FROM CBB NEWS SOURCE
With a majority of the lineup and two of the top starters in the league returning from a team that enjoyed its best finish since joining the Big South Conference, expectations are once again high for VMI baseball and head coach Marlin Ikenberry.
The Keydets return six everyday starters from last year’s squad that went 14-7 in the Big South, tying the squad for second in the league’s regular season standings. Add in a third-straight winning season in 2008, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished in 52 years by the Keydets, and there’s no doubt that this year’s team will be bringing some momentum into the upcoming campaign.
“We’re really excited for this year to start up,” said Ikenberry. “This is probably the most potent offensive team that we’ve had since I’ve been here, and I think that we have the pitching to back that up as well. We have some experienced guys at the top now, and I think this could be a special year for our program.”
Though the departure of Mike Roberts following his being drafted as a junior was unexpected for the program, the starting catching spot is in good hands with sophomore Alex Haitsuka. The Alexandria, Va. native started 21 games behind the plate as a freshman, hitting .244 with six doubles. Even more impressively, in 11 conference games, Haitsuka hit .310 for the Keydets while handling a pitching staff that finished tops in the league in ERA.
A surprise during the fall campaign was the progression of Kyle Goodale. After redshirting the 2008 season, Goodale enters the season as the likely backup to Haitsuka. Sophomore Justin Topping, the team’s starting designated hitter a year ago, could see more time behind the plate this season, while freshmen George Piccirilli and Collin Flaherty bring outstanding catching pedigrees to the program.
“We certainly would have liked to see Mike Roberts return for another season, but we’re excited for him to get a chance to play professionally, and we feel good about the guys we have returning,” said Ikenberry. “Alex saw a lot of action for us last season, and he’ll be able to step in and do a good job this season for us. We have a lot of depth behind him, and it’s going to be a dogfight between all those guys to see who will be the backup.”
The return of three of the four starters in the infield should pay big dividends for the Keydets this season. Juniors Tanner Biagini and Jordan Ballard are once again slated to hit in the middle of the order and man the corners, while A.J. Yoder will shift from shortstop to second base for his senior season. A pair of youngsters is expected to battle for playing time at the vacated shortstop position in sophomore Graham Sullivan and freshman Steele Myers.
Biagini enjoyed a breakout season as a sophomore, hitting .343 with 10 doubles, 10 home runs and a team-best 46 RBI. He will team with Ballard, a .302 hitter that led the Keydets with 12 home runs and a .533 slugging percentage, to give VMI a potent 1-2 punch in the middle of the order.
After starting 46 games at shortstop a year ago, Yoder returns to second base, where he saw a majority of his time as a sophomore. After a disappointing season at the plate in ’08, the Belleville, Pa. native will look to regain his ’07 form, when he hit .296 with 13 doubles.
Sullivan and Myers each bring positive attributes to the shortstop battle. Sullivan played in 26 games a season ago, making starts all around the infield before settling into shortstop late in the season. Since that time, he has developed through the summer and fall seasons and is the favorite to start the year there. Myers, meanwhile, entered VMI with an impressive background, hitting .513 with eight home runs as a junior, earning Conference Player of the Year honors.
Several other freshmen are expected to contribute around the infield, including Chase Worthington, who could see time at second base and third base, and Michael Devine, a two-way player listed as the backup at first base.
The theme of returning key contributors at the corners carries over into the outfield for VMI, where the Keydets return two of the best in the league in redshirt-junior Brian Sandridge and sophomore Sam Roberts.
Sandridge came on strong in conference play last season, pacing the team and ranking among the league leaders by hitting .374 with five home runs and 18 RBIs against Big South opponents. Overall, the Rockbridge County native hit .320 with 39 RBIs while manning left field, coming up with clutch hit after clutch hit, none bigger than a walk-off home run in the 11th inning to defeat Radford last April. He will once again be slated to play left field and hit in the middle of the lineup in ’09.
As a freshman, not only did Roberts lead the Keydets at the plate with a .348 average and 14 doubles, but he also did so in the field, throwing out no less than seven runners from right field. On top of that, late in the year Roberts moved to the mound and showed his dominance there, not allowing a hit in three relief appearances. As he looks to add responsibilities in the bullpen this season, look for him to start in right field and hit at the top of the lineup throughout the season.
Three players look to be in the mix in center field. Junior David Lottman missed the second half of last season with a shoulder injury, but looks to be in top shape entering the year. Sophomore Colin Miller progressed in his time on the field last season, while freshman Jacob Morley was an All-State performer at Woodson HS.
