UTSA Baseball Going for Fourth Southland Title in Last Five Years

2008 Southland Conference Player of the Year Michael Rockett is a preseason All-America pick and is on the watch lists for the Dick Howser Trophy and Brooks Wallace Award-Courtesy: Southland.org
Michael Rockett Courtesy: Southland.org

FROM CBB NEWS SOURCE

There’s a saying in sports that states, “championship teams don’t rebuild, they just reload.” If there was ever a phrase that described the 18th edition of UTSA baseball, that would be it to a tee.

Despite losing four of the top hitters (Zach Etheredge, James Keithley, Trent Lockwood and Tim Palincsar) and two of the top starting pitchers (Bradley Chovanec, Steven Vasquez) in school history, the Roadrunners return a strong nucleus of players in 2009.

A total of 22 letterwinners are back from last year’s squad that tied a school record with 39 wins and successfully defended the program’s first-ever Southland Conference Regular Season Championship from two years ago.

Among the returnees are 10 pitchers and six position starters. Two of those players have earned preseason All-America honors from Collegiate Baseball and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (Michael Rockett, Zach Calhoon). Mix in a talented group of 11 newcomers and the ingredients for a third consecutive conference crown are in place.

The experts agree, as UTSA is the consensus favorite to capture its fourth Southland title in the last five years.

It has been three years since the Roadrunners last qualified for NCAA Regional play and the program was knocking on the door for its first-ever at-large bid last spring before a disappointing 6-7 season-ending stretch did them in.

It is something that ninth-year head coach Sherman Corbett does not want his team to experience again.

“I thought we did some very special things a year ago, but we were unable to reach our goal of playing in a regional” he said. “We have been very close the last two seasons, but we haven’t been able to finish what we’ve started. We have been knocking on the door, but now it’s time for us to break through and take this program to the next level.”

Starting Pitchers
Chovanec and Vasquez have moved on and a combined 77 starts, 32 wins and 370 strikeouts left with them.

However, the cupboard is far from bare, as senior left-hander Kris Ruepke and junior righty Ryan Proudfoot are back for another go around on the bump.

Ruepke was 6-3 with a 5.51 ERA (15 games/12 starts) in his first campaign in navy blue and orange. Not only did he make an immediate impact with the Roadrunners, but he also did so within the conference, posing a perfect 4-0 mark with a 2.91 ERA, two complete games and .231 opponent batting average in his seven league tilts (six starts). The Adel, Iowa, native will serve as a team captain in his final season.

Meanwhile, Proudfoot followed his spectacular freshman campaign with another solid spring a year ago. The 2009 preseason second-team All-Southland choice led UTSA with a 4.61 ERA and was second on the squad with a 7-3 record. The Lindale native earned two of the team’s three victories against ranked teams (No. 19 Louisiana-Lafayette/No. 25 Texas) last year and he enters his third season with the fourth-best ERA in school history (3.88).

Junior righty Red Patterson, who redshirted last spring, is expected to fill the Birds’ Friday-night role this season. Patterson was an all-conference performer who posted a perfect 10-0 mark with a 1.41 ERA at Grayson Junior College two years ago.

A trio of gifted freshmen is expected to round out the five-man rotation.

Freshman right-hander Clay Schrader was a first-team All-Greater Houston Area and all-district performer who was 9-2 in his final season at Atascocita High School.

Freshman lefty Casey Selsor was an all-state pitcher/outfielder at local Reagan High School and he passed up a shot at playing in the minor leagues after being selected in the 37th round by the Washington Nationals in last June’s Major League Baseball Draft. Selsor had a 13-2 record with 124 strikeouts as a senior.

Freshman southpaw Marc Gomez brings a long list of impressive credentials with him from Corpus Christi’s Moody High School. Not only was he the 2007 and ‘08 Texas 4A Player of the Year, but Gomez also was a two-time prep All-American who helped lead Moody to the 2007 UIL 4A State Championship. He posted a 23-3 ledger with a 1.27 ERA and 222 strikeouts over his final two seasons.

