2009 Rutgers Season Preview

Fred Hill enters 26th season in charge of program

FROM CBB NEWS SOURCE
Following a record-setting 2007 which saw six starters drafted and another six more players graduate, seven newcomers saw extensive action in 2008. The combination of young, experienced players with a core of talented veterans brings much promise and high expectations for 2009 with the return of 22 letterwinners. Last season saw an opportunity for fresh faces in several places around the diamond, where inexperience limited the Scarlet Knights success, as compared to years past. But the same commitment to winning head coach Fred Hill has always instilled for the last 25 years in his clubs is clearly evident in this year’s squad. The Scarlet Knights will bring a game-tested roster to the diamond this spring with six position starters and nine pitchers all returning. Hill’s system has built the Rutgers program into one of the best in the Northeast, which has proven able to compete with the best in the nation, and the 2009 Scarlet Knights expect the trend to continue this spring.

Luis Feliz, the Scarlet Knights’ starting center fielder and team MVP in 2008, is back for 2009 to headline an offense that expects to score a lot of runs. Last season, Feliz hit .328 with four home runs, two triples, 15 doubles and 10 stolen bases. The captain from nearby New Brunswick is part of a seven-member senior class that also includes five pitchers.

Also back in the middle of the Rutgers lineup is Freshman All-American Jaren Matthews. The first baseman was one of two Scarlet Knights to start all 53 games in 2008. He finished the season hitting .294 overall, with a team-best 10 home runs and 54 RBI, while also adding 11 doubles and two triples. He earned All-BIG EAST honors at the end of last season and was voted to the preseason All-BIG EAST team by the league’s coaches in 2009.

On the mound, five starters from the 2008 rotation return, along with four reliable bullpen arms who will be counted on to finish off games for the Scarlet Knights. For the third straight year, right-hander Casey Gaynor will anchor the pitching staff as Rutgers’ No. 1 starter, while Kevin Lillis leads a group of talented relievers who Hill hopes will shorten games in late innings.

The arrival of an impressive class of newcomers to “the Banks” in the fall, many of which will see immediate playing time, adds to the excitement in 2009.

Hill, who begins his 26th season with Rutgers in 2009, is one of the top-15 winningest active coaches in the country and enters the season just 42 wins shy of the prestigious 1,000 victory plateau – a feat which is sure to come sooner rather than later.

“The new year brings excitement and promise,” said Hill. “This team has shown commitment in the fall and preseason workouts. I am looking forward to the challenge of the early-season games that always provide a strong test to the medal of our team. We have a lot of guys returning that have experience in our system which should make us stronger as a whole this year.”

PITCHERS

The staff returns virtually intact from last season with just two pitchers graduated from the 2008 group, giving Hill a number of experienced options to go to throughout the spring. Headlining the staff once again will be Gaynor, the junior ace who has been a mainstay in the weekend rotation since his arrival on campus as a freshman in 2007. The Scarlet Knight rotation also returns three experienced starters in Kyle Bradley, Jon McCue, and Tony Wargo. Rutgers is also excited about the comeback of junior left-hander Dennis Hill, who has returned healthy after missing all of last season as a result of injuries sustained when he was hit in the head with a line drive a week before opening day. Heralded freshmen Charlie Law and Steven Zavala are also expected to become major contributors on the mound right away, and could find their way into the rotation early on.

Gaynor has been the Scarlet Knights’ most dependable starter over the last two years, having started 18 games in his career. The junior righty is expected to be one of top pitchers in BIG EAST in 2009. The return of Hill this year will give the Scarlet Knights a lefty presence in the starting rotation, where he hopes to build on his success in 2007, when he appeared in 10 games during Rutgers’ record-setting, BIG EAST Championship season. Bradley was inserted into

Casey Gaynor

Casey Gaynor

the weekend rotation midway through last season and showed promise with five starts in conference action. Seniors McCue and Wargo have combined to see action in 31 games over the last two years, and their senior leadership will be heavily relied upon in 2009 as they look to finish their careers “On the Banks” with yet another conference title. Law, a 6-8 righty, was named the South Jersey Player of the Year and was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies last June after a standout career at Mainland Regional High School. Zavala, a lefty who took home First Team All-State and Morris County Player of the Year honors last season at Randolph High School, is expected to round out the Scarlet Knights’ rotation.

