Sunny
53°
Sunny
Hi 57° | Lo 42°

Expectations Are Sky-High

Dartmouth Looks to Ride Hot Start to an Ivy League Title

  • Dartmouth baseball coach Bob Whalen speaks with pitchers Mitch Horacek, left, and Michael Johnson during yesterday’s practice at Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park. The Big Green (11-1) hosts Siena this afternoon in its home opener, then travel to Pennsylvania and Columbia this weekend to begin Ivy League play. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

    Dartmouth baseball coach Bob Whalen speaks with pitchers Mitch Horacek, left, and Michael Johnson during yesterday’s practice at Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park. The Big Green (11-1) hosts Siena this afternoon in its home opener, then travel to Pennsylvania and Columbia this weekend to begin Ivy League play. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dartmouth College assistant coach Evan Wells prepares to hit a ground ball to a group of infielders during yesterday's practice. The Big Green hosts Siena today in its home opener. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

    Dartmouth College assistant coach Evan Wells prepares to hit a ground ball to a group of infielders during yesterday's practice. The Big Green hosts Siena today in its home opener. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dartmouth College infielder Thomas Roulis watches his throw head towards first base during yesterday's practice at Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park. The Big Green hosts Siena today in its home opener. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

    Dartmouth College infielder Thomas Roulis watches his throw head towards first base during yesterday's practice at Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park. The Big Green hosts Siena today in its home opener. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dartmouth baseball coach Bob Whalen speaks with pitchers Mitch Horacek, left, and Michael Johnson during yesterday’s practice at Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park. The Big Green (11-1) hosts Siena this afternoon in its home opener, then travel to Pennsylvania and Columbia this weekend to begin Ivy League play. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)
  • Dartmouth College assistant coach Evan Wells prepares to hit a ground ball to a group of infielders during yesterday's practice. The Big Green hosts Siena today in its home opener. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)
  • Dartmouth College infielder Thomas Roulis watches his throw head towards first base during yesterday's practice at Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park. The Big Green hosts Siena today in its home opener. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

Hanover — Midway through yesterday afternoon’s Dartmouth College baseball practice, a batted ball soared over the left field fence at Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park and crashed through the rear windshield of a passing sedan on Park Street. Reports came back that the driver was unhurt, although her heart rate was doubtless significantly elevated from the shock.

They’re dangerous, these Big Green hardballers. Just ask Baseball America, one of the sport’s bibles, which predicted before the season that Dartmouth will win its third Ivy League title in the past five years. With an 11-1 start, the program’s best record ever through 12 games, this group has lived up to those expectations thus far.

“It’s exciting and infectious,’’ said senior pitcher Cole Sulser, whose club hosts Siena (6-15) today in its first home game. “But we have to play every series and game like it’s our last one, because the (Ivy) season is so short and if you mess up the first or second weekend, it can really come back to hurt you in the end.”

Dartmouth plays doubleheaders at Pennsylvania and Columbia this weekend before hosting Princeton and Cornell for twinbills on April 6-7. The latter two teams are the Ancient Eight’s last most recent champions and both have beaten the visiting Big Green in the title series.

“We have the talent to win the league, but the fact that we haven’t the last two years is a positive for this year,’’ said junior right fielder Jeff Keller. “It keeps the guys motivated and hungry and humble. There is certainly the expectation that we’re going to be in that situation, but we thought we were going to win the league the last two years and we haven’t. All other seven teams can beat us.”

Few if any of those teams, however, boast a pitching staff like Dartmouth’s. It begins with Sulser, a fifth-year engineering student and right-hander who was a first team All-Ivy selection as a junior but missed last spring because of arm surgery. He’s followed by senior left-hander Kyle Hunter, who led the Big Green in innings and tied for its lead in starts and complete games last year.

Lefties Michael Johnson and Mitch Horacek complete the four-man starting rotation, with sophomore Adam Frank, another lefty and an honorable mention All-Ivy pick last year, as a fifth option. Sophomore righthander Thomas Olson had six saves and was a Freshman All-American in 2012, and sophomore righthander Louis Concato is 5-2 in nine college starts.

“We feel very comfortable because even if one guy has an off day, we know we’ve got a great chance that the other three starters will play well,’’ Sulser said. “We’re also returning a lot of guys in the bullpen, and we don’t think we should be outmatched in any game when it comes to our pitching staff. It gives the hitters extra leeway.”

Hitting has gone well so far for Dartmouth, which is batting a combined .311 despite a .195 start from All-Ivy first baseman Dustin Selzer, a junior. Sophomore third baseman Nick Lombardi leads the team with a .400 average and freshman center fielder Nick Ruppert has started every game, is hitting .385 and has yet to commit an error. Senior Ennis Coble, the All-Ivy designated hitter last year, is now in left field.

Gone to the pro ranks are standout shortstop Joe Sclafani and catcher Chris O’Dowd. Sophomore Matt Parisi and freshman Trent Goodrich are competing to replace the former, while sophomore Matt McDowell has been playing often behind the dish. Second baseman Thomas Roulis tied for fifth in the Ivies in RBIs last year and was stellar in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League (a collegiate summer league), but has battled an injury of late.

Dartmouth opened eyes across the country when it began the season by winning a tournament at the University of Minnesota, beating the host Gophers, Northern Illinois and Utah at the Metrodome. Victories over Army and North Dakota State, which combined to win 81 games last season, soon followed and the Big Green’s confidence has soared.

“It set the tone and now we expect to win every game,’’ Keller said. “When we’ve gone out in the past (for nonconference games), other players would tell us we were better than they thought we’d be, but they’d still beat us. This time it was ‘You guys are better than we thought and you’re better than us, too,’ which was nice to hear.”

Dartmouth and 24th-year coach Bob Whalen walk a fine line, however, between belief and the realization that past triumphs don’t guarantee any in the future.

“There’s an expectation of success and that starts with me,’’ Whalen said. “I’ve never looked at it as us shrinking under someone else’s expectations, because if you’ve recruited the right players, they rise to meet pressure situations instead of being crushed under their weight.

“So much of what we do with these players is about making them mentally tough, but they’re not professionals and this has to be fun.”

Although perhaps not for drivers on Park Street.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.