Above photo by CJ Halloran/@cjhall_photography
BELTON- As soon as Rahul Champaneri heard the news, his mind was made up.
All he had to do was relay his intentions to Mike Stawski, which he did, and came as a slight surprise to the current UMHB head baseball coach.
In June of 2019, Stawski, then head coach at Concordia-Chicago, was informed he had been named the new head coach at UMHB, a program located far from where he had established himself as a well-known leader and pitching expert, and where several of his recruiting connections were. So he asked for 24 hours to let his current team and potential recruits know about the decision, before it was officially announced. But word spread to Champaneri before he ever received a call from Stawski. Instead, it was Champaneri who called the head coach, and informed him of one thing.
“I’m coming with you,” Stawski remembers Champaneri telling him.
“I was like, ‘Hold on,’,” Stawski told Champaneri. “‘You don’t even know where it’s located yet. You couldn’t even tell me what town it is in.’
“But he called me a few hours later,” Stawski recalls, “and said, ‘I’ve already talked to my mom and dad. I want to come.’”
“I told him, ‘I’m going to be down there in about a week. Why don’t you guys come down? But let’s keep an open mind about this.’
“He committed in the first 10 minutes while he was here.”
And he has remained committed even through two challenging years with the Cru.
As a freshman, the right-hander made three starts, two of which were complete game shutouts, before Covid hit, promptly ending the season. Last year, he missed the entire season due to injury. So, naturally, being named the starter for Friday night’s season-opening duel with Hardin-Simmons in Belton has the Mundelein, Illinois native excited, but nervous at the same time.
“At this point, it’s about keeping his energy level down,” Stawski said Thursday morning. “I think he wishes the game started at about 10 a.m. today.”
Champaneri is one of several players who are new faces in the core of the team, which will be displayed as UMHB begins its 2022 season. Outfielder Drake Herrera joins the Cru after earning 2021 Newcomer of the Year honors in the Southern Athletic Association at Hendrix College. Warren Sammons figures to start at catcher in his first season out of Tyler Junior College. And true freshmen James McGlumphy and Nicklas Fenner will start on the mound in games two and three of this weekend’s series, respectively.
“He’s an exciting guy because he’s got a chance to lead off for us,” Stawski said of Herrera. “He’s going to play one of the outfield spots. He’s played a bunch of college baseball, even though he’s only a sophomore. He plays really fast, very aggressive. and bats from the left side. He’s got an edge to him.”
With that group of newcomers is a group of notable returners, which includes senior shortstop Caimyn Holiday and senior first baseman Malek Bolin, both of whom started all 39 games in 2021. Having that experience and consistency in the lineup is something that Stawski believes is important in UMHB’s goals to reach the postseason for the second straight year.
“It’s so critical,” Stawski said of the returning group. ”The starting lineup, while we have a couple new faces, it’s going to be pretty old, with guys who have a lot of experience. Drake and Warren are the newcomers, who both have a lot of collegiate at-bats, and everyone else is a returner from last year, who played all season long.”
The combination of experience, talent, and speed makes this a dangerous lineup. Playing with a style of baseball that has always worked for Stawski’s teams, UMHB plays fast, is aggressive on the basepaths, and does not rely on extra-base hits to produce runs. That is invaluable, especially when the roster is filled with the personnel to fit that playing style.
“There’s a chance that we can be really dangerous offensively,” Stawski said, “Even when we’re not getting 12 or 13 hits a game, we’ll still be able to score a bunch of runs. It’s really tough to beat teams when you’re getting outs consistently, but they’re still scoring runs.”
2021 All-Region selection starting pitcher Andrew Acierni is another notable returner, though he will not pitch this weekend against Hardin-Simmons due to a nagging wrist/forearm injury. But once he is able to return to the mound, is expected to be a key force in the starting rotation.
“We are hoping he’ll be back by week two or three,” Stawski said of Acierni, who posted a 1.97 ERA in his first year with the Cru last season. “He’s been throwing this whole week without any pain, but it’s just more of a nagging thing.”
With Acierni out, starters such as Champaneri, McGlumphy and Fenner will take center stage. Stawski spoke very highly of both freshmen, who have enormous talent and have proven themselves through the preseason.
“James is the freshman version of Andrew,” Stawski said. “He’s a high-energy guy that throws a ton of strikes. He is what I would assume Andrew was as a freshman. And Nicklas is a hard-throwing righty. He’s a guy that if Andrew was healthy, would have been one of our long relievers in the bullpen.”
In this season, unlike those in the past, UMHB is jumping into conference play from the onset. No non-conference games necessary. Based on the way the schedule was set up, ASC play begins a week earlier, which places more of an emphasis on being prepared at top-level from day one. There will certainly be kinks, but the early start to conference action is something Stawski believes the Crusaders can use to their advantage.
“You have to be really prepared coming into playing us,” Stawski said. “I think that’s the hardest thing to do in those first five to 10 games of the season, getting your guys prepared at game-speed. We play so fast. And we do that everyday in practice. So when we get out there on opening weekend, it’s not going to be fast for [our guys]. And whoever we’re playing, that team is going to have to speed up their game. They’re going to be playing a game way faster than they’re used to.
“And what better way to start than against our rivals? Let’s get it going right away.”
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru, and also covers UMHB athletics for the Belton Journal. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.