WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 26, 2005
Taking Back the Crown
Jan. 26, 2005
JU baseball was on a roll heading into the last season after winning the 2003 Atlantic Sun Conference Championship as the No. 6 seed and earning its 10th NCAA Regional bid. Poised to defend their title, the Dolphins prepared for the tough task, but were sidetracked along the way by constant injuries to key players. Pitchers Josh Deel, D.J. Kaercher and James Murdock virtually missed the entire season, while 2003 Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year Gordie Gronkowski missed 27 games with a back injury.
"We have the potential to win the A-Sun championship every year, but it's hard to overcome injuries to several key players," said head coach Terry Alexander, who is his his 15th season at the helm of the Dolphin program.
The lone silver lining to the losses was the opportunity for the younger players to gain valuable experience. And experience they gained as eight different pitchers competed for the first time at JU, while the team's top-two hitters were first-year players. This invaluable experience by JU's younger players, coupled with the return of a heathly core of veterans, has created one of the deepest Dolphin squads in more than a decade.
"This is the deepest squad that I've had in 10 years," said Alexander, who has led JU to the NCAA Regionals three of the last six seasons. "We have two players at every position and the competition has challenged the players to keep improving."
Despite losing 2004 First-Team All-Atlantic Sun hurler Dennis Robinson, a mix of youth and experience will provide the Dolphin coaching staff with an abundance of options in 2005. Robinson, who signed a free agent contract with the Baltimore Orioles after his junior season, finished the regular season tied for second in the nation with 13 wins (13-4) and led the Dolphins with a 2.85 ERA last season.
Junior Donald Brickle and senior Brett Nagy return to the starting rotation and will provide leadership and stability to the staff. Last season, Brickle was second on the squad with a 3.63 ERA and posted a 4-4 record with two complete games and 74.1 innings pitched in 13 starts. Nagy showed his versatility last year by starting nine games and appearing nine times out of the bullpen, where he earned two saves.
Redshirt-junior Josh Deel, who was named to the 2005 Preseason Atlantic Sun All-Conference team, will look to make an impact on the starting rotation after a shoulder injury sidelined him for most of 2004. Deel made just five appearances in what was supposed to be a breakout junior season, but he is a proven performer in the Atlantic Sun Conference after two seasons of standout pitching.
Junior transfer Neal Frontz will bolster the rotation after going 7-1 with a 2.10 ERA with 96 strikeouts last season at Florida Junior College, where he helped lead the Falcons to a 33-6 record and the USCAA National Championship en route to All-America honors.
Freshman Matt Davis and Brock Schnabel will also compete for mid-week starts. Davis was the Nassau County player of the year after leading Fernandina Beach with a 10-2 record, a 1.56 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 83.0 innings last season. Schnabel went 6-4 with a 2.35 ERA and 70 strikeouts during his senior season at Lake Region High School. The bullpen will be run by committee with senior Ashley Roque, juniors James Murdock and Kyle DeVries and sophomore Shaun Kapples leading the way.
Roque led the squad with four saves in 2004 and made a team-high 22 appearances, while Murdock looks to return to form after missing all last year with an arm injury. DeVries won four times in 12 starts last season, including two complete games, and is a candidate to return to the starting rotation in addition to working in relief. Kapples saw action in eight games as a true freshman and will build on that this season. Senior transfer Hunter Davis (Florida State), sophomore Andrew Laughter and freshmen John Locklear and Tim Brown will also add depth to the bullpen.
"We don't have a shut down starter like Dennis Robinson was last year, but we have a lot of guys who are capable of winning st this level," said Alexander. "Someone will emerge as the ace during the year, but we have to wait and see who that will be."
Seniors Alex Jamieson and Jon Galui give JU a wealth of experience behind the plate. Jamieson enters the 2005 season with full bill of health after nagging injuries slowed him last season. Despite the setbacks, he tied for third on the squad with 26 RBI and proved to be one of the Dolphins' most dangerous hitters. Galui enjoyed his best season at the plate after finishing third on the squad with a .346 average and a .531 slugging percentage, and is a calming influence behind the plate for the young JU pitching staff.
A few wrinkles will be made to the infield, but the return of a healthy Gordie Gronkowski will help the transition. Gronkowski will split time at first base and as the designated hitter. He started in 26 of the final 27 games last year after returning from a back injury and the coaching staff expects him to be at full strength in 2005. Junior Donald Brickle will fill in at first base when Gronkowski moves to DH. Brickle batted .325 in 2004 and led the squad in slugging (.614) and on-base percentage (.477).
Senior Sean McHugh and sophomore Logan James will battle for the starting spot at second base. With each player hitting from the opposite sides of the plate, look for them to platoon throughout the season. Redshirt-freshman Matt Lopez is slated to be the Dolphins' opening-day shortstop. He provides a consistent glove in the field and will help bolster the bottom part of the batting order for JU.
Sophomore Daniel Murphy will look to fill the shoes of First-Team Atlantic Sun All-Conference selection Orlando Diaz at third base. Murphy, who played in the outfield in 2004, led the squad with a .377 batting average and nine outfield assists as a true freshman. His transition will be key as the Dolphins look to improve defensively from a year ago.
Sophomore Pete Clifford will make the move from shortstop to left field in 2005. Clifford was second on the squad with a .346 batting average and the coaching staff feels his athleticism will help stabilize the defense. Sophomore Justin Young will be penciled in as the Dolphins' right fielder in 2005 after having a strong showing during the fall, while sophomore transfer Doug Fowler will direct traffic in center field after playing the 2004 season at Appalachian State, where he batted .289 with five home runs last year and had 170 putouts in the field before a leg injury prematurely ended his season.
Sophomore Thomas LePage will also provide defensive versatility and pop at the plate after batting .300 in 20 appearances in 2004.
Redshirt-freshman Jon Tiner will be used as a defensive substitution in the late innings, while sophomore Zach Haniff, redshirt freshman Brian Ferrell and freshmen Matt Dobbins, Dan Maier and Brian Hudgins provide depth.
The Dolphins will face one of its toughest schedules in recent years with 10 games against teams ranked in the preseason top-25 polls.
The 2005 slate is highlighted by six teams which earned bids to the NCAA Regionals last season, including four meetings with No. 18 Florida State and a three-game series with No. 2 Miami. The Dolphins' first meeting against FSU will be held at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville on Tuesday, March 22, at 7 p.m. In addition to the Seminoles and Hurricanes, JU faces four other teams which made the NCAA Regionals last season - No. 10 Texas A&M, No. 24 UCF, Florida Atlantic and Bethune-Cookman. The Dolphins will also host North Florida in the 13th annual Mayor's Cup on March 30th and will play nine teams from the state of Florida throughout the season.
JU will be challenged early by No. 10 Texas A&M, Wake Forest and South Alabama at the Coca-Cola Classic in Mobile, Ala., Feb. 18-20. The Dolphins' 30-game Atlantic Sun Conference schedule includes tough road trips to defending A-Sun Champion UCF and Stetson, while the Dolphins will host Florida Atlantic, Campbell, Lipscomb and Troy at Alexander Brest Field.
Stetson will host the 2005 Atlantic Sun Conference Championship for the fourth straight year.
The 2005 season also marks the first year all Atlantic Sun Conference series will be three nine-inning games, as opposed to a nine-inning game and a seven-inning doubleheader.