The College Baseball Blog continues our series of interviews with coaches around the nation today with Army head coach Joe Sottolano. He is entering his 11th season in charge of the Black Knights program bringing them to the Austin TX Regional final last year before losing in the bottom of the ninth. Nearly all preseason Patriot League previews have pegged Army as the favorite in the conference.
1. Army had a solid season in 2009 where they went 36-21 overall and going 13-7 in the Patriot League while capturing a fourth regular season conference title in six years and reaching regional final for the first time in school history. What are you expectations for the 2010 season?
Our goals of winning a conference championship and winning in the NCAA tournament remain the same. However, we really don’t talk about winning. Our expectations for 2010 are that we will respect one another by working our hardest each and every day on and off of the field and respect the fact that our opponents are doing the same. If we do that, we feel that our athletic ability will take care of the rest and winning will be a by-product of our efforts.
2. Starting third baseman J.P. Polchinski graduated after last season. Who do you expect to fill into his spot at third base this season?
JP was a great defensive player and very clutch hitter that brought a high level of mental toughness to the table each and every day. His ability and personal make-up will be tough to replace, but we feel that Steve May is the front runner for the position. Steve is a very athletic player with great instincts. He will not have the offensive power that JP displayed, but is a bit quicker and will present different obstacles to our opponents.
3. The Black Knights return the entire weekend rotation in Matt Fouch, Ben Koenigsfeld, Kirk Porter and Joey Henshaw. What does your bullpen look like this year and who are the players that might carry the load this season?
We really like the depth of our staff. Steve Cummings could also jump into the rotation this year and was actually the starting pitcher in last years’ regional final championship game against Texas. If he does not, he will be called upon to be a long relief specialist on the weekend or left-left combination guy. Our set up guys should be hard throwing right-handers, Kyle Brueggemann and Manny Fernandez. Both have made significant strides in the offseason. Both will hit 91 or 92 with good sliders. Brueggemann throws four pitches for strikes and could even double as an alternate closer. Our closer, however, remains Kevin McKague. Kevin is a hard thrower that will top out at 94 mph with an 85 mph slider, good curve and solid split finger. When Kevin is sharp, he is extremely effective and can shorten a game for you. We also possess several situational guys that can pitch. We honestly believe that our staff will be one of our strengths this year.
Having nine to 10 guys hit over .300 is not something you come to expect every year. We have several extremely talented hitters back that have the ability to hit for power and average. The key to our success is going to be the bridge guys. The telltale is going to be mainly the production of our two hole and eight and nine hole hitters. If we can get those spots in the lineup to be consistent and productive, we should bring some challenges to opposing teams.
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?
We think that we have solid talent in the freshmen class, but when you return the number of starters that we are, it will be difficult for many to break into the lineup. Clayton Mosley is a very talented 6-foot, 3-inch outfielder that can run and has made really good strides with his offseason. He has a solid chance to be a mainstay in our lineup. Other than that, when Ken Jackson gets his arm strength back (91 mph), he should see some time and the same with RHP Chris Rowley.
6. Who do you think will be your biggest challenge in the Patriot League during the 2010 Season?
We really think the Patriot League is very talented this year with veteran teams. Bucknell is always solid. They will throw strikes, pick up the baseball and really compete at the plate. They should be tough. Also, Holy Cross has a real good club back. They are driven by a bunch of senior players/pitchers. As a result, they should be one of the top teams. Navy is always talented and has a strong senior class that should be very competitive. They certainly will win a lot of non-conference games that may give them some confidence going into league play. Lehigh and Lafayette always play hard and have good arms. Honestly, I give the nod to Bucknell and Holy Cross, but wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the teams be successful throughout the year.
7. Coming off the heartbreaking loss to Texas in the Austin Regional, do you get a sense of increased commitment and even urgency on the part of the players to show the world that Army baseball has arrived and is for real?
I wouldn’t say that we have an increased sense of commitment or urgency, I just feel that the experience helped reinforce our belief that we can compete on a national level and win. People around the country certainly understand that we have great young men representing our program, but now many will realize that we also have great baseball players.
8. Since your coaching at a service academy, you have many different challenges from a coaching perspective that other coaches around the nation do not face. What are some of your biggest challenges coaching at Army when compared to a regular Division 1 program? (Recruiting and Practice Time?)
The biggest challenge we face at West Point is perception. We find that the general public perceives West Point to be a certain way and many times their outlooks are inaccurate. Each and every institution has strengths and challenges. West Point is no different. Our experiences have led us to believe that if we could get every perspective student athlete around the country to see and understand West Point, we would be winning national championships on an annual basis. This institution stands for everything that is right in the world and reinforces all of the attributes and qualities a parent wants to see in their son or daughter. There are many Hall of Fame baseball players out there that are not Hall of Fame people. When you graduate from West Point, you are guaranteed to be a Hall of Fame person and are certainly going to be a great baseball player.
As for practice and playing, obviously we can be successful at the highest level. Our practices mirror that of other institutions, we just make sure we pay attention to detail and that every repetition is the most important one we take. We always reinforce quality over quantity. One of the many things they learn here is how much time they really have to complete things. I never realized how much time I wasted in my life until I came to West Point.
9. 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 like the idea of a uniform start date. The difficult thing for the baseball coaches association is trying to please all 300-plus schools. That is never going to happen, but Mr. Dave Keilitz and his staff certainly do their best to represent the norm.
10. Final question, who has been your biggest influence on your coaching philosophy or career?
Without question, the single biggest influence on my coaching philosophy and career is my college baseball Coach and ABCA Hall of famer, George Valesente. We were very fortunate to have won a National Championship while I was playing for him. However, the special thing about coach is that he taught us more about life than he did about baseball and obviously he taught a lot about baseball. In fact, he used the game as an avenue to teach life’s lessons. Coach Valesente, along with my parents, are responsible for any success I may have in life or coaching. I am forever indebted to him and could never repay him for what he has done for me and every other player that has ever stepped foot in his program at Ithaca College.
The College Baseball Blog would like to thank Bob Beretta of Army Media Relations for assisting with setting up the interview with Coach Sottolano.