FROM CBB NEWS SOURCE
With only 11 returning players for the 2009 season, the Angelo State baseball team will be a prime illustration of the old saying, “You can’t tell the players without a program.”
Head Coach Kevin Brooks enters his fifth season with the Rams and will depend on a veteran pitching staff to lift his team into the postseason for a fourth straight year. Six of the 11 returners from the 2008 squad are pitchers, four of them with all-Lone Star Conference selections on their resumés.
“Last year we had quality pitching to start the season, but injuries played a key role in the depth of the staff,” Brooks said. “The good news is, the guys that were hurt last season are healthy, plus we have added some quality arms.”
Meanwhile, the Rams’ day-to-day lineup will have an almost completely new look following the graduation of five starters and the selection of two others in the Major League draft.
“The biggest challenge is going to be who should be out on the field and where they should be,” Brooks said. “We have good players to fill the vacated spots, but we have yet to see them in action against other teams.”
The Rams’ pitching staff will provide the backbone for the 2009 squad with four quality starters, any one of whom could be the ace on the team.
Returning seniors Kenny Elkind, Joe Key and Sean Winscher and junior transfer San Janca will battle for the top slot in the rotation with the three returners having served that role in the past. Junior Corey Morehouse should be available during the middle of the season following off-season surgery.
Elkind finished 2008 with a 7-2 record and a 3.57 ERA, earning him a spot on the All-LSC second team. He was also the only ASU pitcher to get a decision in every one of his appearances. Winscher led the Rams with nine wins and 69 strikeouts while earning a spot on the All-LSC first team.
“We had to shut Kenny down the last month of the season, but he had a great summer and came back in the fall and threw great,” Brooks said. “Sean had to pick up the slack last year and made first team all-conference. Sam has good velocity and he is a great competitor.”
Key, an All-LSC first-team selection in 2008, played summer ball for Edenton in the Coastal Plains League, going 5-2 with 43 strikeouts and leading the staff with 1.01 ERA.
“Joe did a great job for us last year in the bullpen and as a starter,” Brooks said. “He won two big games as a starter against St. Edward’s and hopefully will use that experience to develop better consistency. I look for him to have another great year.”
Senior Michael Gunter, an All-LSC first-team selection and MVP of the NCAA Division II South Central Regional Tournament in 2007, suffered a season-ending injury just three innings into his 2008 campaign and will be monitored very carefully this year by the coaching staff.
“Right now, everything is going great with Michael’s rehab,” Brooks said. “General recovery time for his type of surgery is 12-18 months. He is not 100-percent, but we are hoping that he will be at full-strength when the season starts.”
Junior Jeremy Tietze used his sub-par 2008 season as a motivational tool during the summer, posting a 5-1 record and a 3.55 ERA for the Laramie Colts of the Mountain Collegiate League.
“Jeremy was not happy with his performance last season,” Brooks said. “He was supposed to go play summer ball after his freshman year and didn’t. We think that hurt his development, but he used that disappointment to improve himself, so I am really interested to see those improvements.”
Senior Casey Smith, who finished 2008 with a 3-0 record, was brought into games when the Rams faced big deficits and several of his performances allowed ASU to forge comeback wins.
“Casey has probably improved more that anyone,” Brooks said. “His velocity has gotten more consistent and he has one of the best breaking balls on the staff.”
Four newcomers who will see a lot of innings are Jeffrey Asby and Mike Medrano, transfers from Navarro College, Brady Conine, a transfer from Texas Tech, and Jerris Springfield, who played two seasons at Weatherford College.
“Jeffrey is a hard thrower and has developed his consistency at throwing strikes,” Brooks said. “Mike was one of the aces at Navarro and could fit into the mix, but he missed the fall with some arm problems. Brady was out of baseball for a couple of years and as his arm has gotten stronger, he has gotten better. Jerris has improved by leaps and bounds since he got here and can be really good.”
Trey Carter returns this season after hitting .357 in 2008 and being named to the All-LSC second team.
“Defensively, there is probably not a better catcher around,” Brooks said. “He does a great job handling the pitching staff and, offensively, he got some big hits for us last year. He is very quick on the bases and his speed has improved from last year.”
Chris Adamson, a transfer from Clarendon College, will also see time behind the plate backing up Carter. Adamson appeared in all but one game for the Bulldogs last season and finished fourth on the team with a .464 batting average.
“Chris struggled early in the fall, but stepped it up near the end,” Brooks said. “He is going to catch plenty and could also see some time as the designated hitter.”
Brooks will have to replace his entire lineup around the horn after all of the 2008 starters went on to play professionally last summer.
The two front-runners to replace All-American Clay Calfee at first base are Keith Towne and Clay Puckett. Towne is a transfer from Lamar while Puckett arrives from Alvin Community College, where he helped the Dolphins advance to the NJCAA World Series last season.
“Keith has the ability to hit the ball a long way,” Brooks said. “Puckett is a versatile guy and a solid defensive player. Both could also see time as the designated hitter.”
Jason Morriss is the top candidate to replace All-American Steven Allred at second base. Morriss transferred from Clarendon College, where he was a preseason All-American in 2008, finished second in the NJCAA in hitting with a .525 average and was a perfect 14-of-14 in stolen bases. Senior Christopher Odom will also see some time at second as a backup to Morriss while Travis Lee could be a late-inning defensive replacement and could get some at-bats with improvement in his hitting.
