Baseball Season Preview: Wildcats On Doorstep of New Season
Feb. 10, 2014
VILLANOVA, Pa. - Long offseason training sessions and rigorous preseason workouts are soon to be a thing of the past as the dawn of the 2014 baseball season is finally just days away. Villanova has prepared for its 149th season of competition with a great deal of excitement and there should be no shortage of highlights to look forward to during the coming year.
Head coach Joe Godri has at his disposal a Wildcats roster with significantly more depth than last season, particularly on the pitching staff. Since the end of the 2013 campaign the young players that were thrust into key roles as freshmen have made significant strides with an additional year of experience and maturity. The groundwork for that group to become impact players in the BIG EAST was laid throughout the past year and the early results were on full display late last season. Also on hand are 14 newcomers to the team, including 12 freshmen and two transfers. The recruiting class for Godri and his staff is a promising one and should pay immediate dividends for the team.
The starting lineup graduated three key players who had been major contributors in each of the four seasons they wore the Villanova uniform but overall the 2014 team still returns more than half of its offense. Twelve position players return this season and they combined for 55 percent of the games started in the lineup a year ago, as well as 56 percent of the team's at-bats and 57 percent of the extra-base hits.
On the mound the Wildcats return just eight pitchers and will have to replace two-thirds of the weekend starting rotation. However, the arms that do return include the ace of the rotation and two of the top three relievers from the 2013 staff. Overall the group of eight pitchers combined to throw 54 percent of the innings last season and accounted for just over half of the staff's strikeouts.
Villanova plays a 56-game slate in 2014 that will have a very different look from previous years both in the early portion of the schedule and during BIG EAST play. The conference embarks on a new chapter in its great history with the additions of Butler, Creighton and Xavier plus longtime league stalwarts in the Wildcats, Georgetown, Seton Hall and St. John's.
Last season Villanova faced Georgetown and Seton Hall squads with large senior classes and those teams will have somewhat different looks this year. The series between the Wildcats and St. John's took a one-year hiatus, as the teams did not meet during the 2013 conference schedule. Villanova and the Red Storm both had exceptionally young teams last year and the historic rivals will have to get reacquainted with each other's rosters. Of the three new teams that join the league the Wildcats have faced only one; they played a single contest versus Xavier two years ago. In addition to hosting St. John's in conference play Villanova will also welcome Creighton and Butler to the Villanova Ballpark at Plymouth this season. In road series the Wildcats will take on Xavier, Seton Hall and Georgetown.
Each of the seven BIG EAST teams will play a three-game series against the other six members of the league. That means there will be just 18 conference games instead of 27, which puts a greater emphasis on those league series but also allows for additional non-conference scheduling opportunities. Villanova will play each of those nine extra non-conference games at home by hosting three-game series against familiar foes Northeastern, Wagner and Manhattan. Those series are in addition to the Wildcats taking on strong competition from the region in the annual Villanova Baseball Classic and Big Five Baseball Bash tournaments. Add it all up and Villanova will play a record 31 home games during the 2014 season.
Before the home schedule begins the Wildcats will play 11 games versus unfamiliar opponents. None of the first 11 teams Villanova faces were on the schedule last season and five of those contests will be played against schools that the Wildcats have never before seen on the diamond. Villanova opens the year with a three-game series at Charleston Southern (February 14-16) and then plays in the Spartan Baseball Classic versus Quinnipiac, Buffalo and host Norfolk State (February 21-23). Then it is off to the Sunshine State and a return trip to the Snowbird Baseball Classic in Port Charlotte, where the Wildcats will play against Nebraska-Omaha, Boston College and Central Michigan (February 28-March 2). The trip to Florida ends with a two-game set at Miami on March 4-5. Villanova has matched up with the Hurricanes four times previously but not since 2000 and just once since 1992.
Last year the Wildcats fielded one of their youngest teams in recent memory and for a large number of games started four or more freshmen. The offense was a work in progress and Villanova batted .231 for the year, with a .339 on-base percentage and a .311 slugging percentage. By the end of the year however, those numbers were making a steady rise. In the final seven games of the season the Wildcats hit .254 while increasing their on-base and slugging marks to .382 and .377, respectively. The defense was generally strong from start to finish in 2013 but even in the field Villanova demonstrated its growth. For the first 42 games of the season the Wildcats posted a .963 fielding percentage; in the final 12 games that number bumped up to .982.
