SLU baseball captures attention with strong team

Teak Phillips |

A hidden gem in the St. Louis sports scene is St. Louis University's baseball team, which is using a mix of local and out-of-state players to provide a quality product in a city well-known for its support of its beloved St. Louis Cardinals.

The Billikens had a 28-16 record after a 13-4 loss to Eastern Illinois April 28. They lost a recent three-game series on the road against Fordham, but that followed a 17-4 drubbing of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and a sweep of the University of Massachusetts in a three-game home series.

The 2014 Billikens had 34 wins en route to the team's third consecutive Atlantic 10 regular-season championship. It is the seventh 30-win season in SLU baseball history and the fifth under Darin Hendrickson. The coach has broken the SLU single-season win record three times in six seasons at St. Louis U. Entering the 2015 season, his career win percentage was .678, ranking him ninth among active NCAA Division I head coaches.

Hendrickson said the team tries to be an integral part of the Jesuit university's mission. One of just two Division I schools in the St. Louis area, SLU gives students "an opportunity for a great education and play baseball at a high level," he said.

The baseball team provides a good product and "the whole university has turned a corner. The best days are ahead," the coach noted.

His role as a mentor guiding young men is important "more than ever," he said. "This is my 19th year as a college head coach. It's part of our changing times. We as coaches and educators have to evolve with the times, the kids and generations."

He enjoys working with the students, the school community and the people associated with the baseball team. The 2015 team has been led by its offense but traditionally seeks a balance, he noted. Matt Eckelman, a preseason All-American pitcher, had been out with an injury for a time, "and when you have an impact like that at our level, some teams don't recover. We've had depth, and I'm proud of that."

The Billikens shut out Massachusetts in the first two games 6-0 and 1-0, and won the finale 13-7. Danny Murphy was named the Atlantic 10 Conference baseball Player of the Week with a .778 average, three runs scored, six RBIs, a double, a steal and his first home run of the season.

On April 17, the team shut out cross-state Jesuit school rival Rockhurst 3-0, using five pitchers. Connor Lehmann (2-3) earned the win while Luke Sommerfeld picked up his first save as a Billiken. SLU's freshmen came through with a single from shortstop Alex King plating the first run and catcher James Morisano and center fielder Parker Sniatynski of Marquette High School in Milwaukee hitting sacrifice flies to bring home the other runs.

Josh Bunselmeyer was the Billikens' top hitter at the plate, going 2-3 with a walk and a run scored. King, a product of the Catholic-run St. James Academy in Lexena, Kan., had two hits and made several top-notch plays in the field.

Robert Plohr, a sophomore from Christian Brothers College High School in Creve Coeur, did his job with the other relievers in the April 17 game, pitching a scoreless inning.

Plohr said "CBC was a great family atmosphere. They get you started in embracing brotherhood. When I got here it was an easy transition because playing baseball ... these guys are my brothers out here. You go to battle every day with them, I'll do anything for them."

As a pitcher, he focuses on throwing strikes and, "with a great defense" behind him, "letting them do the work."

He cited the team's hitting and fielding. "I think we have a good shot this year. If everybody stays healthy, keeps on course, keeps hitting the ball like we are and pitching as I know we can, we have a chance. We just keep on rolling" and aiming for another conference championship.

Mick Layton, a freshman pitcher from St. Louis University High School, enjoys playing close to home. The game against Rockhurst was especially fun because of a natural rivalry between the two Jesuit universities. The team's hitting has stood out this year, providing a boost to the pitching staff, he added. "It gives you peace of mind when you're throwing."

Trent Leimkuehler, a junior outfielder from St. Francis Borgia Regional High School in Washingon who played at Jefferson Community College, said SLU provides a similar family atmosphere that he experienced at Borgia. "It's not one of your bigger universities ... being on a baseball team" helps, too, he said.

His Catholic education has provided him a respect for others that he needs to succeed in college and beyond. He cited the Jesuit core of SLU, being able to go to Mass and other familiar aspects of his faith.

The team's chemistry is building, he said. "We're putting our foot on the throttle and keeping it going. It's always exciting when you can put a put W's in the win column."

Leimkuehler, who is hitting .340, encourages people to come to the games and add to the fun.

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