Nearly midway through the 2012 baseball season, Pitt-Bradford was at a crossroads.
A sweep at the hands of Penn State Behrend, one where the Panthers surrendered just four runs in two games, left the Blue and Gold with a 7-15 record.
They had two choices: keep playing at the level they were and more than likely miss the playoffs for the third straight season or right the ship and turn things around. They chose the latter.
A 14-5 season-finishing kick propelled Pitt-Bradford into the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Despite suffering a heartbreaking season-ending loss to Mount Aloysius in the AMCC championship series, the Panthers redefined themselves in the second half of the season, and they hope to carry that same momentum into 2013.
While the team failed to beat Behrend on the diamond, mentally that series did more for Pitt-Bradford's confidence than anything. It was a different team from that point forward.
"Although we lost two very good games at Behrend, it was a good measuring tape for us," said head coach Bret Butler. "They realized that they weren't that far off."
Pitt-Bradford returns seven starters to its lineup, including last year's AMCC Player of the Year in Derek Smith, who flirted with the MLB Draft last summer.
After being turned down by the pros, Smith went and proved himself in the prestigious Cape Cod League, a summer wood bat league littered with top Division I talent. He was the only Division III player in the league.
All Smith did last year for Pitt-Bradford was hit .482 with seven home runs and 57 RBIs. He collected a slew of postseason awards while ranking in the top 10 nationally in four different statistical categories.
Junior Michael Pascarella returns with a clean bill of health. The 2011 AMCC Player of Year was limited to just 16 games last year because of injuries, yet still managed to hit .429 and rank among the team leaders in walks.
"The best thing about Derek and Michael is they're not selfish," said Butler, who is in his 15th year since starting the program. "If they're not pitched to, they're going to take their walks, and that's going to benefit the guys in front of them and behind them."
Sophomores Aaron Cressley and Ethan Showers highlight the abundance of young talent the Panthers have. Cressley went 6-3 with a 3.42 ERA on the mound a year ago and surrendered just five earned runs in 28 innings of AMCC play. Showers drove in 34 runs, ranking behind only Smith on the team, and displayed a premium glove at the hot corner.
The infield will be relatively the same. Senior Johnny Phelps will see time at first base when not pitching. Phelps spent his first two seasons as an infielder yet stepped in and boosted the Panthers with his performance on the hill last year. He was 4-3 with a 3.14 ERA in 48 innings pitched. At the plate, he hit .284 while driving in 27 runs.
Junior transfer Greg Taylor is in competition with Phelps to start at first and sophomores Patrick James and William Emerick provide depth.
Smith will slide over to shortstop after playing second base in 2012. Both sophomore transfer Jake Potter and Pascarella will man second base. Sophomore Scottie Frisina is also in the fold to see time at second.
Freshman Drew Sneeringer will back up Showers at third, and sophomore Ethan Lear and freshman Troy Piazza will see time around the infield.
Butler made it an emphasis in the off season to build depth at the catcher position, and he did just that. Senior Kirby Craft is the returning starter. Sophomores Andrew Morrison and Zach Shroyer and freshmen Tommy Reese and Chris Kemp give the Panthers options as Butler generally splits the duties during doubleheaders.
The outfield is anchored by the return of senior centerfielder Jason Burkes. He ranked among the conference leaders in stolen bases last year and serves as the team's primary leadoff hitter.
Junior Sam Gardner will patrol right field while left field is still up for grabs. Gardner, who played left last year, is considered to have the strongest arm of all the outfielders. The mix of Potter, Frisina, junior Talas Mahon, sophomore Bobby Sorokas, and freshman Danny Rinfrette will all see time in the outfield.
Cressley and Phelps anchor a rotation that figures to be deeper in 2013. Taylor and freshman Zach Bican are in the lead for the final two spots in the starting rotation. In two years with Northampton Community College, Taylor had 69 strikeouts in 67 innings.
Senior Ryan Lucas and juniors Jon Meyer, Taylor English, Richie Pruzinsky, and Ross Kaufman provide experience in the bullpen. Sorokas and Mahon will also spell as pitchers in addition to their outfield duties.
Sophomores James Iversen and Corey Hites and freshmen Aaron Jackson, Ryan Chamberlain and Kemp are all talented underclassmen who will see time on the mound.
Iversen was 3-2 last year with a 4.02 ERA in 33.1 innings pitched. His best performance came in that fateful sweep against Behrend. In the second-game of the doubleheader, he surrendered one run on two hits in five innings. The Panthers failed to give him any run support and they lost 1-0.
The pitching staff is what has Butler struggling to contain his excitement.
"This year our pitching is much better, much more depth and a lot more confidence," said Butler. ""We have better velocity and depth.
"We're looking for a bunch of alpha males to go out on the hill, and I have confidence in every one of them from what I have seen in the fall and the winter months."
The Panthers feel they have all the pieces to win the AMCC in 2013 and coaches around the league seem to agree. Pitt-Bradford was picked to finish third in the preseason poll behind defending champion La Roche and Penn State Behrend.
The Spring Break trip to Fort Myers, Fla., aims to be a strong a test with games scheduled against Kenyon (Ohio) and Johns Hopkins (Md.). The Panthers open Monday with Haverford, a NCAA tournament qualifier last year.
This group is focused. The quick hook at the AMCC tournament last May was a hard lesson, but the Blue and Gold have spent the offseason using that as motivation.
"We knew we had to go through some painful but necessary steps and that's exactly what the conference tournament did for us," said Butler. "The players came in in the fall and they have had a nice style, and I just did my best ability to nurture their hunger and stay out of the way. They're pretty ready to play baseball."
Butler likened this team to a thoroughbred racing horse. He's done everything he can to prepare it for the season. Now the Panthers are just ready to be turned loose.