Villanova is now on the doorstep of a new season and the team is more than ready to use the experience of last year and the opportunities this season will offer to continue the program's successful tradition.
There is plenty of veteran leadership among the 18 available pitchers on the Wildcats staff. Junior left-hander Josh Harris (Streamwood, Ill.) returns as the staff ace and junior righty Max Almonte (Long Beach, N.Y.) is back from a redshirt season. They are both expected to be in the weekend rotation.
Harris led the team last year in earned run average, wins and innings pitched while ranking second on the staff in games started and strikeouts. He went 5-7 for the year with a 3.75 ERA and logged 86 1/3 innings over 13 starts. Harris averaged nearly 6 2/3 innings per start in eight outings versus BIG EAST opponents as a sophomore and will again be counted on for his durability.
Although he missed last season Almonte has experience pitching in conference games. As a sophomore in 2012 he recorded a 4.37 ERA spanning 22 2/3 innings over four starts in league play. Overall he has appeared in 23 career games with 17 starts and has logged 91.0 innings pitched. Almonte has given up three earned runs or fewer in 13 of his 17 career starts and his experience in big games should be of great value this season.
Junior right-hander JB Kole (Basking Ridge, N.J.) is another candidate to start games for Villanova, while senior righties Matt Meurer (Katy, Texas) and Chris Haggarty (Valley Cottage, N.Y.) will both have significant bullpen roles in the late innings. This trio combined to make 66 appearances last season, with Haggarty (27 games) and Meurer (26) the two most frequently used pitchers on the 2013 roster.
Kole has averaged nearly eight strikeouts per nine innings in his first two years on the team, during which he has made 24 appearances. He throws as hard as anyone on the team and his top-notch fastball makes him a dangerous weapon for the Wildcats in any role.
A former walk-on to the team, Haggarty has made as much progress during his career as anyone to come through the Villanova program. He blossomed as a setup man and occasional closer last year, pitching in 27 games and picking up a win and two saves while striking out 30 in 37.0 innings pitched. Haggarty is an above average college arm and has pitched two or more innings in eight of his 35 career outings.
Meurer throws strikes consistently and had 37 strikeouts in 49.0 innings last season, when he regularly shuttled back and forth between the weekday rotation and bullpen roles on the weekend. He is expected to pitch exclusively in relief this year and is a good bet to be one of the team's top performers. Meurer made 12 relief outings in conference play last season and had a 2.77 ERA in 13.0 innings. He was pitching his best ball of the year late in the 2013 campaign and allowed just one run over 11 1/3 innings in his last eight outings of the year (0.79 ERA in that span).
Junior pitchers Jeff Courter (Maple Glen, Pa.) and Matt Lengel (Devon, Pa.) are local products who are important pieces of the Wildcats staff. Courter, a left-hander, saw time last season as a long reliever and a spot weekday starter. He succeeded in both roles and went 1-1 with a 4.66 ERA for the season, while pitching 46 1/3 innings in 15 appearances. In the four starts he made Courter logged 27 2/3 innings and pitched to a 3.58 ERA.
Lengel missed the 2013 season while recovering from an injury but is healthy and has looked strong during the preseason. A big, strong righty, he worked mostly out of relief as a sophomore in 2012, when he went 2-0 with one save and a 3.54 ERA. Lengel did not allow an earned run in 10 of his 15 relief outings that season and also faced 174 batters for the year without giving up a home run.
Sophomore right-hander Max Beermann (Tampa, Fla.) and junior right-hander Jon Tam (Basking Ridge, N.J.) are additional relief options. Beermann, who will spend most of his time in the lineup and at first base, has improved a great deal as a pitcher and is a valuable commodity for Villanova in short relief situations. Tam made three appearances as a walk-on to the team last season and did not allow a run in 3 1/3 innings of work. He is a consistent strike thrower who pitches to contact and his approach plays well in the Wildcats big home ballpark. Sophomore righty Luke Emling (Nottingham, Pa.) is another two-way player on the Villanova roster who has potential with both his bat and his arm.
