyes of the Big Ten.
Although the sting of last year’s close call still surfaces, the 2017 campaign is shaping up to be a bountiful one for the Milwaukee Panthers. The loss of Meeteer and Keller will be big ones for the Panthers, but they feel there is enough talent in place to compete and win a Horizon League title in 2017.
“I think we want to go past the conference tournament this year and I think we have a team that can do that,” Peters said.
Although only time will tell if the Panthers can compete for a conference title this season, the pieces seem to be in place to do so. Behind the aged core of Varsho and Co., the goal seems to be in sight.