Feb. 17, 2011
PHILADELPHIA - In 2010, a senior-laden Saint Joseph's baseball squad took Hawk fans on a rollercoaster ride, eventually coming within a game of securing the program's first-ever berth in the Atlantic 10 Championship.
The 2011 season brings a bevy of new faces to the SJU lineup, as the Hawks waved goodbye to a dozen graduating seniors and hello to 15 talented freshmen over the past nine months. Despite the turnover, head coach Fritz Hamburg has not tempered his expectations for his club, nor have the goals of the Saint Joseph's program changed.
"I think we made huge strides [last season], having been that close to making the Atlantic 10 Championship for the first time," Hamburg said. "I think that despite not quite getting to at least our first goal, the guys gained confidence in knowing that we are that close and that we can do that."
Hamburg's squad will look to mesh quickly, mixing a contingent of experienced veterans with a talented and plentiful corps of newcomers.
"I think this is a real interesting team," Hamburg said. "I like some of the talent that we have in our new guys. I think [the team's success] is going to be dependent on how quickly we jell.
"There's a lot of room for competition," he continued. "I think the lineup will shake up throughout the year. There are a lot of guys that want to play, and that's a good problem to have."
Just like the lineup, the coaching staff welcomes a new face as well, as 1996 Saint Joseph's graduate Joe Tremoglie returns for his second stint in the SJU dugout. He joins returning assistants Jacob Gill and Greg Manco on Hamburg's staff.
"We're thrilled that Joe is with us, both as an alum and also as someone who can bring another set of eyes to things," Hamburg said of his new assistant. "He went through the experience here at Saint Joseph's and that's another thing that he brings to the table for our players."
On the field, those players will be led by some experienced veterans, despite the overwhelming amount of youth on the squad. Outfielder Mike Coleman and pitcher Chad Simendinger, the squad's co-captains, are both fifth-year seniors, and the Hawks can only benefit from having them around in their final collegiate seasons.
Joe Cook is another player in his fifth year with the SJU program, and his steady hand at third base will help give the infield its own veteran leader. Cook is a career .279 hitter with a knack for getting on base, ranking among the team leaders in walks each of the past two seasons. The 2011 campaign will mark Cook's fourth as a starter, and he has been a fixture on the left side of the diamond for Hamburg's first years on Hawk Hill.
Sophomore Anthony Cirillo projects as the team's starting shortstop this season after appearing in 18 games, with six starts, as a freshman. In limited action, he posted a .973 fielding percentage and committed just one error.
Last season's starter at shortstop, sophomore Quinn Renner, will slide over to second base in 2011. He led the Hawks in walks last year after starting 43 contests and playing in 45. Last season Renner became a reliable threat at the bottom of the order, working counts and getting on base in critical spots, and Hamburg and his staff will expect more of the same this year.
At first base, junior Kevin Taylor established himself as SJU's top returning power threat and seems to have locked down the starting gig for 2011. Taylor led the Hawks in home runs and on-base percentage and ranked second in slugging percentage, third in runs batted in, and fourth in batting average. For the Hawks to be successful, Taylor will have to remain a threat in the middle of the lineup.
Freshman Mike Muha has the early edge in the battle for at bats at the designated hitter spot, and can also spell Taylor at first base. Sophomore Greg Kumpel and freshman Spencer Judge should see time in the infield as well this season.
In the outfield, Coleman will start this season where he ended the last one: starting in left field. The captain was second on the team in runs scored and stolen bases and ranked fourth in on-base percentage. Coleman was also hit by a pitch 12 times, tying him for the school's all-time record in that category with 38.
Junior Brett Tiagwad is the Hawks' returning leader in batting average (.327, second in 2010), hits (50, third), and stolen bases (12, first). He was also among the leaders in walks and on-base percentage last season, and his .981 fielding percentage was tops among starting outfielders. Tiagwad will use his considerable speed both on the basepaths and in center field, giving the Hawks a distinct advantage when playing at spacious Campbell's Field.
"I think hitting in the leadoff spot, the pressure that Brett applies plays right into our hands with what we want to do," said Hamburg of his starting center fielder.
The right field job is a little more open, but freshman Kevin Kratochwill may have the inside track. The rookie out of Marriottsville, Maryland will have competition early on from a number of sources, including senior Mike Plakis.
"I think the outfield can certainly shake up," Hamburg admitted. "The thing I like about our outfield right now is the fact that we have very good team speed, which we need playing at Campbell's Field, which is a big ballpark."
Uncertainty is the theme behind the plate, as graduated senior Drew Smith started all but eight contests last season. Freshman Cody Silverman, a First Team All-Somerset County honoree from Middlesex, New Jersey, backstopped Immaculata High School to the Non-Public Group A state championship in 2010. Silverman has the edge heading into Opening Day and should get the nod for the early part of the season.
"Our biggest question mark is behind the plate right now," said Hamburg. "We're young, we're inexperienced, and it's still wide open. I think Cody has done a good job of embracing the pitching staff. He had a pretty good fall offensively, and he balances us because he hits from the left side.
"I think we'll try to get an idea of who we feel most comfortable with early in the year, but that's definitely an area where we need to do a good job if we're going to be competitive this year," he continued.