Among the eight newcomers to the pitching staff, freshman southpaw Hunter Schryver (Mechanicsburg, Pa.) may be in the best position to make early contributions. He has shown excellent mechanics and terrific command of all his pitches and eventually projects as having a deep enough repertoire to be used in a starting role.
Freshmen Woody Bryson (Cambridge, Mass.) and John Santoianni (Souderton, Pa.) are also big left-handers with tremendous potential. Bryson earned honorable mention all-star honors from the Boston Globe as a senior in high school and has good enough command to aggressively attack hitters. Santoianni features a power arm and as he gains college experience is someone who should make steady progress as he grows within the Wildcats system.
The other three freshmen on the staff are right-handers Donovan Armas (Bellerose Village, N.Y.), Jake Kellman (Hauppauge, N.Y.) and Adam Schreck (Denville, N.J.), who each have unique attributes that they offer to the team. Schreck consistently shows late movement on his pitches and does an excellent job of keeping hitters off balance. Armas projects as a starting pitcher long term. He has a live arm and was a first team all-state player in high school. Kellman comes into the program with a solid fastball and continues to develop his offspeed repertoire. He could earn a role on the team as he gains experience in the program.
Junior Kagan Richardson (Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.) and redshirt freshman Joe Siringo (Oyster Bay, N.Y.) are transfers to Villanova who are in a position to contribute to the team immediately. Richardson has two years of experience in junior college ball and commands all of his pitches well. He compiled a 3.74 ERA in 16 relief appearances the past two seasons for Santa Ana (Calif.) College and demonstrated the ability to get batters out with his secondary pitches. Siringo is extremely athletic and has all four years of eligibility remaining after transferring from Sacred Heart. His offspeed arsenal is above average and could help him find a role out of the bullpen this season.
Villanova has four catchers on the roster and each brings something a little bit different to the table. Senior John Cialone (Houston, Texas) is the most experienced and offers the Wildcats a power bat from the right side of the plate. He is one of just two players on the current roster who has more than 100 games of collegiate experience. Cialone hit .217 with seven doubles last season and can help the team behind the plate, as a designated hitter or as a power bat off the bench.
Sophomore Emmanuel Morris (Willowbrook, Ill.) and the freshmen pair of Zander Retamar (Boca Raton, Fla.) and John Fabriziani (Doylestown, Pa.) also figure into the catching equation. Morris saw brief time as a starter late last season and has a wealth of potential. He is a solid receiver with a good arm and has excellent speed which he uses well offensively. Morris hit .250 in 27 games (six starts) as a freshman and can also play the outfield.
Retamar comes into the Wildcats program with advanced catching skills in all facets of the game. He came on strong during the fall season by demonstrating an accurate arm as well as the ability to work well with the pitching staff. Fabriziani has also made steady progress in a short amount of time and should continue to develop as he gains experience.
There were several times during the 2013 season when Villanova started an all-freshman infield. On those days the defensive alignment was Max Beermann (Tampa, Fla.) at first, Adam Goss (Bellaire, Texas) at second, Eric Lowe (Arlington Heights, Ill.) at shortstop and Kevin Jewitt (West Chester, Pa.) at third base. Each of those players are back for their second collegiate season and should take the next step into becoming key parts of the team's offense.
Jewitt earned preseason All-BIG EAST honors in a poll of league head coaches and will be the starter at third base. He ranked second on the team with 11 doubles last season and hit .212 overall in 47 games, including 38 starts. Jewitt has shown power potential and swung the bat extremely well during the fall season while continuing to be a steady defensive presence.
Beermann led the team with six home runs as a freshman and also added eight doubles while appearing in all 54 games and making 40 starts. He scored 21 runs and had 19 runs batted in while posting a .362 slugging percentage. Beermann showed what he is capable of when he gets into a groove by hitting .302 during a 20-game stretch midway through the 2013 campaign. He also played excellent defense at first base and should become a fixture in the middle of the Wildcats lineup.
