Bears struggle out of gate

         By Cam Dion

       After going 34-24 in 2010, the University of Northern Colorado’s baseball team had high hopes entering the 2011 season. A talented core of returning players, combined with intriguing newcomers and a new coaching staff, was supposed to improve upon the previous year. The Great West Conference Preseason Poll, voted on in February by coaches, had the Bears second in the conference.
            Head coach Carl Iwasaki was confident in his team’s ability entering the season.
            “They [the players] won’t remember the score of the Nebraska game, but they will remember us beating Kansas State this season. They will remember winning the conference championship but they won’t remember the score,” Iwasaki said.
            As of April 19, the Bears are 8-26, a winning percentage of .235.  They lost both Nebraska games by a combined score of 18-6 and they lost both Kansas State games by a combined score of 22-6. They are 4-4 in Great West Conference play, good for fifth place out of eight teams.
            The offense has been underwhelming. The team scored three or fewer runs in 11 of its first 19 games, winning only two games and scoring 74 runs. All nine starters hit between .326 and .392 last season, while five starters are hitting .280 or below this season. The 2010 Bears also hit 80 home runs, while the 2011 team has only managed to hit seven.
            The pitching has been poor, giving up 275 runs over the season for a 7.52 ERA. Joe Sawicki, the team’s ace who won nine games with a 3.02 ERA last season, is 2-6 with a 7.88 ERA. Only two pitchers, Nate Steinmetz and Cameron Tallman, have ERAs below 5.27 with more than five innings pitched. Steinmetz has a 4.24 ERA and Tallman has a 4.76 ERA, each in 17 innings pitched. Joe Willman leads the team with three wins, but his 5.27 ERA leaves room for improvement.
            There are some positives to look forward to over the remainder of the season. The team has scored four or more runs in 13 of the past 15 games, winning six games and scoring 108 runs. The team has scored 54 runs and given up 37 in eight conference games. Sawicki is 2-0 in his last two starts with a 1.80 ERA. They also play 13 of their remaining 28 games at home.
            The Great West Conference is relatively weak this year, with conference leader Utah Valley University 4-0 in conference play but only 12-17 overall. The University of Texas Pan-American (16-12) is the only team with a winning record. The Bears play a four-game series against UTPA this weekend, giving them a chance to make up ground.
            The Bears still have time to turn around their season. A .500 overall record will be nearly impossible, but a conference title is a possibility. The talent is there, and if the hitting stays hot and the pitching improves, the Bears may be able to salvage their season. Iwasaki may have been wrong on two of his predictions, but there is still a chance for the third one to happen.
            Update: The Bears are 8-1 over their past nine games, pushing their overall record to 16-27. The Bears swept the four-game series against UTPA, lost a game to Air Force and completed a sweep of conference rival New Jersey Institute of Technology this weekend.
            Willman and Chris Carlberg each won two games during the stretch. Berggren hit .613 with nine runs scored, 16 RBI and two home runs. Berggren has already been named Great West Player of the Week for the weeks ending on April 12 and 26 and is on pace to win his third in the past four weeks.
            The Bears now lead the Great West with a 12-4 conference record. Second place UVU has an 11-1 conference record. The team plays 12 more regular season games: four at home against North Dakota, four at Chicago State and four at UVU. The conference title will likely come down to those last four games, and with the way the Bears have been playing recently, their chances are good.