Feb. 19, 2010
When a recruiting class of 15 players came into the Villanova program before the start of last season, head coach Joe Godri and the rest of the coaching staff made a commitment to rebuilding the team on the strength of pitching and defense. Such a formula had worked in the previous two seasons, when the Wildcats advanced to the BIG EAST Championship in back-to-back years. The 2009 team was going to be a young one no matter what, but key injuries forced Villanova to put a relatively inexperienced and inconsistent team on the field for much of the season. Despite posting a record below .500 for the first time since 2003, the Wildcats showed signs that their philosophy of team defense was in fact producing the desired results. The same should hold true entering the 2010 campaign for a team that is a year older and has the necessary pieces in place to build on some of the potential shown last season.
"There were a number of guys last season, especially on the pitching staff, that we pushed into critical roles sooner than we might have planned on," Godri said. "Our inexperience worked against us but the silver lining is that so many of the younger players had an opportunity to get experience in both weekday games and on the weekend in our BIG EAST series'. Now that they have one season under their belt as college baseball players, our experience level as a ball club should become one of our strengths this year."
Villanova will still be a young team this season. Of the 33 players that will form the active roster, 25 are in either their freshman or sophomore years of athletic eligibility. That isn't to say that the veterans on the team won't play significant roles. The Wildcats bring back their entire starting rotation from last season and return five starting position players to the lineup. Plenty will also be expected of the large sophomore class.
"The bulk of our team is in that sophomore class, which had both good and bad experiences last year," Godri said. "We have had a chance to get a really good look at what the players need to do in order to be successful both individually and as a ballclub. Going into the start of the season, the guys have done everything possible to give us our best chance to win on the field. Our goal back in August was to be the best team we can possibly be when the season started and the players have given themselves that chance. We will see where this team goes from here but I am excited about where we are right now."
SCHEDULE: WILDCATS OPEN THE SEASON ON FEBRUARY 19
Villanova will begin the 2010 campaign by renewing a series with Norfolk State from February 19-21. These teams played annually up until the 2007 season and this year's season-opening series will be the first in a three-year commitment between the Wildcats and Spartans.
Following the first three games of the season, Villanova gets into tournament play both on the road and at home. The annual Spring Break trip to Florida will first take the Wildcats to the Tampa area for the BIG EAST-Big Ten challenge and matchups against Purdue, Indiana and Iowa. The team will also make a new stop in the Sunshine State at Winter Haven, where Villanova will take on other cold-weather teams in the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational.
The home opener is set for March 9 against Bucknell before the Wildcats host the Villanova Baseball Classic and the Villanova Baseball Bash on consecutive weekends in mid-March. The remainder of the 29-game non-conference schedule features the annual midweek games against Big Five rivals La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph's and Temple. Late in the season, Villanova will also host the annual meeting against Penn State. The Wildcats have won the last five games in this series.
"There is a lot to look forward to in our non-conference schedule," Godri said. "We are excited about the opportunity to play in the BIG EAST-Big Ten challenge and to continue the tradition of our home tournaments."
The rotating BIG EAST schedule means that the Wildcats will play five of the nine series against conference opponents on the road, as compared to four league series at home. Villanova's road opponents in BIG EAST play are Louisville, Connecticut, USF, Rutgers and West Virginia. On the flip side, the four teams making the trip to Plymouth Meeting are Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Georgetown and Notre Dame.
Nothing has changed in the format of regular season league play, as 12 conference teams will vie for eight spots in the BIG EAST Championship. The conference tournament runs from May 25-29 and returns to Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater, Fla., site of Villanova's run to the semifinals of the 2008 championship.
AROUND THE HORN
The traditional strength of the Villanova pitching staff has always been built around the team's starting pitchers. Last year's entire rotation returns and will be headlined by seniors Brian Streilein (Staten Island, N.Y.), Kevin Crimmel (Harrisburg, Pa.) and Chris Pack (Darien, Ill.). These three pitchers combined to start 37 of the 50 games for the Wildcats last season and together have started 63 games in their careers.
"It is always good to have veteran pitchers on the staff and we are fortunate to have three of them," Godri said. "These three guys have been with us for four years, they have been to the BIG EAST playoffs, won big games on the road and experienced everything there is to see in college baseball. Anytime you can put that level of experience on the mound it helps the entire team."
Streilein anchored the staff last season with 84.0 innings pitched and a team-high five victories. He struck out 54 while walking only 29 and allowed just six home runs to 381 batters faced. Pack and Crimmel had similar seasons as each spent their first season as full-time members of the weekend rotation. Both pitchers had three victories and struck out 41 batters on the year while logging 67 2/3 and 58 1/3 innings, respectively.
