A freshman is usually just asking for a chance to play, but Matt Honchel got so much more than he could have asked for out of his first collegiate baseball season.
The former Mercer County star hit the ball at a torrid pace throughout the spring at Miami (Ohio), finishing the nation’s top-hitting freshman.
Honchel was voted the Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year and a first-team all-conference player after hitting .395.
“Coming in, I was just really fighting for playing time, and it kind of took off from there,” Honchel said. “It exceeded my expectations for sure, but I want to the best, and I’ve got to keep working.”
Things certainly worked out for Honchel this season. His batting average is the best among all freshmen in Division I and ranks 16th among all Division I players.
He was the leading hitter in the MAC and had 92 hits, the fourth-best single-season total in school history and 18 more than the next-best Miami player. He also led the RedHawks in multiple-hit games (31), on-base percentage (.443) and total bases (103).
He finished the season on a 16-game hitting streak — his fourth streak of eight or more games during the season — after going 29 for 67 (.433) in Miami’s last 15 regular-season games and 5 for 16 (.313) in four games in the MAC tournament, and he hit safely in 48 of the RedHawks’ 59 games.
Honchel said he was honored to receive the MAC freshman of the year award as recognition not only of his own accomplishments but also of a strong freshman class at Miami (30-29, 12-15 MAC).
“It was a big award just to represent Miami, that we have good recruiting classes. We had a good recruiting class this year, and it shows that we can be good the next couple of years,” he said.
No Miami freshman was hotter than Honchel, who hit .488 as a senior at Mercer, and he got hot right from the start of the season.
He began the year as the designated hitter, starting two of three games in a season-opening series at Furman. He singled in his first at-bat, went 4 for 7 in the series and was 3 for 5 with three RBIs and three runs in the finale.
“We went down to the lineup for the first (series) and I was in the lineup the first day, which kind of shocked me. There were a few other guys I thought would be on the field,” he said.
Honchel said it was a couple of weeks later that he realized he belonged, when he went 3 for 5 against the No. 1 starter from then-No. 16 Mississippi.
“That’s when it sunk in that I can play at this level,” he said. “That was a big game, because we ended up winning that game (9-8).”
After a senior outfielder suffered a season-ending injury, Honchel played for a time in center field, then was moved to left field for most of the rest of the season, and the hits just kept on coming. His only prolonged drought was a 1-for-16 slump centered around a mid-April series against Northern Illinois.
“I didn’t have a very good weekend, and being a freshman, the coaches gave one of the upperclassmen a chance. He did all right, but when I got my shot again I ended up going 3 for 3 the next game I got in there,” he said.
The 6-1 Honchel is a much stronger player than he was at Mercer. He said he went into the fall season weighing about 175 pounds, then got up to about 200 pounds by Christmas, a time of year when he was dropping pounds while playing basketball in high school.
“They just really for the first time got me in the weight room and got me on a meal plan. Getting stronger really helped, and also not having to play basketball,” he said.
He is already working to get even stronger for next season, because he said Miami’s coaches would like to move him down from the No. 2 spot in the batting order that he occupied for most of the season.
“This year I was the person to get on base; next year they want me to play a role as more of an RBI guy,” said Honchel, who had nine extra-base hits and 26 RBIs this season.
He’ll spend the summer playing with the Lexington Hustlers of the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League.
“A lot of good freshmen play in that league, and it’s also close to home, so that makes it easier,” he said. “I always look forward to summer, not only to have fun but to get better.”