Despite the departure of top-flight starters Trey Barham, the program’s all-time leader in wins and strikeouts, and Michael Bowman, who was drafted in the ninth round by the Milwaukee Brewers as a junior, the Keydets return one of the top left-right starting duos in the Big South Conference in Travis Smink and Chris Henderson.
Smink, who saw a majority of his innings in a relief role last season, went 2-1 with four saves working out of the bullpen in conference play a season ago, posting a 2.67 ERA with a .224 opponent batting average. Thanks to his impressive 2008 campaign in relief, Smink was included on the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Award Watch List this preseason, though he is expected to move into the rotation this season.
Henderson, meanwhile, went 5-4 as a weekend starter last season, posting a 3.16 ERA. The right-hander also established a new school record for fewest walks per nine innings, issuing only seven free passes against 57 strikeouts in 57.0 innings as a junior.
“Having Travis shift gears from a relief role to a starter provides outstanding leadership and a solid Friday night pitcher,” said Ikenberry. “Last year, he did a great job in relief for us, he was dominant. The big thing for him this year is to solidify being a starting pitcher again. Chris has proven that he can start every weekend for us. Hopefully, we can keep him healthy all year and he can finish out his career at VMI with another great season.”
The team’s other starting pitching spots are still up for grabs among several younger options. Sophomores Lefty Flora and Adam Kruithof each served as mid-week starters last season, and are once again slated to begin the season as starters for the Keydets. Freshmen Jeremy Brown and Adam Lopez could also earn starts this season, along with redshirt freshman Tim Brust, an intriguing 6-5 left-hander.
“We have a good crop of freshman arms that are very talented, even though they’re unproven,” said Ikenberry. “We’ve been there before, we went through this back in 2005, and we showed that, through time and development, that they’ll do a great job.”
The Keydets are expected to redshirt the arms of 2008 All-Conference selection Chris Duty, along with sophomores Ryan Barefoot and Jason Farley.
The Keydets will be looking to break in a few new faces in the relief corps as well, however, the bullpen will be anchored by a few returning standouts. Redshirt junior Matt Edwards posted a 1.64 ERA in 22 innings a season ago, going 2-0 out of the bullpen. He will be looked to as an option to close out games this year, along with sophomore Sam Roberts. The coaching staff is also excited about a pair of freshmen that seem well-suited for such a role, as Alan Watts and Michael Devine will also have a chance to prove themselves.
“I really like our options coming into the year at the back end of the game,” said Ikenberry. “Matt Edwards and Sam Roberts have shown in the past what they can do at this level, and we’re really excited about what we have in Alan and Michael. We’re not set with what we want to do in that role yet, and it may be a situation where we go by committee like we did a couple of years back.”
Among the options at middle relief are junior sidewinder Josh McPherson, along with freshmen Karter Rivera and Andrew Deal. Other first-year players like Lopez and Brown are also expected to at least open the season in the bullpen as they look to develop.
The return of John Phelps to the roster gives the Keydets another potent arm. After taking a year off last season, Phelps could give the squad another plus arm to use on the weekends, either in a starting or relief role.
The Keydets will get a rude awakening to the 2009 campaign, traveling to Chapel Hill, N.C. to take on the top-ranked Tar Heels for a three-game set.
“It will be really special for our guys to open the season down at UNC,” said Ikenberry. “They’re ranked number one in a couple of polls, and number two in a couple of others. They’ll be opening up their new stadium, and I think it will be a great experience for us to go down there to start the season.”
The Keydets will also host non-conference match-ups against Regional teams Rider and Bucknell, while also taking on in-state rivals Virginia and James Madison, each of whom qualified for Regionals a season ago.
VMI hosts its home opener on Feb. 24, playing the first of 22 games against in-state opponents this season by welcoming Old Dominion to town. The Keydets will also resume annual series against Commonwealth stalwarts VCU, Virginia Tech, William & Mary and Richmond.
Big South Conference
In 2008, the Keydets rode a 14-7 mark to a tie for second place in the Big South standings. While this year’s squad enters the season voted fourth in the conference’s preseason poll, Ikenberry and the Keydets have never wavered from their stated goal.
“Last year was a great year for us. We did a lot of things that we wanted to, we had a great year in conference. But our goal is always to play well in May and to finish top in our league. The key is to play hard every weekend just like we did last year, and if we do that, then I think we have the talent to be where we want to be at the end of the year.”