A year after being eliminated from postseason contention on the final day of the season, the Saint Joseph’s baseball team has been hard at work ensuring that last season’s disappointment serves as this season’s motivation. The Hawks will get their first crack at the 2018 season this weekend when they open their campaign at Portland.
An underrated and unexpected boost to the Hawks’ early-season preparations came in the form of good weather; it seems that Mother Nature has been wearing an SJU baseball cap over the past month. At first blush, it might appear to be just a minor factor among the many things that go into preparing for a baseball season, but it’s impossible to overrate the importance of simply holding practice outside. For all the time spent in the indoor batting cages, there’s nothing quite like game action; to that end, the Hawks were fortunate enough to hold their first official team workout on the turf at Smithson Field, and outdoor practices have been a key component of the preseason.
“I think we’re going to end up getting outside this year [during preseason] more than at any point in the past, and being out on the field makes a big difference,” head coach Fritz Hamburg said as he begins his 10th season in the Hawk dugout. “It’s nice to get a break to try and get outside and replicate a game environment. If you can play intrasquad, you’re putting the game aspect into it.
“Usually early on, if you have two fairly evenly-matched teams where one’s been inside and one’s been out, the difference oftentimes in those games is a missed fly ball because you haven’t seen a ball off the bat, or game-speed ground balls, or even baserunning mistakes when you haven’t seen the ball off the bat and haven’t gotten reacclimated to where you were in the fall.
“I think it’s a huge advantage, as I’ve always said, to have the turf that we have,” Hamburg said. “And even with the dirt, the mound has held up through the cold and it hasn’t been affected to the point that we can’t pitch on it, so I think overall we’re doing as much as we can.”
The Hawks enter the season with a mix of both veteran experience and talented youth, as the departures of a number of mainstays will grant opportunities for both returning players and newcomers around the diamond.
“I think that we have a good nucleus back, but we’re going to need some young guys to step up and hopefully have seasons comparable to Charlie Concannon or Deon Stafford or Tim Brennan or Lucas Rollins,” Hamburg said. “What those guys did, they had excellent freshman seasons, and if we can get one or two guys who are close to that, that’s going to help us tremendously.”
As is the nature of the collegiate game, the Hawks will deal with changes to the everyday lineup this season. In June, Stafford, a three-time All-Atlantic 10 selection and 2016 All-American, was selected in the fifth round of the MLB Draft, but the Hawks have a pair of capable young players in sophomore James McConnon and freshman Brian Vance ready to step in and fill the void left behind the plate by Stafford’s departure. Hamburg is confident in the abilities of both of his young catching options.
“It’s tough to go through a season with just one catcher, and both of those guys have done a good job,” the former All-American backstop said. “James will be our starting catcher, but Brian has really grown since he got here, and I think both of them will see ample playing time.”
Adding depth to the catching corps will be returning junior Brendan Roach and freshman Tim Cavanaugh, who also doubles as an outfielder.
The Hawks will roll out a pair of returning seniors at the corners in first baseman Dominic Cuoci and third baseman Marc Giacalone. Sophomore Brian Markoski saw time off the bench last season and will press for opportunities at first, while freshman Cole Stetzar will open the season backing up Giacalone at third.
“Dom probably had the most productive fall out of anybody, and he does a great job at first base,” Hamburg said. “Brian will have opportunities, either at first or in the designated hitter role.”
Senior shortstop Matt Maul will have a new double play partner up the middle this season after the graduation of SJU’s all-time assists leader, Taylor Boyd. Sophomore Matt Cuppari has the inside track on the job, but freshmen Liam Bendo and Vince Capone have seen work at second base as well during the preseason.
“Both Matt [Cuppari] and Liam are left-side guys adjusting and adapting to the right side of the infield, and we’re going to give both of them opportunities to play,” Hamburg said. “We’ve been very pleased with both of them in the preseason.”
One of the more noticeable changes for 2018 will be in the outfield as the graduations of Cal Jadacki and Peter Sitaras leave opportunities for young players to step up right out of the gate. The one holdover from a season ago is Concannon, the junior right fielder who was a Freshman All-American in 2016 and is a power threat from the left side of the plate.
Freshmen Brendan Hueth and Jake Artz will likely find their names in the opening day lineup, but a trio of sophomores in Tim Johnson, Langston Livingston, and Kadar Namey will have a chance to make an impact as well. Senior David Viselli also returns to the outfield mix after missing last season due to injury and can also lend depth behind the plate.
“We have options in the outfield, but we don’t have a lot of collegiate at bats out there aside from Charlie,” Hamburg said. “Guys are going to get opportunities, and it will come down to who is the most productive at the plate.”
On the mound, the Hawks have a slew of talented arms ready to make their presence felt. Leading the pack is junior ace Tim Brennan, who spent last summer honing his craft in the prestigious Cape Cod League. Joining him in the rotation will be senior Justin Aungst, a former Atlantic 10 leader in earned run average who looks to return to form for his final campaign in the Crimson and Gray.
