Feb. 14, 2012
MERION STATION, Pa. - After its last home game of the 1958 season, the Saint Joseph's baseball team walked off of Finnesey Field for the final time. Head coach and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Jack Ramsay was in his third and final season leading the team, which ended the season on a six-game losing streak. Finnesey Field would undergo some work during the following season, sending the Hawk nine out on the road for all of its contests.
Thus began a 53-year trek across the Greater Philadelphia area to fields in Philadelphia, on the Main Line, in Norristown, and across the Delaware River in New Jersey. The Hawks played home games at municipal fields, other colleges, and even a minor league stadium over the past six decades.
On March 9, 2012, they will try out a new venue: the Maguire Campus of Saint Joseph's University.
The 2012 season, already teeming with promise after the program's first 20-win season in 10 years, will see the dawn of a new era in Saint Joseph's baseball history with the opening of the team's brand new on-campus facility.
"This is a very exciting time for this program," said head coach Fritz Hamburg, now in his fourth season at the helm.
Despite the exciting changes in store for the program, Hamburg's goals for his team have not been tempered.
"The last two years we've been right on the edge of getting into the Atlantic 10 Tournament," he explained. "Certainly I'm hopeful that the experience of being right there carries over to where we're going to be in the tournament, and anything can happen at that point."
While Hamburg and his staff have led the Hawks to consecutive double-digit win totals in conference play for the first time since 2001-03, the head coach feels that if this squad is the one to get over the hump, it will most likely be a result of increased, and improved, pitching depth.
"I think our starting pitching is going to be better," Hamburg said. "Kyle Mullen comes back and brings us quality experience, and he had a solid year last spring. The addition of [graduate transfer] Alex Pracher is certainly a big lift for us as well with the loss of [2011 Major League Baseball draftees] A.J. Holland and Ryan Kemp."
Mullen led the Hawks in just about every major pitching category last season and cracked the all-time single-season top 10s in starts, wins, innings pitched, and strikeouts as the ace at the top of SJU's rotation. In his eight conference starts, the Hawks went 6-2, and he should once again toe the rubber on Friday afternoons once conference play gets underway.
Pracher, selected by Baseball America as the top newcomer in the Atlantic 10, pitched for three seasons at Stanford University and served as the closer in 2010 as the Cardinal reached the NCAA Regionals. The righthander was also a member of the 2008 Stanford squad that reached the College World Series, and his unique experience will help both him and the team as he assumes a role in the weekend rotation.
The third weekend starting spot is still up for grabs as the season begins, with sophomore Jordan Carter and freshman Tim Ponto having the inside edge. Carter made four midweek starts for the Hawks last season and compiled a 1-1 record in eight total appearances, while Ponto, a 6-foot-7 righthander from nearby Pottstown, Pennsylvania, was drafted by the hometown Philadelphia Phillies last year.
"I like their stuff," Hamburg said. "Tim had a very good fall and Jordan is developing some quality secondary pitches."
For a team that lost nearly 60% of its innings pitched from last season, success can hinge on the emergence of a previously unheralded arm, and the Hawks are no different. While sophomores Daniel Thorpe and Brett Koliani combined to throw over 45 innings in 2011, they will be called upon this season to step into roles of increased importance and to throw some high-leverage innings for the Hawks.
Beyond those two righthanders, Hamburg has options from both sides of the rubber. Junior Shane Carey and sophomore Steven Schuler are solid lefthanders that could serve as situational pieces or middle relief roles.
Also expected to contribute on the hill are versatile righthanders Tommy Cunningham and Lansing Veeder. The pair, who are both going to compete for at bats in the infield as well, will add depth to the bullpen alongside Jimmy Yacabonis, Kevin Burum, and James Harrity.
"I think our pitching, the way I see it progressing, should be in good shape," Hamburg said.
"Progressing" is the key word, however, because, as is often the case with a corps of young arms, specific roles are not yet clearly defined. It will be Hamburg's challenge to fit the young, talented pieces into the right places.
"We're trying to piece it together, but a lot of that is going to shake out in the early season," he commented. "We're competing in our workouts now, and that's certainly telling me where guys are, but until we get going...I think 15 or 16 games in we'll have a firm handle on where we're going."
The competition for playing time behind those pitchers is fierce as an influx of versatile young talent makes its way to Hawk Hill. While Hamburg has an idea of which players will trot out on Opening Day, the lineup is by no means set in stone.