The bullpen also figures to be a strong suit for Rutgers this spring with the return of experienced relievers Lillis, Jason Downey, and Ryan Beard, and the addition of junior-college transfer Sean Peterson. Lillis enters his third season as the staff’s most seasoned veteran, having taken the mound 29 times in 2008 – the second-most appearances in a season in school history. He has been one of Rutgers’ first options out of the bullpen over the past two seasons, having made 49 appearances in his career thus far. Downey has seen action as both a starter and reliever for the Scarlet Knights, and figures to work out of the back end of the bullpen this spring, likely as a closer or set-up man. Beard saw action in 18 games in his first season with the Scarlet Knights after transferring from Brookdale Community College, and, like Downey, is expected to see time as both a closer and set-up man. Peterson, the grandson of 1950 Rutgers All-American Harding Peterson, and son of former New York Mets and Oakland Athletics pitching coach Rick Peterson, joins the bullpen corps after two years at Indian River Community College in Florida and will look to contribute immediately.

A pair of second-year pitchers – lefty Sean Campbell and righty Billy Murphy – gained valuable experience as freshmen out of the bullpen last season and look to have bigger roles this spring, while redshirt freshman righty Willie Beard is poised for a strong rookie season on the mound. Also looking to contribute on the mound in their first season of collegiate action are righties Greg Bayard and Sam Hasty.

RU will be without the services of senior righty Matt Giannini, who has started a school-record 40 games through the first three seasons. The hard-throwing Giannini will return next season where he is expected to be a strong piece of the weekend rotation.

“With a solid list of returning veterans this season, I look forward to a strong year on the mound,” said Hill. “I believe with the combination of returning starters and veterans out of the bullpen, along with the talented crop of newcomers, our pitching staff can give us the edge in some tight ball games.”

CATCHERS

Despite the graduation of last year’s starting catcher Jon Gossard – a 2007 First Team All-BIG EAST selection – the Scarlet Knights return three experienced players behind the dish in 2009. Leading the group is Jayson Hernandez, a solid defensive player who hit .300 in 20 starts last year. Junior Tim Reilly will look to expand on a reserve role behind the plate last season, while redshirt freshman Nick Gaeta looks for his first collegiate action in 2009.

Joining the group this year are a pair high school standouts in Westfield product Justin Olsen and North Hunterdon star Jeff Melillo.

“Jayson got good experience last season and we will look for him to step in and continue the strong play we have always had at this position,” said Hill. “We have a lot of depth here which is something we will look to utilize throughout the season.”

INFIELD

Jaren Matthews

Matthews and junior Dan Betteridge, both of whom started every game at their respective position last season, return to help anchor a solid infield. Not only will the duo be mainstays in the middle of the Scarlet Knights lineup, both are expected to provide outstanding infield defense which has been a staple of Hill’s clubs over the years. Offensively, Matthews looks to improve upon his impressive Freshman All-American campaign where he was one of the Scarlet Knights best run producers. Following a successful summer playing for the St. Cloud River Bats in the Northwoods League, Betteridge returned to campus in the fall a much improved hitter, who is expected to improve on a 2008 season that saw him lead the team with 41 runs scored.

Rutgers will usher in a new second baseman in 2009 where sophomores Joey Ianiero and Brandon Boykin- who both saw limited action at the position last spring- will compete to fill the role vacated by the graduation of Vic Cegles, who signed a professional contract with the Washington Nationals organization last summer. Third base will also have a new face this season, after two-year starter Tom Edwards was drafted and signed by the Baltimore Orioles. Senior Vinnie Sangemino will take over the reins with sophomore D.J. Anderson and redshirt freshman Russ Hopkins also looking to contribute at the position.
Redshirt freshman Dan Perrine rounds out the group of talented infielders. The Oratory Prep product is the Scarlet Knights’ super-utility man, able to provide solid depth at second, third, and shortstop. When not pitching, Law could also see some time at first base as well.

“We have a solid core of infielders returning in what has always been a strong area for our program,” said Hill. “As new guys develop, they follow in the footsteps of past players and we hope this season holds true to that form.”

