Feb. 18, 2009
PHILADELPHIA - A new era in Saint Joseph's baseball history is underway as first-year head coach Fritz Hamburg prepares the Hawks for the 2009 season. The coach has ambitious expectations for his first season in the Crimson and Gray as SJU will look to qualify for the Atlantic 10 Championship for the first time.
"I told the guys the first day," Hamburg said, "that's our goal this year, to get into that tournament. That's what we're working towards."
It's not just the players that are putting in the work, either. Hamburg is joined on the coaching staff by fellow newcomer Jacob Gill as well as Greg Manco, who is in his fifth season at Saint Joseph's.
"We've been spending quite a bit of time together, getting on the same page," says the new Hawk field general of his staff. "We're all excited for the opportunity."
The Hawks bring back a talented nucleus from a team that won 18 games in 2008, the most since the 2001 team won 23. And with just five players departing after the coming season, that nucleus can continue to grow and build for the future.
"They're a talented group that is hopefully going to learn how to win here consistently," Hamburg said of his charges. "I think this group is excited to face challenges and achieve some success."
A prime example of the returning core is the Hawk infield. All four of SJU's expected starters in the infield - Brian Hartsell and Mike Boyland on the corners and David Valesente and Joe Cook up the middle - were starters last season and made significant contributions with both bat and glove.
Hartsell, a junior, enjoyed a breakout season in 2008, taking over at first base in March and never looking back. In 40 games, he hit .331, mostly out of the second spot in the order. He was also a sure-handed fielder; in 318 chances, he made just three errors.
Holding down the opposite corner will be Boyland, a switch-hitting third baseman. The junior hit at a .289 clip, making 30 starts at the hot corner. He smacked a pair of home runs last season and registered a .413 slugging percentage.
After moving from third to second as a sophomore, Valesente will once again man second base for the Hawks in his junior season. He led the squad with 39 runs batted in and 14 doubles last year and ranked second in hits, home runs, and total bases. He also improved his defense, racking up a .952 fielding percentage in 228 chances.
Rounding out the infield is redshirt sophomore shortstop Joe Cook. After suffering a season-ending injury early in the 2007 season, Cook came back last year to be one of the team's leaders in hits, runs scored, and RBI.
Co-captain Mike Blahusch will also see a good deal of playing time in the infield and possibly even as a designated hitter. The redshirt senior played in just eight games last season due to a hand injury.
"Mike had a very good fall for us; I like his energy," Hamburg said. "He's versatile and can fill in nicely at second, short, or third, and even in the DH role. I think he's a guy that's going to find himself in the lineup quite a bit."
Freshman first baseman Kevin Taylor will also be in the mix, along with redshirt senior Chris Hildreth, redshirt junior Mike Gers, junior Dewey Oriente, and sophomore Brooks Miller. Hildreth will be called on to help out on the mound as well as in the infield, while Oriente has established himself as a solid defender (one error in 187 chances in 2008) with some power from the left side of the plate.
After the graduation of standout center fielder Jeremy Jakubowski, the Hawks will have a big hole to fill in the outfield. Stepping in to that hole will be redshirt sophomore Mike Coleman. Coleman earned Atlantic 10 All-Rookie honors last year after becoming a mainstay at the top of the Hawk lineup early in the spring and hitting .333 with 31 runs scored and 13 stolen bases. Coleman was used predominantly as a DH last season, but should make the move to center full-time in 2009.
The coach also foresees freshman Brett Tiagwad seeing some time in center field as well.
"Brett is going to get some work in there, perhaps earlier, against left-handed pitching," he said. "He possesses the best foot speed on the team and as a freshman we want to try to get him some work." Hawk fans may even see both on the field at the same time, making Saint Joseph's a very dangerous team on the basepaths.
