After a period of success that has seen 138 victories, three Atlantic 10 Championship berths, and three Liberty Bell Classic championships in the past five seasons, the Saint Joseph’s baseball team enters the 2017 season with great expectations.
Or maybe that should read “expectation,” in the singular. They have just one: to win.
“Our expectation is what it is because we have a lot of experience returning,” said head coach Fritz Hamburg, now in his ninth season at the helm of the Hawks. “We have a very close-knit group that shares the same expectations for itself that we do as a coaching staff.”
That experience includes an All-American, a Freshman All-American, and a handful of Atlantic 10 and Big 5 Baseball postseason honorees. In addition to a track record of strong individual performances on the diamond, the members of the team also have experience with winning as a team.
“Many of them have had championship experiences, whether it’s in high school or during summer ball, and those experiences have given them a taste of why they want to be champions,” Hamburg said. “I think collectively, they recognize now that they can share in that success here with each other.”
And it’s not just Hamburg that sees the potential in this group. D1Baseball.com installed the Hawks as its preseason favorite to top the Atlantic 10, while the league’s coaches ranked SJU in a tie for third in their annual preseason poll.
“We take it for what it is, and that’s that it validates that somebody thinks that we have a good team this year,” Hamburg said of the external acclaim. “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to win [the Atlantic 10], and it doesn’t say anything about how we’re going to play. It just says something about how people view us.”
The reason that Hamburg and those outside observers view the Hawks as one of the top dogs in the conference is the squad’s strength in all facets of the game. The Hawks enjoy depth and talent in the lineup, and possibly even more of both on the pitching staff. Meanwhile from a defensive standpoint, the Hawks led the Atlantic 10 in fielding percentage last season and show no signs of regressing.
Fronting the potent Hawk lineup is junior catcher The reigning Atlantic 10, ECAC, and Big 5 Player of the Year, Stafford earned Third Team All-America honors a year ago from Collegiate Baseball Newspaper; the same publication has him among its Preseason All-Americans in 2017. He capped off his outstanding year by being named to the All-Cape Team in the prestigious Cape Cod League over the summer. , Jr.
Stafford is not alone as a standout behind the plate, however. Senior Brian Lau is as capable a backstop as there is in the conference, able to affect a game with both his bat and his receiving skills. Freshman James McConnon is a new addition that will certainly press for playing time, while sophomore Brendan Roach continues to develop as well.
“We are certainly fortunate to have Deon, and equally fortunate to have Brian,” Hamburg said. “Brian has given us a great balance to the position, while James, even though he’s a freshman, has really come along and has worked hard to get up to speed. I feel like we’re very, very strong behind the plate.”
Junior Dominic Cuoci has the edge for the Opening Day starting job at first base, coming off of his strong summer as the Carolina Virginia Collegiate League Player of the Year. Freshmen Brian Markoski and Kadar Namey will be heard from this season, however.
“Dominic is a key part of where we see success for this group,” Hamburg said. “We were really excited for what he did this summer, and that should prove to him that he can handle it.”
Up the middle, the Hawks will look to the veteran double play combination of senior Taylor Boyd at second base and junior Matt Maul at shortstop. The pair has started together for each of the previous two seasons and has brought stability to the lineup both defensively and at the plate.
After breaking into the lineup early in 2016, junior Marc Giacalone will hold down the starting job at third. Giacalone had a strong sophomore campaign at the top of the Hawk lineup, leading the Atlantic 10 in walks.
The entire starting infield provides great versatility, as does freshman Matt Cuppari. Both Boyd and Maul have played on both sides of the bag at second, while Giacalone has spent time as a second baseman and Cuppari can slot into either role on the left side.
A trio of familiar faces will inhabit the outfield positions this season. Senior Peter Sitaras will man center field, while classmate Cal Jadacki, who tied for the Atlantic 10 lead in runs batted in last season, and sophomore Charlie Concannon, a CBN Freshman All-America and A-10 All-Rookie honoree, will hold down the corners in left and right, respectively.
“Peter has made progress and is a terrific center fielder,” Hamburg said. “He has great aptitude, makes great reads, and is an above-average thrower. Cal and Charlie are still improving, having converted from the infield to the outfield, but they have brought quite a bit to our team on the offensive side.”
On the mound, the Hawks return pitchers who accounted for all but seven starts a season ago. Senior Pat Vanderslice will take the ball on Opening Day, but sophomores Tim Brennan and Lucas Rollins give the Hawks three outstanding arms in their starting rotation.