Competing for playing time will be sophomore Eddie Palmer, who started seven games as a freshman. Junior Mike Brown and freshman Nuri Gunes will give Hamburg, a former All-American catcher at Ithaca, plenty of options as the season moves along.
In contrast to the situation behind the plate, Hamburg sees the Hawk pitching staff as the team's strength. With a blend of experienced upperclassmen and talented freshmen, the third-year head coach will have a wide variety of arms at his disposal.
"If we can put these guys in the right positions, I think we have the opportunity to be very solid on the mound," he said. "I think it's certainly one of our strengths."
At the top of the rotation will be Simendinger, who came on strong in the second half last season and parlayed that experience into inheriting the role as the squad's Friday starter from 2010 graduate Randy Mower. Simendinger posted one of the best pitching performances by a Hawk last season when he worked into the eighth inning and allowed just one run on five hits with eight strikeouts in a late-season win over Fordham.
Following Simendinger in the rotation will be sophomore Kyle Mullen and junior A.J. Holland. Mullen impressed in his rookie year, including a five-inning, nine-strikeout performance in March against Saint Peter's, and earned his first career win at Duquesne in April.
Holland made eight starts in 2010 and six appearances out of the bullpen. Hamburg and his staff hope the junior can put it all together in 2011 to give the Hawk three reliable arms at the top of the pitching staff.
"Chad had a great summer and I think he learned a lot about pitching," Hamburg said. "He competes very well when he goes to the mound. I think Kyle had a terrific fall and has made some huge strides for us and to his credit, he's worked his tail off, so I'm excited to see him go out and compete this spring. A.J. has a lot of talent and also works his tail off and I'm just looking forward to him putting it together.
"I think if these three guys pitch like they're capable of pitching, I feel pretty good about what our rotation will look like," he continued. "But again, we need to be able to complete the `pitching package' with quality secondary pitches and being able to throw strikes and stay out of the `big inning.' That's been our biggest nemesis."
Helping the Hawks stay out of big innings, and therefore in games, will be a bullpen anchored at the back end by junior Ryan Kemp and seniors Dominic Favazza and Bryan Penalo. Kemp will likely move from his role as a setup man into the closer's role, at least in the early going.
"Ryan had a good summer, he's in the low-to-mid-90s, and if we can harness his secondary stuff consistently I think Ryan really has a chance to be dominant for us in this league," explained Hamburg.
Favazza has been both a starter and a bullpen arm during his career and has been among the team leaders in strikeouts. Penalo has improved each year, and showed flashes of dominance in 2010 that Hawk fans hope to see more of in 2011.
As with any good pitching staff, the Hawks have a variety of options in the bullpen, with both righthanders and lefthanders ready to come in when called upon. Sophomore Kevin Burum and freshmen Daniel Thorpe and Jimmy Yacabonis round out the righthanded bullpen crew, while sophomore Shane Carey and freshmen Matt Buccheri and Steven Schuler will hold things down from the left side.
Freshmen righthanders Jordan Carter and Brett Koliani along with southpaw Taylor Mahoney round out the SJU pitching staff. Carter, Koliani, and Mahoney all have the potential to start midweek games early in the season, but will also be expected to contribute out of the bullpen if needed.
The squad assembled by Hamburg and his staff will face another challenging schedule. SJU starts the season at Old Dominion before head to the Lone Star State for its first-ever meeting with Texas-San Antonio. After a midweek contest at Delaware, the Hawks will compete in the UNC-Wilmington Tournament, taking on the Seahawks and the Crusaders of Holy Cross before a meeting with Elon ends the North Carolina swing.
The Hawks return home for seven straight against teams from the Northeast as part of the Villanova and Big 5 Classics. In the early portion of the slate, Hamburg said, it is important to find a good balance of opponents and then to go out and compete everyday. He feels this will help the program in a much bigger way down the line.
"I think there has to be a balance to the early-season schedule," he remarked. "One of the things I want to try to do is put our guys into an environment where when we do win this conference championship and we go to a regional, we're not going to be shocked to go play in front of four, five thousand people.
"This isn't just about taking a nice trip. This is about going down there and competing against some very good programs, and I want our guys to understand that there's no reason we can't compete against these guys."
In conference play, the Hawks have a tough home slate, hosting defending Atlantic 10 champion Saint Louis and perennial league powerhouse Charlotte, as well as upper echelon stalwarts Dayton and Richmond. The Crimson and Gray will travel to George Washington, Rhode Island and Fordham, and will also face crosstown rivals Temple in a late-season set at the Owls' Skip Wilson Field.
"We have a tough schedule," admitted Hamburg. "With Saint Louis, Charlotte, Dayton, and Richmond being at home, those are four pretty good, high-end weekends for us. We've got our work cut out for us with the schedule but we're looking forward to the challenge."
Last year's campaign put the Atlantic 10 on notice, so if the Hawks can rise to meet that challenge, it will be just one more step in building the foundation of a winning program. Hamburg certainly feels like his players have bought in.
"I feel confident that these guys are going to hold the rope and keep pulling this thing forward even better than we have before," he said.
No doubt they'll be taking their fans along for the ride.