As the calendar turns to February, sports reports begin counting down the days until Major League pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training before the new season. This week, those countdowns have reached their ends; camps are opening up across Florida and Arizona.
Meanwhile, on college campuses across the country, the opposite is happening: preseason camps are winding down, starting rotations are beginning to crystallize, and lineup cards are being filled out. That’s because while major leaguers are getting in their first workouts, collegiate players are preparing for Opening Day.
Here on Hawk Hill, and across the nation…baseball is back.
The Crimson and Gray will kick off the 2019 campaign with a pair of games this Friday when they take on both VMI and UNC Wilmington at UNCW’s Brooks Field.
Saint Joseph’s head coach Fritz Hamburg knows that the Hawks haven’t quite reached their goals the past few seasons, but he is excited about the prospects for this year’s new-look squad.
“I feel our season has a lot of promise,” Hamburg said as he prepares for his 11th season at the helm of the SJU program. He will be joined in the dugout by a veteran coaching staff, including returning assistant coach Pete O’Hara and volunteer assistant Greg Manco, who returns to a coaching role after most recently serving as the Hawks’ director of baseball operations.
Also back for his fifth season at Saint Joseph’s is newly-minted associate head coach Ryan Wheeler. Wheeler has also served as the Hawks’ recruiting coordinator over the first four years of his tenure.
“Ryan is very deserving of this promotion; he is extremely committed to and invested in the success of this program,” Hamburg said. “His contribution to the program has meant a great deal to me and our players and we are fortunate to share this time with someone of his experience, knowledge, and work ethic.”
Headlining the offense on the field will be senior right fielder Charlie Concannon, who led the Hawks in batting average, slugging, on-base percentage, runs batted in, and doubles a season ago. Graduate student Dominic Cuoci, who tallied three home runs and 12 RBI in just 16 games before suffering an injury, also returns for his final season of eligibility.
Cuoci is expected to hold down the starting job at first base, while junior transfer Chris Skermo, junior Matt Cuppari, and sophomore Liam Bendo will comprise the Hawks’ middle infield. Hamburg is confident in the abilities of all three, and they will all see significant opportunities this season.
“We have three very versatile guys in the middle,” Hamburg explained. “Chris is more of a traditional second baseman; Matt and Liam can play both positions. We will be able to mix them up early and see how things will shape up as we move through the first three or four weeks.”
Fresh off leading his Delaware Post One squad to the American Legion World Series championship, freshman Nate Thomas has the inside track on the starting job at third base. Junior Brian Markoski and freshman Luke Zimmerman could each see playing time at first base, with Markoski also possessing the tools to play some in the outfield as well.
Behind the plate, the Hawks benefit from a group that possesses both talent and experience. Junior James McConnon returns after ranking second on the team in both average and doubles a season ago, as does sophomore Brian Vance, who hit .292 in 18 appearances in 2018. The duo is joined by talented freshman Andrew Cossetti, as well as senior Brendan Roach and sophomore Tim Cavanaugh.
“I don’t know that anybody in the Atlantic 10 has better catching from a depth standpoint than we do,” Hamburg said. “We’ve got three very solid catchers who bring different strengths to our game. James is the veteran and returning starter, and his offense and leadership behind the plate continue to develop.
“I think Brian adds a different personality to our team and his defense might be the most consistent. Andrew is going to be in the lineup, and he will probably hit in the middle of our order, whether he’s behind the plate or in the designated hitter role. He’s got things he certainly has to work on behind the plate, but he has some very strong skills, he’s a student of the game, and he can really hit.”
As a former All-American backstop himself, Hamburg appreciates the importance of having a strong catcher more than most, and his previous Hawk teams have certainly benefited from that approach, as both Brian O’Keefe (2014) and Deon Stafford (2017) have been early-round draft picks.
“The catching position is such a vital part of any team,” Hamburg said of his philosophy. “I’ve always believed that it is difficult to be a strong ball club without a strong catcher.”
Concannon will hold down the starting job in right field, while junior Kadar Namey, last year’s team leader in home runs, and sophomore Brendan Hueth have the edge to be the opening day starters in left and center, respectively.