Vanderslice parlayed a strong second half of the season and an Atlantic 10 All-Championship nod into a slot with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League last summer, joining with Stafford to help lead the Sox to the Cape League crown.
Brennan and Rollins, meanwhile, were both tabbed for the A-10 All-Rookie squad, while Brennan was the Big 5 Co-Pitcher of the Year and the organization’s Rookie of the Year as well.
“I don’t know that the typical ‘one-two-three’ is necessarily important,” Hamburg said. “But we know that our weekend rotation when we head out to Pepperdine will be Pat, Tim, and Lucas, in some order.
“There are a lot of ways to look at it,” Hamburg explained. “Who can handle going out and keeping a team at or below two runs on Friday, where you are essentially the guy that is showing the staff the way for the rest of the weekend? And then you need to have guys behind that are cerebral enough to recognize what that guy is doing and how he’s doing it to put themselves in a position to be successful.
“If you sweep, that’s the best-case scenario, but you want to win the series. If you look around our league, there are a lot of good ‘number ones.’ The advantage comes when you can throw a ‘number one’ as your number two, and a ‘number two’ as your number three.”
Freshman Hayden Seig is in line to be a midweek starter in his first campaign on Hawk Hill, while Cuoci could also see innings on the mound in a midweek starting role.
Senior Ryan Kelly, who earned Second Team All-Atlantic 10 and All-Big 5 honors a year ago, returns to his role at the back of the Hawk bullpen. Lau made the transition from full-time catcher to relief option last season, and he will once again see high leverage work at the back end of games. Seniors Matt Pennell and Steve Powles and junior Justin Aungst will be pivotal to the Hawks’ success this season; Pennell had a strong fall, while Powles and Aungst have had success in the past and will look to recapture it in 2017.
The true depth of the Hawk bullpen lies in the middle innings, where strong arms are available at any point in the game. Sophomore Jake Meyers had a strong summer and will be relied on for quality innings. Graduate student Tim Ponto returns, as do seniors Zach DeVincenzo, Matt Morella, and Darren Weidman. Junior transfer Eric Sigovich and freshman Jordan DiValerio are a pair of new arms on the right side, while redshirt senior Joey Gorman and freshman Slater O’Brien give the bullpen a lefthanded presence as well.
The schedule facing the squad is one fit for a team with lofty goals. The Hawks will take on five teams that reached the NCAA Tournament a season ago, including a three-game weekend series with reigning NEC champion Bryant, and a home-and-home against nationally ranked Maryland.
“We have a really good, challenging schedule,” Hamburg said. “The thought in putting the schedule together really comes down to challenging your team, not only with the quality of play, but with the reputation of the programs. Having an opportunity to win those games helps you realize that, ‘hey, you know what, we really are this good.’ That’s why you play those games, and the more games you play, and the more opportunities you have, the more you believe.”
After opening the season at Pepperdine, the Hawks will face off with Kentucky, Delaware, and Old Dominion at the ODU Tournament. The following weekend, SJU will take part in the Stetson Invitational, where the Hawks will meet three regional squads from a season ago in Connecticut, Western Michigan, and the host Hatters.
A swing through the Mid-Atlantic features games with Maryland, William and Mary, Yale, Liberty, and Longwood before the Hawks play their home opener against UMass Lowell on March 17. After hosting Iona and Towson the following two days, Bryant will come to town the following weekend, the last weekend of non-conference play.
Rounding out the non-conference schedule are midweek games against Bucknell and Rider, as well as local rivals Delaware and Villanova.
In conference play, the Hawks will welcome George Mason to Smithson Field for the first time. Richmond, La Salle, and Dayton will also visit Hawk Hill during the Atlantic 10 slate. The Hawks will make their first-ever trip to Davidson, while also visiting Fordham and VCU; Saint Joseph’s will also wrap up the season on the road, at George Washington. The Atlantic 10 Championship returns to the Saint Louis campus this season, opening on May 24.
The Hawks will also defend their Liberty Bell Classic title from a season ago, hosting Villanova in the quarterfinals on March 28 before meeting either Lafayette or Penn one week later. The championship game will be held at Citizens Bank Park on either April 18 or 19.
“It’s great that the Phillies are involved with the local universities, and the opportunity to play at Citizens Bank Park is a great experience for all of us,” Hamburg said. “We feel fortunate to be defending the title and we look forward to working toward going back again this year.”
All the pieces are in place for a banner year for Saint Joseph’s baseball in 2017. And neither the student-athletes nor the coaching staff will be satisfied with anything less than putting up a banner when it’s all said and done.