The College Baseball Blog continues our series of interviews with head coaches around the nation today with Duke head coach Sean McNally. He is entering his fifth season in charge of the Blue Devils program where he has a career record of 116-107-1 while going 39-79-1 in ACC play. Duke finished last season in seventh place in ACC play after going 35-24 overall and 15-15 in ACC play.
1. Duke finished last season with a 35-24 overall record while going 15-15. What are your expectations for the 2010 season?
Our expectation is to continue to raise the bar of achievement for our baseball program here at Duke. While we were excited to have had the best season for our program since 1994 last year, we are not satisfied with finishing at 15-15 in the ACC. Our goal is to be an elite ACC program, one that is a regional participant year in and year out. We cleared the ACC Tournament hurdle in 2009 and now our main goal is to go to a regional in 2010. That is the next logical step in our process of elevating our program here at Duke.
2. The Blue Devils were squarely on the bubble for a spot in the 2009 NCAA Tournament but were left on the outside looking in. The biggest argument against the Blue Devils was the strength of the out of conference schedule. How have you changed the schedule to eliminate the chance of this happening again?
Our main issue in 2009 was that we lost a number of non-conference games that we should not have lost that really hurt us at the end of the year, come selection time. There was no doubt in our mind that a 15-15 record in the best baseball conference in the country should have been enough to get us a regional bid, especially since a team that finished behind us in the conference standings that we beat two out of three was selected. We have only ourselves to blame for not playing better against our non-conference slate in 2009. That said, we have picked up a road series at Baylor in 2010 where we will play both Baylor twice and Georgia twice, two excellent programs. In addition we pick Florida State back up on the ACC schedule to replace Maryland for the next two years, so any questions about strength of schedule have been answered for 2010. It is up to us to perform against our non-conference opponents, and we are excited about the challenge that is ahead.
3. Duke loses catcher Matt Williams who a stalwart behind the plate during his four year career. Who do you see stepping into the leadership role behind the plate for the 2010 Season?
Matt Williams was a terrific player for us, a young man who improved more than any player I have ever coached, steadily each year. His development curve culminated in an outstanding senior season and he will be missed. We have moved Ryan McCurdy, the best defensive third baseman in the ACC for each of the past two seasons, behind the plate and he has been terrific in the preseason. He is an unquestioned leader in our program and being behind the plate is a natural place for him to lead our club.
4. Alex Hassan served as the closer for the last two seasons. Who do you see filling into his role as the closer?
We have multiple options for the closer spot, and we are excited about all of them. Michael Ness is a senior who has been a bullpen stalwart for us for three years, a guy who has mainly pitched in a set up role for us in the past – he is certainly and end of the game option. Ben Grisz is a sophomore who was highly recruited out of the Dallas area – he has thrown the ball exceptionally well for us this fall and is a possibility as well. Jeremy Gould was an All-ACC player last year as an outfielder and while we know he will hit in the middle of the order, he is a wildcard on the mound for us. He returned to pitching this fall after taking the last two years off to focus on hitting. Any of these three would be solid end of game options for us.
5. Have any of the incoming freshmen impressed you during Fall Workouts? Do you expect any of them to break into the starting lineup/rotation this spring?
Our freshmen have been very solid this fall. We have to give a lot of credit to Matthew Boggs, our recruiting coordinator, and Sean Snedeker, our pitching coach for putting together another very good class. Each year we have added more talented ACC caliber players and this year is no exception. Marcus Stroman is a very dynamic freshman two-way player – he will factor into our weekend rotation and middle infield picture immediately. We expect Eric Brady, an in-state recruit, to start for us at third base. He is a very steady in all facets of the game. Both Devin Burke and Chase Bebout will get on the mound for us, and one sleeper who has really improved in the short time he has been on campus is Mike Carroll from Indiana. He will impact our line up with his speed right away.
6. The Blue Devils baseball program sent players over the summer to many different summer leagues including the Cape Cod League and Northwoods League to name a few. How do you decide where to send your student athletes?
We try to find the highest level of competition for them where they will get regular playing time. Sean Snedeker handles summer ball and does a terrific job with it. In terms of freshmen, often times we will place them close to home; after a long first year away, it is great if there is a good situation where they can be near their hometown. Each year we have sent more and more players to Cape Cod and the Northwoods League, another indicator that the talent level in our program is on the rise.
7. Duke decided to moved 18 games over to Durham Bulls Park for the 2010 season. What was the reasoning to move the games to a Triple A ballpark? Do you hope to see this continue in future seasons?
This is a great move for our program, one that our players, staff, department and fan base are very excited about. We will be playing our ACC series down at the DBAP for the next three years and we are very grateful to the Durham Bulls staff for their willingness to help us in this undertaking. Without question, we are going to upgrade our on-campus facility, but the reality of these economic times demanded that we find a way to enrich our current student-athlete experience and give our fans a great place to come watch some of the best college baseball in the country right now. Rather than to just talk about our plan for an on-campus facility (which is complete and awaiting a fundraising campaign) we decided to be creative and come up with a plan immediately. Kevin White, our Director of Athletics here at Duke, and Boo Corrigan (Deputy Director of Athletics) deserve the credit for making it happen, and we can’t wait to get downtown and start playing!
8. We have now been through two seasons with the Uniform Start Date being in effect. What is your early opinion on the rule change?
I don’t have any issue with the Uniform Start Date in terms of when we can start playing games; however, we need to look at the practice start date that has come along with it. It is very difficult to get your arms stretched out appropriately in the three weeks we are allotted, and as weather issues arise in the preseason it becomes even more challenging. I’d like to see practice begin on January 15th to allow more preseason practice time, this would not negatively impact the northern schools as they are inside whether we start on January 15th or February 1st.
9. How will the new rules with the way the scholarships can be split on the team affect your program? Do you think it is a good change for college baseball?
I don’t agree with it conceptually, and in practice it has not been a good change for college baseball. We should have the opportunity to distribute our 11.7 scholarships as best benefits our individual programs. This change has really squeezed out some good players who would fall between the no money and twenty five percent threshold, and that is unfortunate.
10. With the removal of the one-time transfer exemption that allowed student-athletes to change schools once without having to sit out a red-shirt year, do you feel that there is more pressure on a coach to recruit with responsibility or for the student-athlete to be aware of what programs are the best fit for them?
I think the responsibility falls on both parties. Certainly the rule change was targeted at the over-recruiting that has taken place at many schools in the past and the recruiting of current student-athletes in summer ball. To some extent I think it has helped in this regard, though baseball is a very difficult sport to recruit due to the draft factor both out of high school and after the junior year. When you consider injury issues as well, it is hard to know exactly how many players will be on your roster year to year and you always want to be protected as a coach. It is critical that prospective student-athletes consider all factors when choosing a school. The reality is it that it is a forty-year decision at a place like Duke, rather than a four year decision and you really want to get it right.
The College Baseball Blog would like to thank Sean for taking some time out of his busy schedule to participate in this Q and A. Special thanks to Duke Assistant SID Chris Cook for setting up the interview for us. If you know of a coach that would like to participate in a future Q and A feel free to send me an email by clicking here.