“Tim is a definite ‘Friday starter,’ and he may be the best ‘Friday starter’ in the league,” Hamburg said. “He’s throwing the ball great in the preseason and we’re excited to have him pitch on Fridays for us.
“I think Justin recognizes that he’s a senior, and that he needs to be a guy for us, and that the opportunity is there,” Hamburg continued. “He’s wanted the opportunity to be a starter, and I think he’s really excited about it.”
The absence of junior lefthander Lucas Rollins, who is expected to miss the 2018 season due to injury, leaves a weekend rotation spot up for grabs. Sophomore Hayden Seig made 12 appearances last season, including three starts, and will have an opportunity to increase his role in the starting rotation, while Stetzar, fellow freshman Jose Martinez, and sophomore Jordan DiValerio are knocking on the door as well.
The Hawks will welcome back a pair of experienced arms at the back end of the bullpen, as graduate students Ryan Kelly and Steve Powles return for a final season on Hawk Hill. Powles missed the entirety of the 2017 season while Kelly, whose eight saves in 2016 are the second-most in a season in program history, went down after just two appearances.
Bridging that gap from starter to closer is a bullpen full of talent ready to compete for innings, including a pair of veterans in senior Eric Sigovich and junior Jake Meyers, sophomore lefthander Slater O’Brien, and newcomers Ryan Devine, Brian Edgington, Jackson Fiala, Matt Kennedy, and Kyle Smith.
“We have inexperienced depth,” Hamburg said of his pitching staff, “but I do like what they’re doing so far, and I think the preparation they’ve been through will help them get adjusted [to the collegiate level] sooner rather than later.”
As always, the Hawks will face a challenging schedule early in the season designed to prepare the squad to hit the ground running in Atlantic 10 play. The 2018 slate opens this weekend at Portland, marking the fourth consecutive season that Saint Joseph’s has opened its season on the West Coast.
“I certainly like the way our schedule lays out,” Hamburg said. “I feel like we match up well with Portland, but it will be our first time [playing a game] on the field, and as it always goes, just getting into a game rhythm is challenge number one. But we’re looking forward to playing.”
After a four-game set with the Pilots, the Hawks head to East Carolina, where they will meet MIssouri State, Pepperdine, and the host Pirates in the annual Keith LeClair Classic. SJU then wraps up its early-season road trip with six games in Florida against Florida International, Western Michigan, Georgetown, and Notre Dame.
“I think the second weekend is very challenging, and we’ll see three strong programs,” Hamburg said. “The Florida trip is going to be a good trip. FIU has a good rotation, and we’re seeing them on a Friday. Georgetown and Western Michigan, we’ve played them in the past and I think those are good matchups for us, and we’re excited to play Notre Dame, who we’ve never played before.
“Playing this kind of schedule early challenges us,” Hamburg explained. “Being able to have an opportunity to get some wins against teams like this builds confidence, and that’s the idea and the philosophy behind the early-season schedule.”
The Hawks will finally take to the turf at Smithson Field for their home opener on March 16 against Wagner. Manhattan and Sacred Heart visit Hawk Hill that weekend as part of the annual Big 5 Baseball Bash as well.
“It will be nice to be home for the ‘Big 5’ weekend,” Hamburg said. “Sacred Heart has a good club; they’ve been competing for the championship in the NEC and have won it a couple times, plus Wagner and Manhattan are teams we’re familiar with as well.”
Highlighting the slate of midweek games – which features games against annual schedule fixtures Villanova, Bucknell, Delaware, Lehigh, and Rider – is the Liberty Bell Classic, which kicks off with a quarterfinal tilt at Penn on March 27. A second round matchup with either Lafayette or Villanova awaits the winner, with a trip to the home of the Philadelphia Phillies on the line.
“The Liberty Bell Classic, as it’s always been, is a special event, and we hope to get back to Citizens Bank Park for the championship game,” Hamburg said of the tournament that his squad has won three times (2012, 2014, 2016).
The Hawks will play a home-and-home set with NJIT during their bye week from conference play to round out the non-conference schedule.
On the opening weekend of conference play, the Hawks – picked seventh in the Atlantic 10 preseason coaches’ poll – will host preseason favorite Saint Louis. Fordham and defending league champion Davidson will visit Smithson Field in April, while the Hawks will close out the regular season slate with a home set against Massachusetts. Conference road trips include jaunts to La Salle, St. Bonaventure, Rhode Island, and George Mason, while the 2018 Atlantic 10 Baseball Championship will be held at George Washington’s Tucker Field at Barcroft Park.
“We have some challenges,” Hamburg said of taking on four of the top five teams in the preseason poll. “We also have some teams on the schedule that are trying to finish better [than their preseason projections], so I think there’s a balance to our conference schedule.”
There may be balance in the schedule, but it falls on the Hawks themselves to have the proper balance on the field in 2018. The balance between youth and experience, or between timely hitting and solid pitching, can make the difference over the course of a season, and if this group can strike the right one, an Atlantic 10 title could be within its grasp.