OUTFIELD

Feliz will anchor an outfield that includes returning starters Jarred Jimenez in left field and Michael Lang in right field. Feliz, the senior center fielder, has played the position for nearly three seasons and will provide strong leadership for the experienced corps of outfielders.

Jimenez started 50 games last season as either the left fielder or designated hitter and is expected to have a similar role in 2009. After coming on strong and starting the majority of the games in the final month of the season, Lang looks to take over the leadoff spot in the lineup, while manning right field this season. He hit .388 overall in 19 games last spring, thanks to a strong final month of the season which he hopes to continue that momentum into 2009. Sophomore Pat Biserta, who started 14 games as a designated hitter – the most on the team – will look for an increased role in the outfield in his second season.

Newcomer Ryan Kapp, a native of Toms River, where the Scarlet Knights have seen several of their most accomplished players come from, will look to make an instant impact in his rookie season. When not pitching, Zavala is likely to see time in the outfield or as a designated hitter as well.

“We are excited for the group we have in the outfield,” Hill said. “With Luis returning for his fourth season and both corner outfielders having experience out there, we expect big things.”

SCHEDULE

Continuing a long-standing tradition by Hill’s club, the Scarlet Knights will play a strong early-season schedule against

Luis Feliz

Luis Feliz

several traditional baseball powerhouses down south as 22 of their first 23 games are away from Piscataway to open the 2009 campaign.

Rutgers will test itself right off the bat with a four-game series against 2008 College World Series participant Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. The Scarlet Knights and Hurricanes will open the three-day series with a single game Friday, Feb. 20 and play a double-header on Saturday before closing the four-game set on Sunday.

A return trip south to Atlanta, Ga. will greet the Scarlet Knights the following weekend with an always-entertaining three-game series at 2008 NCAA Championship participant Georgia Tech. The third weekend of the schedule finds Rutgers back down south, this time in Virginia for a three-game series with Old Dominion.

The Scarlet Knights will make their first trip to Temple since 1995 when RU was a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference as Rutgers travels to Philadelphia to close its 11-game season-opening road swing.
The 2009 home opener will be one day later as New Jersey Institute of Technology comes to Bainton Field March 11.

Following its home opener, Rutgers will hit the road again, traveling back to the Sunshine State for nine games in 10 days as part of its spring break trip. The Scarlet Knights will open play with a four-game series against Penn State in the first meeting between the two schools since 2000. All four games will be played on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla. March 13-15.

RU will return to FAU Stadium two days later to play a pair of midweek contests against the host Owls. Rutgers and FAU added a second game to their traditional spring break battle this season in what is always an entertaining game that is well attended by area scouts.

The Scarlet Knights will remain in Florida for their second-straight weekend as they close out their spring break trip and open up their BIG EAST slate in Tampa with a three-game series against USF.

RU will return to New Jersey where it will play two more road games against Princeton and 2008 NCAA Tournament participant Rider March 24 and 25, respectively.

Rutgers will play the first of five weekend series at Bainton Field, March 27-29 as Cincinnati comes to Piscataway.

Four road games in the state of New York follow, including a single game at Wagner and a three-game series in Queens against St. John’s. It will be the Scarlet Knights’ first trip to SJU since the teams tied for the regular-season conference crown in 2007. The Red Storm and Louisville round out the NCAA Tournament participants from a year ago on the 2009 slate.

Louisville, a team the Scarlet Knights knocked off twice in en route to the 2007 BIG EAST tournament title, will make its first ever trip to Rutgers April 17-19. The Scarlet Knights have played six games in Louisville since the Cardinals joined the BIG EAST for the 2006 season.

Four games in the state of Pennsylvania follow with a midweek game at Lafayette and a three-game series in Pittsburgh April 25-26, which includes a Saturday double-header.

The Scarlet Knights will begin the month of May in Morgantown, W. Va. where they haven’t been since the 2005 season.

The Scarlet Knights will play the final seven games of the regular season at Bainton Field, including a three-game series against Seton Hall, which has always proved to be an exciting rivalry.

The BIG EAST Championship returns to Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla. May 19-23.

“We have assembled another strong schedule for 2009,” said Hill. “The early-season portion will serve as a strong test for our club and help prepare us for a strong BIG EAST Conference. Our team will be challenged day in and day out.”

ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF RUTGERS MEDIA RELATIONS