"Some of these guys have adjusted [to the college game] pretty quickly," Hamburg revealed. "Their ability to adjust and have success is forcing the issue on the guys who are returning.
"Competition is so important," he continued. "It makes you better. Guys are either going to grind to get better to make sure they're in the lineup, or we've got guys who are ready to go [in their place]."
Junior Eddie Palmer will likely get the nod behind the plate at the start of the season. Palmer took over the starting catching duties early last season and made his presence felt, working hard with the Hawk pitching staff and playing a big role in dropping the team's earned run average over two and a half runs below its 2010 total. The league's coaches took note, as Palmer was named the "Best Defensive Catcher" in the Atlantic 10 in CollegeBaseballInsider.com's preseason poll.
Freshman Brian O'Keefe brings a full complement of tools to the mix and should see significant playing time this season. Sophomores Nuri Gunes and Cody Silverman and senior Mike Brown will be called on to contribute as well. With a solid fall, Gunes also has his name in consideration for at bats as the designated hitter.
"We have several options behind the plate," said Hamburg, a former All-American backstop himself. "They are all improving, but I think Eddie and Brian are leading the pack right now."
At first base, senior co-captain Kevin Taylor will be relied upon to anchor the middle of the Hawk lineup. Despite battling a few nagging injuries last season, Taylor played in all but one game and led the team in home runs and tied for the lead in runs batted in batting in the cleanup spot. He is a reliable defender as well, making just five errors in 348 chances.
"We need Kevin to have a big year for us," Hamburg admitted. "He's one of our big guys in the middle of the order. I think we've got some guys this year surrounding him, we're a little deeper that way, and we're looking for big things from Kevin."
Sophomore Mike Muha returns as the primary backup at first base; the lanky righthander will also likely be called upon to come in from the bullpen as well. As a first baseman in 2011, Muha made just a single error and posted a .993 fielding percentage, ensuring that the Hawks will be in good hands defensively no matter who is manning the bag.
In addition to taking the hill for the Hawks, Veeder is in contention for the starting job at second base as well. Incumbent starter Quinn Renner should get the nod on Opening Day, but Veeder had an outstanding fall and should push the junior for playing time right out of the gate.
"Quinn will certainly get the first look," explained Hamburg, "but Lansing is pushing the envelope."
The battle at shortstop will be one to watch as well, as junior Anthony Cirillo, who set the Saint Joseph's record for assists in a season last year, and freshman Stefan Kancylarz rank 1-2 on the depth chart. Cirillo played in all but two games last season and was hit by 11 pitches, tops on the team. He was also among the squad's leaders in runs scored.
"Anthony is very active in the middle," Hamburg commented. "He works very hard at his game and is getting better each day."
Kancylarz provides some pop from the left side of the plate, something that could benefit the Hawk lineup in both the short and long term.
"[Kancylarz] has been around some older players as he's grown up and has a pretty good understanding of the game," the head coach said.
After the graduation of Joe Cook, there will be an opening at third base this season. With a redshirt year under his belt, Cunningham has the inside edge on the starting nod.
Judge saw action in 16 games with seven starts last season, four of them coming at the hot corner.
"I think we have a lot of versatility in the infield," Hamburg pointed out. "Nobody is really limited, per se, from second base over."
Competition is the theme in the outfield as well. With Second Team All-Atlantic 10 right fielder Greg Kumpel ready to follow up his breakout sophomore campaign, a number of players will be in the mix to fill the other two outfield positions as the season gets underway.
Kumpel was far and away the Hawks' offensive leader last season, posting a team-best .384 batting average that ranked him second in the conference. He also paced the Hawks in runs scored, hits and doubles and tied for the team lead in runs batted in. After getting into the lineup early in the season, he hit safely in 16 of his first 19 games en route to his All-Conference-level season.
"Greg was our catalyst last year, and we need him to have another productive year," said Hamburg. "If he can recapture what he did last year, it's going to make us a whole lot better."
The other two starting spots appear to be up for grabs, and sophomore Chris Hueth looks like a favorite to get a starting nod heading into the season. Last season he appeared in 35 games, making 25 starts, and was one of the Hawks' most productive rookies.
"His bat is going to get him in the lineup," Hamburg said of Hueth. "He had a nice fall and he's really been solid so far. I've really been pleased with Chris' progress."
Kevin Kratochwill, who earned Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week honors after the first four games of his career, is also in the mix and should get regular at bats.
"Kevin is an exciting player," said Hamburg. "He's got good speed and instincts."