“We’re lucky, because we’ve got some really good options,” Hamburg said. “We see Langston, Tim, Jake, and Brian as guys that will be in the mix in many ways. All of those guys have worked very hard to improve several areas of their game. If at any point in the season someone goes down, I feel comfortable with those guys jumping into the lineup and they will certainly get opportunities to prove themselves.”
On the mound, the Hawks will rely on a young group. But don’t let their relative age fool you; this pitching staff has already gotten its feet wet in previous seasons and is prepared to help lead the Hawks to success.
“Our pitching staff is young, and in some respects unproven with the roles several of them will fill, so it’s really going to be interesting early on seeing how that all comes together,” Hamburg said. “But we’ve got guys that have a pretty good feel for how to pitch. I feel like we’re going to use our entire pitching staff this year. Guys are going to get opportunities, and I like what we’ve seen in the preseason so far.”
Sophomore righthander Cole Stetzar will get the start against VMI on Opening Day, while senior Jake Meyers takes the ball against the host Seahawks. Juniors Jordan DiValerio and Hayden Seig, as well as sophomore Matt Kennedy, give the Hawks five talented arms with collegiate experience to build the foundation of a strong rotation. Sophomore Jose Martinez and freshmen Mike Falco and Luke Zimmerman could find themselves starting games as well.
“By the time we come back from Florida [when the Hawks play eight games in 11 days], I believe we will have a very good idea where our rotation will be,” Hamburg said. “We may not have the guy that throws 87 innings, but we may have four or five guys that throw 60-plus innings.”
In the bullpen, sophomore Ryan Devine will likely be employed as the team’s most versatile piece; whether the game needs to be finished off in the ninth inning or the Hawks need to stop the bleeding in the sixth or seventh, Hamburg is not afraid to deploy Devine in whatever situation calls for him.
“Ryan is going to be a guy that we use in different roles,” Hamburg said. “The game isn’t always saved in the ninth inning, and I’ve talked to him about that, and told him that’s his role. I’m looking forward to seeing him excel in that position.”
Joining Devine, Martinez, and Falco as righthanded arms in the bullpen will be sophomore Eddie Gallagher and freshman Grant Calvarese. This season, Hamburg will have a number of options from the left side as well, as junior southpaws Slater O’Brien and Kyle Smith are joined by returning sophomore Jackson Fiala and freshman Blaise Venancio.
These Hawks will once again face a challenging schedule that sees the team spend the first three weekends of the season in North Carolina. After two matchups apiece against VMI and UNCW, the Hawks will visit High Point for a three-game set before taking on Army West Point, Tulane, and Dartmouth at the USA Baseball Complex in Cary.
A midweek game at Bucknell precedes the Hawks’ home opener against Lehigh, scheduled for Match 6 at 3:00 p.m. Then it’s off to Port Charlotte, Florida, for the annual Snowbird Classic, highlighted by games against Kansas, Seton Hall, and Harvard.
In addition to home-and-homes with Delaware and Villanova, a trip to Rider, and a home game with William & Mary, the Hawks will once again take part in the annual Liberty Bell Classic. SJU’s quarterfinal matchup pits the Hawks against Lafayette at Smithson Field on March 26; a week later, they will visit either Penn or Villanova. The two semifinal winners will face off in the title game at Citizens Bank Park on April 23.
“The 2019 schedule is definitely challenging,” Hamburg said. “We will certainly be tested up front. I feel the schedule gives us a great opportunity to compete against some very solid programs, and those are the opportunities we want in order to develop confidence and momentum as we go into Atlantic 10 play.”
The Hawks open the conference slate on Friday, March 22, when they kick off a weekend series with George Mason. SJU will also host La Salle, St. Bonaventure, and VCU in league play, while visiting George Washington, Fordham, Dayton, and Massachusetts.
The Atlantic 10 Championship will be held at Fordham’s Houlihan Park beginning on May 22. The Hawks have had success in a pair of previous postseason trips to the Bronx, most recently coming within a game of the final in 2016.
For Saint Joseph’s to once again compete for the conference title, the Hawks – voted 10th in the league’s preseason coaches poll – will have to pair timely offense with solid pitching to compete day in and day out. This group is certainly up for the challenge, and has its sights set on soaring higher than Hawk baseball ever has before.