ELON — At the start of Elon’s baseball season, the discussion is already revolving around the finish.
That’s because coach Mike Kennedy said the most pressing question for the Phoenix comes with the bullpen.
“We’ve got to find a bullpen,” Kennedy said. “We know there’s a necessity, a need at the back end. If we can figure that out …”
The Phoenix, which opens the season with a three-game series that begins Friday against visiting Penn State, is trying to bounce back from a 24-32 season. That was the third losing season in a row, but the lowest win total since the school was transitioning to Division I in 1999.
Junior right-hander Ryan Conroy appears set to have the first crack at being the closer. Conroy made 11 of his 14 appearances as a starter last year, but Kennedy said Conroy has the makeup that can translate well to end-of-game situations.
The starting rotation for this week is set with sophomores George Kirby, Kyle Brnovich and Owen Lorenz, a left-hander. Fifth-year senior Robbie Welhaf figures to handle some starts during the season.
“Lorenz, he’s a wild card for us,” Kennedy said, noting the pitcher drew challenging assignments last year. “If he can do for us what he does against us (in practice), we’re going to like that.”
Kennedy said it’s the first time in three years that the Phoenix appears at full strength in the pitching rotation for the early part of the season.
Plus, right-hander Mason Daniels missed the 2017 season with an injury, so he’ll be a redshirt sophomore looking to bolster his numbers from 2016 when his four victories shared the team lead.
Kirby said the second go-around should be smoother for many of the pitchers.
“We have a lot of depth,” he said. “We have a better understanding of (college) hitters. … There should be a lot more consistency. It just comes down to correcting the things we screwed up on.”
Kirby said he relishes the opening-day assignment. He’s from Rye, N.Y., so he said he shouldn’t be bothered by potential chilly conditions.
Junior shortstop Ryne Ogren, the 2017 team Most Valuable Player, said the team is motivated to produce better results.
“We have a plan this year. Rather than last year, we were kind of showing and going,” Ogren said. “This year, we’re on the attack. We’re not defensive by any means. We’re in a good spot. … I think we started rebuilding from the bottom up. Everything we want to happen in our baseball career is going to happen through each other.”
Ogren, who joins senior outfielder Zach Evers and Welhaf as captains, batted a team-best .350 last year.
“It’s going to be hard to do that again,” Kennedy said. “(We’ve told him) you’re going to be pitched differently. You’re the guy. Good players figure it out.”
Ogren’s 33 RBI also reflect the most for a returning Elon player.
Evers and sophomore second baseman Joe Satterfield were mainstays in the lineup last season, though Satterfield also played quite a bit as a third baseman.
Senior catcher Hayden Platt batted .311 last year. Other returnees with significant playing time are junior catcher / first baseman James Venuto, sophomore catcher Ty Adcock, redshirt sophomore third baseman Cam Devanney, junior first baseman Shawn Blake and junior outfielder Liam O’Regan.
The Phoenix is counting on players making next steps in several cases after they were pressed into duties in 2017.
“A lot of young guys who have played a lot,” Kennedy said. “So we hope that will pay off.”
Ogren and Kennedy said reducing strikeouts has been an emphasis for the batters. The Phoenix went down with 9.96 strikeouts per game last year.
Newcomers most likely to find significant playing time are catcher Matt Oldham, infielder Jack Roberts and left-handed pitcher Jared Wetherbee, Kennedy said.
“You’re trying to figure out what roles you’re going to establish,” Kennedy said. “In about three weeks, some of that will change.”
Kennedy is entering his 22nd season as the head coach at his alma mater. He holds a 678-524-3 record as the winningest coach in program history.