College Baseball Daily continues our countdown to the start of the 2017 season with interviews with coaches across the country. Today, we feature fourth year St. Mary’s head coach Eric Valenzuela. You can check out the full interview below.
1. St. Mary’s finished the 2016 season with a 33-25 overall record and a 18-9 record in WCC play. This led to the school’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in only your third season. What are your expectations heading into this season?
Eric Valenzuela: Very proud of the progress we have made in three short years. Our players have done an outstanding job creating a culture of an old school approach which is not to make excuses and work extremely hard without worrying about results. I feel thats where it begins. Our expectations are high. I believe we expect a lot out of ourselves but also understand that if we dont continue to work hard and improve on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis it will be tough. We havent spoken much about last years team to this group. Were different, I feel on paper we are improved in a lot of areas which ultimately doesnt mean much. We have to play good. So i guess we will see.
2. Corbin Burnes had a breakout junior season with a 9-2 record and a staff low 2.48 ERA but was drafted in the fourth round leaving you without your number one starter. The other two top starters also return in Seniors Johnny York (7-5, 3.25 ERA) and Cameron Neff (6-3, 3.81 ERA). Who do you see breaking into the weekend rotation?
EV: Its never easy losing your ace (Corbin Burnes-Drafted) but feel extremely lucky to have our numbers 2 and 3 back with Cameron Neff and Johnny York. Both are capable of taking over the Friday night role and are competing at a high level to earn it. They have a lot of college innings and experience which makes us feel confident moving forward. A couple of names that continue to compete for our 3rd and 4th starting jobs include junior RHP Drew Strotman, senior RHP Jake Valdez, sophomore LHP Ty Madrigal and true freshman LHP Nick Sparks.They all were impressive during the fall season.
3. The one area of concern is the loss of Anthony Gonsolin who had a team high six saves while pitching in 18 games. Who do you see filling into his spot at the backend of games?
EV: Having a plus back end to your bullpen is key as well as having a true closer. I feel some years are different then others depending on the type of staff and depth you have. We have been successful in the past with having an announced closer and we have also been successful not having an announced closer but using different options for different situations in games. I feel we are still up in the air with what option we will lean towards. I really like the makeup and stuff of true freshman RHP Kevin Milam. Being a closer, theres a bulldog mentality that plays a role as well as having good enough stuff to finish games. Kevin has shown that thus far but we do have a long ways to go and other guys capable as well.
4. Zach Kirtley led the Gaels in hitting last year with a .323 average while second on the squad was Joey Fiske who hit .310. What makes these two players such quality hitters on your squad?
EV: Having experience in our lineup I feel is one of our strengths. Zach Kirtley is a special player. He puts together tremendous at bats and is clutch in big situations. He will be our three hole hitter and starting second baseman. He will be guarded by our junior catcher Jackson Thoreson who has had an outstanding fall. There are two players on our team that I tell people I will be distraught when they leave our program and they are junior outfielders Brett Rasso and Joey Fiske, they will hit one and two in our lineup. They are special young men that play with ultimate energy and do things on the field that you cant teach. They both played football in high school and bring that intensity and competitiveness to the baseball field everyday. If they go we go!
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?
I really like our freshman group. Recruiting Coordinator Matt Fonteno did a tremendous job of helping assemble this outstanding group of young men. I mentioned two in LHP Nick Sparks and two-way player Kevin Milam. Another freshman RHP that had a great fall was Andrew Hansen from Roseville, Ca. They will all play big roles for us on the mound. Other freshman that had productive falls and who will fight for playing/starting time will be outfielders Andrew Shebloski from San Diego, CA, Ryan Novis from Tempe, AZ and Joe Vranesh from Alamo, CA. Its an exciting group that will continue to help us move this program forward.