Junior Mike Francisco (Newtown Square, Pa.) unexpectedly moved into the role of closer last season and wound up making a team-high 23 appearances. He picked up four saves with a 1-2 record and racked up 30 strikeouts in 34.0 innings pitched while holding opposing batters to a .275 average against him. He is expected to once again be a key figure in the late innings for Villanova.
Behind the veteran starters and Francisco is a large sophomore class of pitchers. Left-hander Kyle Helisek (Cranberry Township, Pa.) was a fixture in weekday games in 2009 and wound up making eight starts and six relief appearances. He went 4-1 with a 5.55 ERA in a successful freshman campaign, walking just 17 and striking out 31 in 58 1/3 innings and allowing only three home runs. He will be given a chance to compete for a weekend starting assignment this year thanks to experience pitching out of the bullpen in conference games last season as well making starts at Louisiana State and Penn State.
Among the hardest throwers on the roster are right-handed pitchers Kyle McMyne (Old Forge, Pa.) and Jerry Battipaglia (Katonah, N.Y.). Both pitched out of the bullpen last season and are versatile enough to handle either critical innings late in games or swing into a starting role. McMyne pitched in 14 games with one start and struck out 18 in 22 1/3 innings, while Battipaglia compiled a 5.94 ERA over 13 relief outings. He limited opponents to a .299 batting average against him, while allowing no home runs and striking out 19 in 16 2/3 innings.
The sophomore class is rounded out by the trio of Tom Tesauro (Lawrenceville, N.J.), Julian Diaz (Trenton, N.J.) and Christian Culicerto (Charlotte, N.C.). Tesauro was one of the team's most improved pitchers during fall ball after starting three of his nine appearances last season, while Diaz is ready to make a contribution out of the bullpen after learning a sidearm approach to the plate. Culicerto made two scoreless relief appearances last year as a walk-on to the team. He also plays football for the Wildcats and is among the team's three multi-sport student-athletes.
"When the group of pitchers in the current sophomore class came to Villanova last season, they represented the future of our pitching staff," Godri said. "They gained a lot of experience last season and the future starts right now. These guys are ready to begin carrying the torch of what it means to be a pitcher for the Wildcats now and in the future. We are very pleased with their progress."
Four freshmen are on the pitching staff as well, led by righty Kevin MacLachlan (Matawan, N.J.), the top recruit among this year's incoming class. MacLachlan was an all-conference and all-division performer over his final two years of high school and is joined on the staff by fellow newcomers Matt Longfield (Miami, Fla.), Stephen Ostapeck (Sacramento, Calif.) and Drew Packard (Knoxville, Tenn.).
From a defensive standpoint, the team was everything as advertised and has a chance to be even better this season. Villanova posted a .970 fielding percentage last spring, easily the highest in Godri's eight years as head coach. The defense was balanced between a solid infield and an outfield that tallied 14 assists on the year.
What the pitching staff lacked in experience it made up for with the raw ability offered by a group of hard-throwing incumbents and newcomers. The pitchers combined to average nearly six strikeouts per nine innings on the year.
Meanwhile, the Wildcat offense continued to roll along with a .282 batting average and a .384 on-base percentage. Villanova continued to manufacture runs however it could with 84 stolen bases, 65 hit batters and 53 sacrifice bunts leading to better than 6.5 runs per game.
Over the years, the Wildcats have always been able to put an experienced veteran player behind the plate. That will be the case again this season, although Villanova will have one of its newcomers handling a significant amount of the catching duties. Graduate student Chris Johnson (Shrewsbury, N.J.) was a four-year member of the baseball team at James Madison and graduated this past spring. Due to a redshirt season his freshman year, he has one year of eligibility remaining. Johnson batted .263 with five home runs and 38 RBI over his four seasons for the Dukes, including a .296 batting average in 2008 when JMU won its league title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
"Chris has stepped in and is a really nice addition for us," Godri said. "He is an experienced guy who can catch and throw but what he really brings to the team is another guy who has a great understanding of college baseball. Chris has played in an NCAA regional and has a wealth of experience. He should help the younger catchers on the team be able to develop in a more natural process instead of having to be force-fed into tough situations."
The younger catchers referred to above are sophomore Adam Nelson (St. Joseph, Mo.) and freshman Niko Gomez (Chicago, Ill.). Both will compete to earn playing time behind the plate and offer a variety of skills. Nelson batted .313 as a freshman last season and showed good power potential at the plate while also improving his receiving and throwing skills. Gomez is also a strong offensive player who led his high school team in home runs, RBI and slugging percentage for four straight seasons.
