1998 Men's Baseball Outlook
March 18, 1998
VILLANOVA, Pa. : Expectations are high, as the Villanova baseball team prepares for the 1998 season. After finishing an injury-plagued 1997 season with a 29-27 overall record, the Wildcats played spirited baseball throughout the Big East Tournament and advanced to the championship game before losing to St. John's. Head coach George Bennett and his team are looking to use the confidence they gained in last year's Big East Tournament and win the league championship this time around.
"I am very optimistic about this year after the finish we had in 1997," said Bennett. "We have a nice blend of veterans and freshmen who have great potential. The success of our season will depend on how quickly the young kids mature."
The big question mark surrounding this year's team centers around replacing graduated seniors Brian Fili and Matt Neyland. Fili, a three-year starter in centerfield, batted lead off for the Wildcats and finished his career on the Main Line as the school's all-time leader in stolen bases. Last season, Fili led the team in both runs with 54 and stolen bases with 26. Neyland, who played both left and right field, had a sensational senior campaign in 1997, as he hit .354 with 46 runs scored, a team-high 15 doubles and a team-best 54 RBI. Together, in one way or another, Fili and Neyland accounted for 43 percent of Villanova's runs in 1997. With both of these guys lost to graduation, the Wildcats have a big void to fill in the outfield.
Bennett will look to juniors Mike Perate and Bill Brehm to fill in for the departed Fili and Neyland. Perate looks to have all the tools to be a big-time Big East performer. Playing a number of positions last season, Perate led the team in hitting with a gaudy .413 average. In addition, he tallied 41 runs and 15 stolen bases. Bennett is expecting Perate to anchor the Wildcat outfield and be the starting centerfielder. Brehm has shown great improvement throughout his Wildcat career and looks poised to be a go-to player in 1998. As a sophomore last season, Brehm saw time on a part-time basis and hit .304 with seven doubles. Brehm showed a glimpse of what he is capable of in last year's Big East Tournament championship versus St. John's, when he went three-for-four with two RBI, two doubles and a run scored. Due to his strong throwing arm, Brehm will occupy the right field spot.
"Mike Perate and Bill Berhm have tough shoes to fill with the departure of Brian Fili and Matt Neyland," stated Bennett. "However, I believe Mike and Bill have the ability and toughness to contiue the excellent play both offensively and defensively in the outfield."
A big battle in pre-season will be for the starting left field position. One of the early favorites to win this spot is junior Ademole Turner who is also a starting cornerback on the Wildcat football team. Last season, Turner split time between baseball and football. In 23 games on the diamond, Turner hit .316 in addition to stealing 14 bases in 14 attempts. Turner's blazing speed will add an exciting dimension to the Wildcat attack. Another favorite to earn playing time in left field is junior Chris Watson who had an excellent fall season. Others in the left field mix include freshmen Dave Pizzini and Bobby Corvino and junior Chris Valenti.
Of the 12 teams in the Big East Conference, Villanova may have the most talented catching tandem in the league in senior Augie Grove and freshman Dan Glover. To understand Grove's importance to the team, you need to look no further than last season. Due to two separate injuries last year, Grove managed to play in only 21 of the team's 56 games. In those 21 contests, Villanova compiled a 16-5 record, in comparison to the 13-22 mark they had without him. Known for his outstanding defensive prowess, Grove had a solid year at the plate in 1997 with a .286 average to go with four doubles, three home runs and 22 RBI. Glover, who has an extremely strong arm, is a newcomer who will push Grove for playing time. A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Glover was a USA Today All-American as a senior. Adding depth at catcher will be junior Joe DelVecchio and sophomore Bryan McCormick.
With one exception, the Villanova infield will have a familiar look to it this season. Starting at first base will be four-year starter Rick Welsh, who played first base his first two seasons, before moving to third base last year. Welsh is expected to be a big run producer for the 'Cats this season. Last season as a junior, Welsh hit. 281 with a team-high 12 home runs and 45 RBI which ranked him second on the squad. Freshman Nick Piantek should add depth at first base. Replacing Welsh at the hot corner this year will be rookie Matt Longo who comes to Villanova after a highly successful high school career at Hammonton High School in Hammonton, NJ. Bennett believes that Longo has both the ability and maturity to handle a starting spot as a freshman.
Villanova's double play combination will consist of two hard-nosed competitors in junior shortstop Pat Kane and senior second baseman Tom Shank. Kane, who possesses outstanding range and defensive instincts, should be much improved in 1998 after gaining a full year of experience last season as a starter. Shank was the surprise of last season, as he broke into the starting line-up midway through the year and finished as one of the team's top hitters. In 38 games a year ago, Shank batted an impressive .358 with 22 runs scored, eight doubles and 19 RBI. Battling for playing time at the middle infield positions will be senior Eric Kropf, sophomore Pat Clark and newcomer Dave Pizzini.
The designated hitter spot is open after the graduation of Jeff Stetina who was one of the more productive designated hitters in the league the past three seasons. Stetina was twice named second team All-Big East. When he is not pitching, junior Dan Boublis will occupy this position. Last season, Boublis hit .314 with 31 runs, six doubles, four homers and 23 RBI. When Boublis is on the hill, look for Bennett to insert the player with the hottest bat into the designated hitter spot.
If Villanova is to be a serious contender for the Big East championship, the Wildcats will to need get a better performance from the pitching staff. In 52 games last year, the Wildcat staff walked 204 batters in 458.2 innings and had a team ERA of 5.75. Villanova will have experience on the mound, as they lose just one starter in Craig Culhane, who last year had a 5-4 mark with a 4.47 ERA. The odds on favorite to be the ace of this year's staff is junior Chris Pilato who came into his own late last season. His best performance of 1997 came in the second round of the Big East Tournament, when he hurled a 165-pitch complete game to defeat Rutgers. Bennett is also expecting big things on the mound from the junior Boublis who showed flashes of brilliance in the fall. After being a part-time pitcher throughout the first two years of his career, Boublis will be a regular in the rotation in 1998.
Other right-handers expected to be in the starting rotation include senior Drew Baylor, junior Brian Buckingham and sophomore Will Henry. Baylor has been a starter the past two seasons and has compiled an 8-7 career record during his Villanova tenure, while Buckingham really came on last season and looks ready to be a weekend pitcher for the Wildcats. Henry is a hard-thrower who has the potential to be outstanding. Another right-hander vying for a starting spot is freshman Jason Petre.
Senior Joe Moore and Perate look to be Villanova's top left-handed starting pitchers. Moore returns to the team after serving an internship and missing all of the 1997 season. As a sophomore in 1996, Moore pitched 11.2 innings of relief and tallied a 0.77 ERA. Perate made three pitching appearances last year and recorded a 1-0 record with a 10.13 ERA. Look for freshmen left-handers Aaron Krawiec and Matt Therien to push for time as a starter, but both will probably be middle relievers.
Bennett is looking for senior John Biggie, junior Andrew Schwarz, along with sophomores David Sherlock, Drew Kirchner and Brian Manning to serve as right-handed middle relievers and set-up men. Bennett is also looking for Schwarz and Sherlock to move into the short relief role vacated by Trevor Pepkowski who graduated last season. Pepkowksi had an excellent senior campaign in 1997 with a 5-2 record and five saves.
If the Wildcats can stay injury-free and the freshmen, who Bennett believes is one of his best recruiting class ever, can provide the necessary depth, look for Villanova to make noise in the highly competitive Big East Conference and challenge for the league title.