Some referred to them as the best recruiting class in program history.
The Michigan baseball team’s 2018 incoming class received plaudits nationwide for its talent and balance. It was ranked No. 10 in the country –– the highest ranking a Big Ten recruiting class has ever received –– and tallied seven freshman All-American awards. Almost two years in, they’ve lived up to expectations.
“It’s a really good class,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “When we put it together, we felt like it was a balanced, dynamic class with star potential – guys that had a chance to play for a long time and be high draft picks in three years.”
As sophomores this season –– now a year older and more mature –– they have continued to make an impression.
Players up and down the lineup, as well as on the mound, have begun to take on a more active role. Right-hander Jeff Criswell transitioned from the bullpen into a starting role this year with fellow sophomore Ben Dragani’s season-ending injury. In his Sunday-starter role, he has helped carry the Wolverines to dominant wins against conference opponents Ohio State and Minnesota, holding them to few hits while pitching more innings per game than he ever has before.
“He’s hopped into the Sunday role and I feel like he’s really starting to come on,” said Michigan assistant coach Nick Schnabel. “That’s a guy with electric stuff.”
Left-hander Angelo Smith, meanwhile, has brought to the table both strength as a starter as well as poise and reliability as a reliever, pitching the team out of jams consistently.
Last year, outfielder Jordan Nwogu was a solid if not unremarkable presence on the team. This year, he’s leading off Michigan’s lineup while being key in scoring runs throughout the season, leading the team with a .366 batting average. His performance this year represents a significant improvement and has been a pleasant surprise to the coaching staff.
“When these guys came in, we had no idea Jordan Nwogu would become Jordan Nwogu,” Bakich said. “And that’s been a great surprise –– the way he’s inserted himself into the team since the middle of last year has been just huge.”
Jack Blomgren, Joe Donovan and Jesse Franklin have likewise been clutch components of this season’s offense with 16 home runs between the three of them thus far.
The man primarily responsible for assembling this transformative group of players is Schnabel, who made countless phone calls, hosted plenty of prospects and took trips around the country to assemble the 2018 team. He is loath to take too much credit, however.
“Well, it came together with a lot of work from our entire staff,” Schnabel said. “It was totally a team effort.”
Bakich, who played alongside Schnabel during their shared time at East Carolina, was unsurprised by his modesty –– “as a team we try to emphasize the ‘our, us, we’ mentality instead of ‘my, I, me’” –– but emphasized the importance of his role.
“Recruiting is one of those things that’s 365 and 24/7,” Bakich said. “Coach Schnabel has no off switch. It’s the first thing he thinks about every morning, the last thing he things about before he goes to bed.
“He’s the best at what he does and a big reason why we have so many good players to coach.”
With senior heavyweights Jimmy Kerr, Blake Nelson, Miles Lewis and Ako Thomas on their way out, the sophomores will likely need to fill an even bigger role come next year. But the team seems eminently confident in that.
“I absolutely think they can take the mantle,” Schnabel said. “Obviously in terms of their ability they can, but also in what kind of kids they are.
“They’re serious about the game and about their growth and maturation personally and most importantly, they’re a team that wants to win.”