MAPLEWOOD, N.J. – The Columbia baseball team will open its season Monday at 4 p.m. on the road against Verona with a new head coach.

Ryan Muirhead takes over the program after Jim Whalen stepped down in the off-season to spend more time with his newborn child.

Muirhead will be very familiar with the Cougars' first opponent, having coached the Verona junior varsity team from 2016-2018. But a lot of opponents might not be too familiar with this Columbia cast, which includes just three regulars who return with a lot of varsity experience.

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One of them is senior shortstop Eliot Dix, a picture of consistency who is beginning his fourth year as a starting player on the varsity team. Dix, who has committed to Division 1 at Longwood University, has posted batting averages in a narrow range between .346 and .366 in each of his first three seasons, and he'll be aiming for the rare milestone of 100 career hits. Dix comes into the 2019 season with 81 hits in his career.

Also back are senior outfielder Phil Whitney and junior right-handed pitcher Ethan Messeri. Whitney was a fixture in the middle of the Cougars' batting order last season, when he hit .342 with 23 runs batted in. Messeri logged 15 2/3 innings with 15 strikeouts and a 1-1 record last season. He's Columbia's most experienced pitcher.

Muirhead has projected significant playing time for a group of newcomers that include senior outfielder Jeffrey Nelson, senior second baseman Matt Kritzberg, junior pitcher/outfielder Joe Lintern, junior pitcher/outfielder Noah Haniph, junior catcher Dan Fox – who also pitches – and sophomore catcher Jacob Messeri.

"(This is a) very competitive group," Muirhead said. "(They're) good hitters, lots of upperclassmen that have been playing baseball for a long time. (We have) strong senior leaders and talented underclassmen."

The schedule gets tough in a hurry for Columbia. After Monday's opener, the Cougars are at Nutley Wednesday, and home against Seton Hall Prep Friday.