The competition is fierce for the starting job left field, and the top two candidates are redshirt sophomore Ryan McDonald and junior Matt Barnathan. McDonald played in just 26 games due to nagging injuries but still hit .391 with a pair of home runs, 17 runs scored, and 14 RBI. Barnathan was second on the team in walks and hit .271 with 18 runs batted in. Redshirt sophomore Mike Plakis could also see some time. Plakis made one plate appearance last season, drawing a walk, before he suffered a season-ending injury.
"McDonald and Barnathan are certainly vying for playing time out there," Hamburg remarked. "Ryan had a good season last year, a competitive season where he hit for average. Matt has always had a good on-base percentage and does a good job getting quality at bats. I think we have some options out there."
The Hawks are set in right field, as senior co-captain Ben Wendle will be the starter. Wendle struggled with a .224 average in 2008 but was still among the team leaders in runs scored, doubles, home runs, and RBI. In 2007, he was named to the Atlantic 10 All-Conference Second Team and will look to regain that form for his final season on Hawk Hill.
"Ben is a terrific leader and a terrific young man," his new coach said. "He's going to have an opportunity to make a significant contribution."
Wendle, a two-time Dorie Leahy Award winner for his dedication to the team, will also be called on to pitch in, quite literally, in other areas, as the senior is expected to see some innings on the mound in 2009.
Speaking of the Hawk pitching staff, junior Randy Mower and sophomore Dominic Favazza have secured their spots at the top of the rotation. Mower was Saint Joseph's Most Valuable Player and Pitcher of the Year last season, posting a 7-5 record with a 4.45 earned run average in a team-high 85.0 innings. He tied a school record by making 16 starts and had a pair of complete games, including a 3-0 shutout of Temple on March 29 that earned him Atlantic 10, Big 5, and ECAC Pitcher of the Week honors. He was also named to the All-Big 5 team at the end of the season.
Favazza made 13 appearances in 2008, 10 of them starts, and was third on the squad with 58.1 innings pitched. He earned his lone victory of the season as Saint Joseph's no-hit Saint Peter's, 11-0, on March 16.
After the top two, however, the Hawks have some questions. Hamburg hopes to find the answers early in the season.
"Early on, we're looking at Chris Prescott as a starter," revealed Hamburg. "I think, with A.J. Holland as well, those four guys have emerged as the guys we're looking at to start. In what order, we're not sure yet."
Prescott, a senior, worked out of the bullpen in the closer's role last year and notched a 1-1 record with four saves and a 3.65 ERA while tying for the team lead in appearances with 18.
Holland, a freshman righthander from Margate, N.J., was named First Team All-Cape Atlantic National League as a senior at Holy Spirit. He twice led the team in ERA and strikeouts and also participated in the high school Carpenter Cup competition.
A solid bullpen goes a long way towards securing a team's success, and the Hawks will rely on theirs to improve upon its 2008 numbers.
"I think we have a lot of question marks after [the starting rotation]," Hamburg said. "The biggest thing that we have to do as a collective group is throw more strikes. Looking at the numbers from last year, controlling the running game and defending against the stolen base was not a strength, and that's something that we have to do a good job with to keep ourselves in the game."
One specific question mark is the closer's role that Prescott will vacate. Hamburg hopes that someone will settle into a comfort zone at the back end of the bullpen, but if not, the Hawks will still be able to close out games.
"Early on, it's going to be more of a matchup situation," the coach shared. "My goal for these guys is to put them in positions where they can experience success. From that, hopefully we have our questions answered going into conference play."
The Hawks might even have an experienced fall-back option for the ninth inning.
"In conference play, we only have three games in a weekend," Hamburg said. "So if A.J. Holland or another guy jumps up and starts answering some questions, there's always the possibility that Chris Prescott could go back to the closing role."
Junior lefties Doug DiSandro and Quentin Farr will be key cogs in the bullpen for SJU this season. Each appeared in 15 games in 2008, with DiSandro throwing 19.0 innings to Farr's 18.0. DiSandro was 0-2 with a save and a 4.26 ERA, while Farr had no decisions and a 4.50 ERA. He also struck out 17 batters against just 10 walks.