“Jason does everything well,” Brooks said. “He is a plus-hitter, a plus-runner and an exceptional leader. Christopher is such a versatile player that if he wasn’t here, he could be a starter on anyone else’s team. Travis is very solid defensively and can play both second and short.”
Shortstop is still up in the air with two transfers having the upper hand at manning the position. Austin Lasprilla from Angelina College and Tony Kostelnik from Point Park University bring solid credentials to the roster and will look to fill the void.
“Austin has great speed and looks like he is going to be our lead-off hitter,” Brooks said. “He also has some pop in his bat and very good range. Tony has hit .400 everywhere he has been and played summer ball in 2007 for Marty Smith at Edenton.”
Third base could fall into the hands of Isaac Garcia, a transfer from Clarendon College. Garcia hit .455 last year for the Bulldogs and led the team with five home runs.
“Isaac has the rare combination of power and speed,” Brooks said. “He should hit in the middle of our order and could end up at first base, depending on whether Kostelnik or Lasprilla wins the job at shortstop and the other moves to third.”
Travis Lites earned his spot as the starting left fielder last year by hitting .533 after relinquishing his redshirt status with 15 games left in the season. Cade Baxter, a transfer from Arkansas State, will get some time in left when Lites needs a breather.
“Travis sparked the team at the end of the season, showing what a team player he is by giving up his redshirt status,” Brooks said. “The guys responded to the unselfishness he showed and he responded with his play on the field. Cade is going to be a really good player and brings a lot to the table.”
Center field will be patrolled by Brian Rasberry, who hit .347 for ASU last year and led the team with 21 stolen bases. Lasprilla could also see some time in center.
“Brian did well for us last season, but struggled in the fall,” Brooks said. “Defensively he is solid and we hope to see his offensive numbers be even better.”
Drew Fulfer, a transfer from Vernon College, is also in the running for some playing time in center. He was named to the 2008 JUCO All-Star Team after hitting .320 with five home runs.
“Drew is a guy that can run and has some pop in his bat,” Brooks said. “He struggled the first three weeks of the fall, but just went nuts the final three weeks. We hope he can regain that form in the spring because he really helped himself at the end of the fall.”
Nick Toussaint could be the front runner for the right field starting position. A transfer from Odessa College, he will be looking to recapture the form that saw him hit .353 with four home runs and 48 RBI as a freshman.
“Nick showed in the fall that he can regain the form he had as a freshman,” Brooks said. “He is a guy that definitely has a chance to put up some big numbers.”
Three coaching changes within the Lone Star Conference could alter the hierarchy, but the top three programs, Angelo State, Abilene Christian and Central Oklahoma, look to be the favorites for the championship.
“Everybody lost a lot from last season,” Brooks said. “We lost our infield, UCO lost hitting and Abilene lost some valuable pitching and several key hitters, but all three have pitching coming back. Michael, Joe, Kenny and Sean give us four all-conference pitchers and I’ll take that.”
Texas A&M-Kingsville, the defending conference champion, will begin the 2009 season with a new coach, as will Tarleton State and West Texas A&M.
“Sometimes a new coach can bring enthusiasm to a team and it gets better,” Brooks said. “Sometimes the timing of when the new coach is brought in can make a difference. West Texas A&M hired its coach early and also increased its scholarship allotment, so the Buffaloes should be much improved.”
The Rams open the season against the 2008 NCAA Division II World Series runner-up as Ouachita Baptist comes to San Angelo for a three-game series beginning Feb. 1 at Foster Field. Conference play for ASU will start two weeks later when Southeastern Oklahoma comes to San Angelo Feb. 13-14 for the first time in three years. This season also marks the first time since 2006 that the Rams will face Abilene Christian at home when the Wildcats play ASU in a four-game series April 3-5.
“Ouachita Baptist has a new coach who played summer ball for me in Hays, Kan.,” Brooks said. “Coach Moddelmog ran a successful program at Fort Scott Community College and was responsible for us getting Brett Nightingale two years ago, which helped us get to the World Series in 2007. Then we have Fort Hays State the following weekend and they are just three years removed from a regional berth.”
The conference schedule has the Rams playing five of their 11 opponents at home, but finishing the regular season on the road at East Central and Texas A&M-Kingsville. Brooks feels this could be a deciding factor in the conference race.
“UCO has the advantage over other schools in the conference based on its home schedule,” Brooks said. “They face four of the other five teams from last year’s tournament at home, including us, while we only get two of the teams at home, Southeastern Oklahoma and Abilene Christian. That is big for the Bronchos.”
One major change in the NCAA is the new regional alignment. In past years, the Lone Star and Heartland conferences were aligned with the Gulf South Conference, but this year they are teamed up with the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA). While the Rams have previously had to battle Ouachita Baptist, Delta State and Montevallo for regional berths, this year they will be fighting perennial powers Central Missouri, Emporia State and Nebraska-Omaha along with the Heartland Conference teams for the six regional slots.
“Our region got a lot tougher with the change,” Brooks said. “The MIAA has had a school in the World Series each of the last three years and the Heartland didn’t even get a team to the regional tournament despite three teams winning at least 39 games. Not only did getting to the regional tournament get tougher, but advancing to the World Series got a lot harder due to the quality of the programs that are now in the South Central Region.”