Villanova is never short on players who can get on base consistently and Goss fits that mold as well as anyone. Despite hitting just .183 in 46 games last season he still posted a .368 on-base percentage thanks to drawing 24 walks and being hit by a pitch seven times. He scored 16 runs and hit a home run while being used defensively at second base and on the left side of the infield. He is also capable of playing in the outfield.
Lowe started 40 of the 48 games he appeared in last season and is as strong a defensive player as the Wildcats have. He has excellent range at shortstop and makes good decisions in the field. Offensively, Lowe is a classic Villanova hitter who does a good job of playing situational baseball. He batted .242 in 120 at-bats last season and drove in 14 runs while also leading the team with 10 sacrifice bunts.
Junior B.J. Bochicchio (Moosic, Pa.) did a good job defensively at third base and shortstop last season. He is a versatile player who is similar to Cialone in the sense that he can contribute offensively in a variety of ways. Bochicchio played in 41 games last season with 26 starts and hit .200 in 105 at-bats. He hit his first career home run at Florida State and also had success as a bat off the bench in the games he didn't start. Sophomore Luke Emling (Nottingham, Pa.) batted .313 with two doubles and seven runs batted in while appearing in 19 games last season. He has a power bat and can play either first base or in a corner outfield position.
Freshmen Todd Czinege (Overland Park, Kan.) and Brian Trabulsi (Malverne, N.Y.) are two of the more advanced hitters who have come into the program in the past few seasons. Czinege was a highly recruited player who could fit in defensively at either middle infield position. He hits the ball consistently to the gaps and could have an immediate presence in the lineup. Trabulsi has shown terrific power potential and great bat speed while also running the bases very well for a player of his size. He could develop into an impact player in the Wildcats lineup and is capable defensively at either corner infield position or as an outfielder.
Senior Connor Jones (Chandler, Ariz.) has been a mainstay in right field for Villanova the past two seasons and will shift to center field this season. He has a strong arm in the field and has been a terrific defensive outfielder who displays great range. At the plate he is a true power hitter who will once again hit in the middle of the batting order. Jones hit .234 with a .360 on-base percentage and a .389 slugging percentage last season while ranking second on the team with five home runs. He was also second on the squad in runs scored (25), RBI (33) and walks (27). Jones also hit a team-high .325 against BIG EAST opponents, posted a .597 slugging percentage in league play and finished the year by going 9-for-15 with two doubles, two home runs and eight RBI in a three-game sweep at Georgetown.
Also in the mix for playing time in the outfield is sophomore Derrick May, Jr. (Newark, Del.), redshirt freshman Mike Mecca (Ridgefield, N.J.) and freshman Donovan May (Newark, Del.). May, Jr. saw time in 27 games with five starts as a freshman and is steady defensively at all three outfield positions. He is also a plus runner who swung the bat well in the fall and will have the chance to earn a role during the year.
Mecca sat out last season due to an injury but is a heady baseball player who has the tools to be a very consistent contributor to the team. He is an above average defensive player with great speed and athleticism that he also uses well offensively. Mecca was an All-Northeast Region pick and was ranked ninth among scholastic players in New Jersey coming out of high school. He should see time in the lineup during the year.
May, the younger brother of Derrick, is a promising outfielder who was a first team all-conference player in high school as well as a top performer for his American Legion team. He has a plus arm and outstanding speed and excels at the plate by putting the ball in play consistently. He is a great fit for the Villanova style of play and should make his presence felt right away.
Senior Kevin Rojko (San Jose, Calif.) and freshman Alexander Masotto (East Islip, N.Y.) add additional options for the Wildcats both at the plate and in the field. Rojko is in his second year with the program after transferring from a California junior college and has the knack for helping the team win close games. He is fundamentally sound and could earn a bigger role this season after appearing in five games last year. Masotto earned a roster spot as a walk-on to the team after having a strong fall campaign. He is athletic and works hard both on and off the field. He hits the ball consistently to all fields and also possesses great speed which helps him offensively and defensively. In addition to playing the outfield he also saw time at second base during fall ball.