Also in the mix for time in the rotation is senior left-hander Andy Benedict, who went 2-1 with a 6.41 ERA in eight appearances (three starts) a year ago.

“This is as talented of a group as we’ve ever had in my nine years here,” Corbett said. “Every one of these guys has the ability to pitch anywhere in the rotation and I am pleased with the amount of depth we have going into the spring. With the schedule being as it is now, you cannot underestimate how important that is when you get into May.”

Bullpen
Any talk of the relief corps begins and ends with preseason third-team All-American and NCBWA Stopper of the Year candidate Zach Calhoon.

The junior right-hander was the circuit’s most dominant closer a year ago when he ranked eighth nationally with his UTSA-record 13 saves. He added a 4-1 record with a microscopic 1.54 ERA and 54 strikeouts in just 41 innings of work. In fact, he won or saved 44 percent (17) of the team’s 39 wins. Calhoon’s 13 saves is the third-best returning total nationally and his program-record 19 career saves rank fourth among active Division I players.

“What more can you say about what Zach has meant to our program the last two years?” Corbett said. “He is one of the most dominant closers in the country, but more importantly, he is a leader and the hardest worker on our team. I am so pleased that he is being recognized for what he has accomplished in a relatively short period of time and he should continue to be successful this season.”

A quartet of Roadrunners is expected to help bridge the gap between the starting pitchers and Calhoon.

Leading the way will be a pair of veterans in senior righties in J.P. Holton and J.T. Mackey.

Holton returned from a redshirt year in 2007 and was the team’s primary setup man last spring. The Lufkin native registered a 4.60 ERA and a save in his 24 outings (two starts). He struck out 42 in 47 frames.

Meanwhile, Mackey is back after sitting out last year as a redshirt. Two years ago, he served as Calhoon’s primary setup guy and was 6-2 with four saves in 28 appearances (one start).

“Having both J.P. and J.T. together entering the spring gives us the flexibility to use two guys who have set up for Zach during their careers in the mid-to-late innings,” Corbett said. “It is another area in which we have great depth.”

A pair of sophomores in right-hander Kevin Clarke and lefty Matt Crocker also is expected to have prominent roles in the bullpen.

Clarke is back after missing last season and Crocker appeared in four contests as a true freshman last spring.

Other hurlers who could see time out of the pen are junior southpaw Cody Graham, sophomore righty Ray Redding and freshman Justin Graham (Cody’s brother).

Catcher
Three-year starter and two-time All-Southland honoree Zach Etheredge, who served as a team captain the past two springs, is gone, so the program has some big shoes to fill.

Sophomore Tyler Carpenter and junior Ryan Rummel head into the spring 1-2 on the depth chart.

Carpenter, who was the pure definition of a utility player in his first season, hit .299 with nine doubles, three home runs and 23 RBI while playing four different positions last spring (right field/catcher/third base/second base). He also could see time in right field in his second season.

Rummel, meanwhile, picked up third-team All-Southland honors at third base after posting a .291 average with a dozen two-baggers, four homers and 30 RBI in his first full season as a starter. He brings great leadership to the diamond and is a team captain heading into his third year on the roster.

“Replacing one the best catchers in school history will not be easy, but I believe Tyler and Ryan are more than capable of filling Zach’s shoes,” Corbett said.

First Base
When one talks about big shoes to fill, the Roadrunners truly will never be able to replace what Trent Lockwood brought to the plate over the last two campaigns. Arguably the most feared hitter in the league during his tenure, Lockwood was a two-time all-league performer who not only left his mark on the school’s record books, but his presence in the heart of the lineup made it nearly impossible for the opposition to be successful on a consistent basis.

Freshman Matthew James, a preseason prep All-American last spring, gets the first crack to man the position. James brings a powerful bat and an all-state resume from New Braunfels’ Canyon High School to the lineup.

“Again, replacing someone like Trent will not be easy, but I think Matthew has a chance to do some special things if he stays within himself,” Corbett said.