Senior Brett Tiagwad has held down the fort in center the past two seasons, but, as is the case around the diamond, young talent is waiting in the wings, pushing for playing time. One of those players is freshman Ryan Pater.
"Ryan had a great fall; he led us in on-base percentage," explained Hamburg. "He has a good eye, doesn't swing and miss, and covers a lot of ground [in the outfield]."
Senior co-captain Drew Stoll and sophomore speed merchant Tim Craig have their names in the ring as well. Both players made a majority of their appearances in 2011 in late-game situations - Stoll as a defensive replacement and Craig as a pinch runner - but will look to impress the coaching staff and earn more at bats in 2012.
"Early on, guys are going to get opportunities," Hamburg summarized. "In center and left, we're going to mix things up and see what comes of it."
While competition is the overarching theme of the early season for the Hawks, one advantage the returning players will have over their new teammates is, of course, experience. And with that experience comes the responsibility of leadership, in both word and deed.
"I certainly lean on the captains, probably more than I have in the past," Hamburg said. "I'm trying to give them more ownership of the team, to get them to work as one.
"[The older players] have to earn that right for guys to lean on them," he went on. "They're there for guidance, but I want them to lead by example as well."
If anyone questions whether such hard work is worth the effort and where it can get them, Hamburg and his staff can point to Kemp and Holland, whose time in the program led them to opportunities with Major League organizations.
"The fact that we had Ryan and A.J., both undrafted out of high school, go in the 14th and 16th rounds, that's pretty exciting," Hamburg said.
Including 2010 graduate Randy Mower, three Hawk pitchers have signed professional contracts in the past two seasons.
"A.J. and Ryan coming back would have made us stronger," Hamburg admitted, "but at the same time, getting selected in the rounds that they did as juniors is fantastic for them, and it's fantastic for us."
Hamburg hopes the successes of those who have come before them will help keep his current squad's collective eye on the proverbial prize.
"For our current players, it kind of validates the idea that if you do what you're supposed to do, you may have an opportunity," he explained. "The fact that it's happened should help these guys to work harder and strive for that goal."
The 2012 team will put that hard work on display for the first time on February 17 as the Hawks head to Cary, North Carolina for the USA Baseball Complex Classic. Saint Joseph's will take on Bryant, Canisius, and Monmouth before traveling to Raleigh for a one-off game at North Carolina State.
A second Southern swing find the Hawks in Tennessee the following week for a three-game set at East Tennessee State. Then, it's off to the Pacific Northwest for the start of March as SJU takes on Washington in a four-game series and faces off with Seattle for a pair before returning home.
The home opener is set for March 9 against Iona. That begins a span of 15 out of 16 games at home that stretches into the beginning of Atlantic 10 play.
In league competition, the Hawks will host Rhode Island, Massachusetts, George Washington, and crosstown rival La Salle. SJU has a tough road slate that includes three-game series at Saint Louis and Charlotte, the last two conference champions, as well as trips to perennial contenders St. Bonaventure and Xavier.
Despite the schedule not doing the Hawks any favors, Hamburg and his charges will not be deterred.
"We certainly have a challenging league schedule this season," Hamburg said. "We need to work hard to compete against the game."
The home part of that slate will be played at the brand new on-campus facility on the Maguire Campus, and there is a palpable excitement around the program as the Hawks prepare to move back home for the first time in over 50 years.
"I'd like to think that playing on campus in the new ballpark will generate enthusiasm among the University community," Hamburg said. "It will be great for our fans, who will finally get to see us on a regular basis, and we're all very excited to get out there."
The field will feature a state-of-the-art AstroTurf 3D GameDay Grass surface, the same synthetic surface in use at Major League stadiums such as Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario.
There is more to the project than just new turf, however. The Hawks will enjoy the use of a new clubhouse and brand new batting cages located next to the field. The park will feature elevated bullpens as well, complete with benches and phones connected to the dugouts. Fans will be able to sit in the bleachers behind home plate, or they can take in the action along the foul lines or on the hill beyond the outfield wall.
"The ballpark will have a lot of character and charm," Hamburg said. "It will be a great place for our players to play and for our fans to watch a ballgame."
After 53 seasons on the road, there's no place like home, and in 2012, the Hawks will look to parlay that home field advantage into their first-ever Atlantic 10 Tournament berth. With the talent level in the program and the competition for playing time at new heights, the Hawks will certainly be a force to be reckoned with at ballparks across the Atlantic 10.
Including, at long last, their own.