Army: Black Knights Look to Continue Conference Title Streak

A sixth Patriot League title in a row is the expectation for the Black Knights.


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When Marist’s Chris Tracz was announced as the new head coach at Army West Point in late July, he knew going in he was assuming quite the responsibility — not only to guide the program, but to maintain the high standards that had been set.

The Black Knights had steamrolled the Patriot League before he arrived, winning four straight conference tournaments. That run of four consecutive NCAA Regional appearances was unmatched in the program’s history.

Those high expectations proved to be more than achievable for Tracz in Year One. Army not only returned to the NCAA Tournament, but the Black Knights did so with ease — they set a program record for Patriot League wins (21), outscored Bucknell in the conference championship series by 30 runs (41-11), and won their fifth straight Patriot League title.

“Any time you go into a situation when the expectations are that high you’re given the responsibility of taking that challenge on,” Tracz said. “If you look at the roster last year, while we returned a lot, there were guys we needed to develop and have make jumps.”

Army’s lineup was particularly formidable in 2023, setting program records in home runs (73) while never being shutout. Most of its offensive marks finished just shy of the 2009 club that went all the way to a regional final. The defense logged the program’s highest recorded fielding percentage (.975).

In sum, it was a fifth straight Patriot League championship and auto-bid — and while regionals were brief against the likes of No. 7 Virginia and Oklahoma — the Black Knights once again enter this year in a familiar spot: The heavy preseason favorite in the conference.

Not only did Army receive 10 of 12 first-place votes, but it swept the preseason awards list and landed five players on the Preseason All-Conference Team. Here’s what you need to know about the Black Knights in 2024.

While Army’s lineup was piling up runs, the pitching staff was highlighted by the conference’s Pitcher of the Year in Tanner Greshman, who went 5-1 with a 2.90 ERA across 59 innings. Unfortunately, Greshman was shut down late in the regular season and underwent elbow surgery that will keep him out for the 2024 campaign.

Losing an ace on the staff is never easy, but Army has the benefit of returning the two pitchers following him from last year — seniors Mike Ruggieri and Matthew Ronnebaum. They combined for 154-plus innings last year and each won six of their nine starts in conference play.

“They’re older and have been in almost every situation and for us to be able to put them at the front end of weekends or big games, that’s not going to phase them,” Tracz said. “If we’re going to be good, they’re going to carry a heavy load and be really reliable.”

Ruggieri earned the preseason Patriot League Pitcher of the Year nod after going 6-0 with a 2.55 ERA across 49.1 IP against conference opponents last year. Ronnebaum, meanwhile, was D1 Baseball’s pick. He turned in eight starts of six-plus innings last year.

Army's Mike Ruggeri
Mike Ruggieri. (Army Athletics Photo)

After that proven duo, the Black Knights have no shortage of talent — but in the words of Tracz, a lot of it is unproven. “We believe they can make a jump and put themselves in a position to be successful,” he added. “But we’ll have to see it this spring.”

That group is highlighted by senior righthander Dom Trippi, who has the best stuff on the staff. He walked 25 batters in 21 innings last year — resulting in an ERA above seven — but has the potential to take pressure off a lot of the staff with a big season.

Other key pieces include Bryce Brownlee, a junior righthander that struggled last year in his first collegiate action but had a great offseason, and a towering 6-foot-7 righty in Steven Graver. After a strong sophomore year — he held opponents to a .235 average across 33 innings with a 4.36 ERA — Graver took a step back last year, but will be counted on as a key arm out of the bullpen.

One of the most interesting arms is Joe Valchar, a low three-quarters slot righty that can get it up to 91 mph with a slider. He could be used as a starter in the seven-inning conference doubleheaders or be a back end of the bullpen guy. “He’s an uncomfortable at bat,” Tracz added. “He’s not fun to hit against and somebody that could be huge for us.”

The staff — which led the conference in ERA (4.41) last year — will also have a new coach in 2024. Toledo’s John Sheehan takes over for Jeremy Hileman, who moved on to Saint Joseph’s. Sheehan could be an impactful hire after rebuilding the Rockets’ pitching staff quickly.

“He was in some challenging coaching situations and did a really good job,” Tracz said. “It was a no brainer for us and he’s done a really good job. He does a nice job of blending some of the new school pitching stuff with the old school.”

With some key departures in the lineup, maintaining the success that Army’s found on the mound will be important and the staff seems poised to do so.

Offensively, the Black Knights are grappling with the graduation of their two leaders by OPS: Patriot League Player of the Year Kevin Debrule (.405/.454/.617) and Ross Friedrick (.368/.443/.658). Still, it certainly helps when you return a trio of All-Conference hitters in Sam Ruta, Derek Berg, and Braden Golinski.

Ruta is the headliner: The Patriot’s League preseason pick for Player of the Year, Ruta has a career .320 batting average with 134 RBIs and 121 runs across 158 games. While he took a step back by his lofty standards in 2023, he still led the conference in runs (66) and was third in hits (72). Golinski broke out in a big way last year. After 41 starts as a designated hitter in 2022 in which he hit .207, Golinski moved to the outfield and started every game — setting career-highs in every stat category. He hit .323 with 16 doubles, 13 home runs, and swiped 17 bases for good measure.

Berg had quite the unique start to a collegiate career. After 51 at bats as a freshman, he broke into the lineup and started 49 games at second base — earning All-Conference First Team honors. In 2023? He moved behind the plate, returning to a position he was originally recruited as, and was fantastic.

Army's Derek Berg
Derek Berg (Army Athletics)

Berg hit .312/.392/.558 with 12 home runs while throwing out 16 runners attempting to steal. Now, he’s the conference’s pick for Defensive Player of the Year as well.

“When I first got the job, he came up and said, coach, I really want to catch, and I said alright, great,” Tracz said. “He’s worked really hard to refine his skills and is one of the best catch-and-throw players in the country who has the ability to stick behind the dish at the professional level. He’s a threat defensively behind the plate — as good of a thrower of the baseball as I’ve seen.”

After that trio, there’s several promising pieces. Chris Barr assumes the shortstop mantle from Debrule and figures to hit atop the lineup — he had a .414 on-base percentage across 72 at bats last season, drawing 12 walks and hitting .306. Coleson Titus, primarily a DH last year, closed the year strong and finished with a .283/.394/.415 line across 28 starts. First baseman Carter Hewitt saw time in 11 games as a freshman and is penciled in to Friedrick’s starting spot.

If you want a breakout pick, keep an eye on Billy Parker. Another sophomore that saw limited time in his first year with Army, Parker figures to have a much bigger impact in 2024. “He had probably the best fall of any player on our team,” Tracz said. “We hope he’ll be another impact bat.”

While replicating a 21-4 Patriot League record may be difficult, Army has the benefit of leaning on two proven starters in the weekend rotation and a host of returning offensive talent. It would be no surprise to see the Black Knights run their streak to six come May.

Images via Army West Point Athletics