Also in the mix will be sophomore Brett Aguilar, who saw action in 15 games last year (four starts), and senior Aaron Powell.

Second Base
Sophomore Ryan Hutson returns after providing the team with a solid offensive threat at the bottom of the order in his first campaign.

Hutson hit just .246, but he more than made up for it with a .362 on-base percentage to go along with six doubles, a triple, seven home runs and 34 RBI.

“Ryan had a very good first season for us,” Corbett said. “He came from one of the best programs in the state (Round Rock) and was able to make an immediate impact at the bottom of our lineup. I expect him to continue to improve and provide us with a steady bat again this spring.”

Junior transfer Gilbert Saenz, James and Rummel all will back up Hutson.

Third Base
Junior Lance Brown, who has the ability to be one of the best defensive infielders ever to don a UTSA uniform, will move over to the hot corner from shortstop. He played in a half dozen games (five starts) last season before sustaining a season-ending injury. The 2008 preseason honorable mention All-Southland pick hit .368 in his limited action.

“Lance is possibly the best defender I have ever coached,” Corbett said. “His reflexes and range are second to none and it is so much fun to watch him play because he enjoys the game so much.”

Rummel will serve as Brown’s backup.

Shortstop
Three-time All-Southland performer and 2008 MLB draftee James Keithley, arguably the best leadoff hitter in school history, is gone, but a three-year veteran is ready to return to the field to replace him.

That would be senior Marshal Davis, who missed the last year as a redshirt. The 2008 preseason honorable mention all-league pick comes into his final season with 126 games (117 starts) of experience under his belt and once again will serve as a team captain.

“Losing James to the draft was tough, but it was nice to know we had a veteran ready to replace him,” Corbett said. “Marshal is such a great leader and he does the little things well and those types of players are hard to find.”

Brown and Saenz will serve as backups.

Outfield
Senior Michael Rockett is back for his fourth and final season and he not only is the anchor of the outfield, but he is one of the top players in the nation. A preseason first-team All-American and member of the Brook Wallace and Dick Howser Award watch lists (nation’s top player), Rockett will look to build on a junior season that saw him become the first second-team All-American in school annals and just the second Southland Conference Player of the Year in program history.

The team captain is on pace to break nearly every offensive record in school history and he ranks third nationally among returning hitters in career hits (238), RBI (152) and total bases (370) and sixth in doubles (47).

“Michael has become one of the top players in the country and he has done it with nothing but hard work and dedication to our program,” Corbett said. “I expect him to have another great year and we will need him to lead our offense because he is one of only two players with more than a year of starting experience in our lineup.”

Powell will be back in right field after hitting .357 with 12 extra-base hits and 34 RBI last spring. The preseason second-team All-Southland choice carries an 11-game hitting streak from the end of the 2008 season into his final campaign.

Meanwhile, senior Jose Hernandez is penciled into left after a junior season that saw him hit .319 with nine doubles, a homer and 24 RBI.

Junior Eric Johnston and freshman Jason Mohn will provide depth along with Aguilar, Carpenter, Schrader and Selsor.

Designated hitter
After back-to-back all-conference years from 2008 MLB draftee Tim Palincsar, Corbett will be in search for a new DH this season. As is the case with all of his squads, the ninth-year skipper will ride the hot bat, but Rummel is expected to begin the year there should he not win the catcher’s job.

Schedule
UTSA is once again in store for many four and five-game weeks under an NCAA schedule that has every team starting on Friday.

Highlighted by six opponents that qualified for the 2008 NCAA Tournament (Dallas Baptist, Houston, Oral Roberts, Rice, Sam Houston State and Texas A&M), the Birds will play a total of 55 contests this spring.

Also on the ledger are three squads that appear in the preseason rankings (Baylor, Rice and Texas A&M) and six others who are receiving votes (Dallas Baptist, Houston, Lamar, Oral Roberts, Sam Houston State and San Francisco).

New this year is the expanded 33-game Southland slate, which eliminates divisional play.