Knox has all the tools to run the Midwest Conference this year: not only are they returning eight seniors, nine juniors and five sophomores from last year, but five of those 22 were All-MWC performers last year, which is more than any other team in the league can boast.
One of the key All-MWC players returning to reignite the Prairie Fire is senior utility man Caleb Weaver, who plays infield, outfield and pitches. Last year, Weaver hit .346, good enough for a share of second place on the team, tied with junior Erik Smoy. Weaver produced six home runs, 38 RBIs and had a slugging percentage of .600, all of which were numbers good enough to grab him the fourth spot on the MWC leaderboards. He also led the team with 28 runs, 78 total bases and was second on the team with eight stolen bases.
The next returning All-MWC performer is catcher Ryan Hoffman, who hit .321 with 16 RBI. He proved to be one of the most patient hitters on the squad, leading the team with a .451 OBP, spurred by a team-high 21 walks.
Junior outfielder Jackson White was also named to the All-Midwest Conference squad. White led the team with a .371 average, tying him for 6th atop the MWC and compiled a 3.18 ERA in 5.2 innings on the mound.
Smoy’s most impressive work came on the outfield grass, where he committed no errors. His defensive work combined with his .346 average, .430 slugging percentage, .432 OBP and his impressive .500 average with RISP all factored into his All-MWC selection.
The last All-MWC performer for Knox was junior Nathaniel Grady, who had the fifth-lowest ERA in the MWC. Though his work did not always translate into wins, as Grady had only a 2-4 record in his 35.2 innings pitched, he stepped up his game when facing conference opponents. Grady posted an impressive 1.71 ERA, allowing only 13 hits and a .173 average in games against the Midwest Conference.
MWC recognition is not the only thing that counts, and as such the Prairie Fire are expecting seniors Michael Schroeder and Kyle Walenga to continue off their solid seasons last year.
Walenga had a team high 82 assists in the field and maintained his excellence on the other side of the ball as well, finishing with both an average over .300 and an OBP over .400. Schroeder had the most steals on the team with nine, and maintained the third highest OBP on the team at .438.
One of the biggest assets for the Prairie Fire is their pitching staff: 11 of the 13 pitchers that took the mound last year are returning to the team. In addition to that, two freshmen will pitch exclusively, and another will be a position player as well as a pitcher, meaning Knox has not only depth in the pitching department but also a vast wealth of experience.
Head Coach Jami Isaacson cautioned that while the freshmen are all talented enough to compete for playing time immediately, the strength and depth of the pitching staff allows them time to learn the college game and not be rushed into a starting role right away. This in itself should allow for success for the Prairie Fire immediately, as well as development of a strong pitching staff in the future.
As voted by the coaches of the MWC, Knox is predicted to come in third in the MWC South Division, only behind the defending champion Pioneers of Grinnell and the Illinois College Blueboys. Knox received only one vote to finish in first, while both the Blueboys and the Pioneers received two.
On the other side of the MWC, St. Norbert College is predicted to reclaim their MWC North Division title. Last year, the Green Knights won the entire MWC title, earning a berth in the NCAA Division III Championship Tournament.
The season begins for the Prairie Fire on March 7 in Jacksonville, Ill, against MacMurray College.
Notes: Jackson White is Co-Sports Editor at TKS. Some information used in this article was taken from the Knox College Athletics Department.