"Doug and Quentin are going to play key roles," Hamburg confirmed. "Out of the bullpen, perhaps mid-week starts...I think we have options. We just have to put our finger on it once we get going."
Some of those options will include freshman pitcher/outfielders Dan DiOrio and Ryan Kemp, as well as senior fireballer Justin Trudell. Juniors Pat Monaghan and Adam Rivera have both started games and made appearances out of the bullpen over their first two years on campus, and their versatility could be an asset for the Hawks. Sophomores Ryan Cuccinelli and Bryan Penalo and freshman Bryce Martel will also look to continue to improve their skills under the guidance of the new coaching staff.
Also working with the pitching staff will be catchers Phil Pursino, Drew Smith, and Evan Spano. Pursino, a redshirt junior, has the early advantage. Last season he hit .314 despite just playing in 16 games due to injury.
"I think Phil has put himself in a good position with the way he handles the pitching and his leadership role behind the plate, which is really important to me," said Hamburg, himself a former All-American as a catcher.
Providing some pop from the left side is junior Drew Smith. One of the offensive leaders in 2007, Smith had just five doubles and 11 runs batted in for the 2008 season but looks to get back to the form he showed as a freshman. Another redshirt junior, Evan Spano, has hit well when given the opportunity and will also find himself in the mix for playing time behind the plate.
As in the past, Saint Joseph's will play a good mix of non-conference opponents before embarking on what will be a more challenging Atlantic 10 schedule than the Hawks faced last year. SJU will open the season at San Jose State and travel to Old Dominion a week later. Once again the Hawks will play in Florida, facing teams such as NYIT, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, Penn State, Pittsburgh and Miami (Fla.) during the Palm Beach Challenge. Local home-and-homes with annual opponents such as Delaware, NJIT, and Villanova and the yearly Liberty Bell Classic round out the non-conference schedule.
Despite inheriting this season's schedule from the previous coaching staff, Hamburg sees some positives in the out-of-conference slate.
"I like the schedule," he said. "I like our early-season tests. I think we have a good schedule in Florida where we have some tough ballgames and hopefully some games we should be right in. I think we're certainly going to be tested early."
In conference play, SJU will take five road trips, traveling across town to face La Salle before heading to Fordham, Massachusetts, Xavier and Charlotte. Charlotte is the defending Atlantic 10 champion, defeating Xavier in the conference championship game.
In their four home series, the Hawks will host St. Bonaventure, archrival Temple and Rhode Island before closing out the season with a series against George Washington.
"I think our conference schedule this year is certainly more challenging, from the top end, than last year's," Hamburg admitted. "The late-season trips to Xavier and Charlotte, and Rhode Island as well, those three teams are very good, so we need to win early. We need to get out of the gate competitively and put ourselves in a position to compete to get into the A-10 Tournament."
The season-ending series against George Washington will be held at Campbell's Field in Camden, N.J. It is the second time in as many seasons that the Hawks and Colonials will face off in a professional stadium; last March the teams played the first game ever held at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.
"Any time you play in a pro park it's an exciting experience for the guys," Hamburg said. "With the Atlantic 10 Tournament being there last year and being there again next year, it's nice to get on a field where we hope to be playing at the end of the year."
All told, this year's squad is ready for the challenge that lies ahead. The players and the coaching staff have had a productive offseason, spending time both getting to know each other and preparing for 2009.
"This team has been together for awhile, and there are guys that have played quite a few innings," Hamburg said. "The guys have been taught well and we're just adding to it, and I think we can put them in the right positions to be successful. Overall, I like their work ethic, and hopefully that plays over into winning some ballgames."
If Hamburg, his staff, and his players can do just that, 2009 could mark an exciting rebirth for baseball on Hawk Hill.