The infield positions are where Villanova's defensive skills are going to shine. Although the versatility of a number of athletes on the team allows for some movement between the positions, the strongest defensive alignment would appear to feature sophomore Kevin Wager (Chester, Va.) at first base, sophomore Tyler Sciacca (Staten Island, N.Y.) at second base, sophomore Marlon Calbi (Montclair, N.J.) at shortstop and junior David Koczirka (Thornton, Pa.) at third base.
Each of the above four played significant roles last season, with Koczirka landing a job as the everyday third baseman. He finished second on the team with a .340 batting average while posting a .475 slugging percentage with 13 doubles, three triples and a home run. Wager battled an early-season injury to hit .216 with 13 RBI and a .305 on-base percentage, while Sciacca and Calbi each posted an on-base percentage that was well over 100 points higher than their batting averages.
"When everyone is ready to go this season I think we have the best infield in the BIG EAST when looking at strictly defense," Godri said. "I am really happy about how the infield has come together. Marlon and Tyler have really emerged not only as strong defensive players but as improved offensive players as well. Koczirka and Wager can each play both corner infield positions equally well."
Junior Dain Hall (Barrington, Ill.) figures to be one of the key bats in the lineup this season and could see time both in the infield and the outfield. Hall played third base as a freshman and second base as a sophomore but will begin his third season as a Wildcat playing in left field.
Hall batted .289 as a sophomore last season while scoring 41 runs and stealing 12 bases. He posted a .379 on-base percentage and led the team with 17 doubles on the year. The only returning player who appeared in all 50 games last season, Hall drove in 34 runs and led the squad with five sacrifice flies. He also batted .406 against left-handed pitching and hit .348 with runners in scoring position.
"Dain has played more than 100 games in the infield for us but it may turn out that the outfield is a more natural position for him to make use of his speed and to take some pressure off himself at the plate," Godri said. "He is certainly more than capable of stepping in at either second or third base defensively if we need him to."
Sophomores Scott Buckwalter (York, Pa.) and Kevin Stephens (Marlton, N.J.) provide backup options at first base and will look to earn roles off the bench after each was limited by injuries at times last year. Freshman Mike Rzeszut (Lenexa, Kan.) is an excellent defensive player at the middle infield positions who will have a chance to play his way into games during the year. Another first year player, Chris Picyk (Park Ridge, N.J.), is a valuable reserve with the ability to contribute either in the infield or the outfield.
If the Wildcats defensive alignment does in fact feature Dain Hall playing left field, Villanova will have three of its fastest players roaming the spacious outfield at the Villanova Ballpark at Plymouth. Senior centerfielder Justin Bencsko (Pompton Plains, N.J.) and junior Matt Szczur (Erma, N.J.) each will have prominent roles for the Wildcats during the season.
Szczur was a redshirt freshman in terms of baseball eligibility last season and led the team in five different offensive categories. He batted a team-high .346 for the year while scoring 45 runs and posting a .438 on-base percentage. Szczur tied for the team lead with 18 stolen bases and drew 27 walks while striking out just 23 times in 227 plate appearances. An incredible all-around athlete, Szczur also stars for the Wildcats national champion football team and this past fall was named an All-American and the MVP of the FCS national championship game. He has two years of eligibility for football and three years of baseball eligibility remaining as the current spring season begins.
During his Villanova career, Bencsko has been a player who thrives at getting on base and then helping the team run its preferred style of offense. He has appeared in 127 games over the last three seasons and is a career .264 hitter with a .378 on-base percentage. Bencsko had a .356 on-base mark last season while reaching base safely via a hit or a walk in 14 of his 18 starts. He also played flawless defense in the outfield with 43 putouts and one assist while not making any errors.
"We have plus speed from all of our defenders in the outfield and that is an important quality for us to have given the ballpark that we play in," Godri said. "Like we can do at other parts of the field, we have the ability to mix and match the positions however we may need to in order to put our best team on the field."
Freshman Paul Rambaud (Chicago, Ill.) and sophomore Matt Fleishman (East Northport, N.Y.) are newcomers who could also figure prominently into the outfield mix. Rambaud has the best speed among the incoming players and attended the same high school in Chicago as fellow freshman Niko Gomez. Fleishman is a transfer student from Western New England who hit .315 with seven home runs for a team that won its conference and reached an NCAA Regional last season. Freshman Daniel Parham (Broken Arrow, Okla.) is capable of playing in the outfield or at the middle infield positions. Depth at the outfield positions will also be provided by sophomore Anthony Porcelli (Wantagh, N.Y.) and freshman Steve Schrenk (Brigantine, N.J.).
"Any of these guys can be put into the lineup at any given time and bring something to the table from a defensive standpoint," Godri said. "What I am excited about is that if we put in a guy for his offensive skill we aren't going to take it on the chin defensively. That gives us the ability to match up as we need to in righty vs. lefty situations while not missing a beat out in the field."