Baseball Team Opens Season This Week
FORT MYERS, Fla. – The 2006 Florida Gulf Coast University baseball season gets underway this week when the Eagles host Barry University in the season opener on Wednesday night before hosting a three-game weekend series against Albany State. The Eagles and Rams have a 1 p.m. doubleheader Saturday afternoon and a single game Sunday at noon.
Last year, the Eagles were in the mix for post-season play into the final weekend of the season before finishing 37-18 and seventh in the NCAA Division II South Region rankings. Only four teams from the region advanced to last year’s NCAA Division II championship tournament.
This year’s regional field been has expanded to six teams. Three conference champions receive automatic bids to the post-season. The winners of the three conferences in the South Region - the Sunshine State Conference, the South Atlantic Conference and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference - all receive automatic bids. FGCU plays as an independent and is ineligible for an automatic bid.
This spring the Eagles open the season as the No. 25-ranked team in the Division II Collegiate Baseball preseason poll. A challenging schedule that features 47 games against regional competition and contests against seven teams among the pre-season top-40 awaits FGCU.
“It’s nice for us to see that people respect what we have built over our first three seasons but our own expectations are high for this year,” said Tollett, who has led the Eagles to 111 wins in the first three years of baseball competition at FGCU. “This might be the toughest year to compete in the South Region. “But there are three automatic bids now instead of two. With their strength, the Sunshine State will get two teams and I know the South Atlantic Conference will get at least one more bid. So, you're basically playing for that one spot."
The good news is that the Eagles 55-game schedule includes 31 homes games, including 23 South Region games at Swanson Stadium. The home schedule features a three-game home set against Florida Southern, which is ranked preseason No. 1, a three-game series with No. 5 Tampa and single-games against No. 21 Franklin Pierce and No. 38 Slippery Rock. The Eagles will also host No. 31 Lynn in a three-game series as well as a two-game series with Rollins, which played in last year’s regional tournament. FGCU will face No. 23 Georgia College & State on the road in early February. They will also play two games against Rollins, one against Valdosta State and five against Barry, which received votes in the poll.
But fourth-year head coach Dave Tollett returns a deep, talented and experienced pitching staff and returns seven position players who started at least 25 games a year. Overall, FGCU has 16 returning veterans and a highly acclaimed group of newcomers that might provide the best depth throughout the roster under Tollett.
2006 FGCU Baseball Outlook
Despite winning at least 35 games in each of its first three seasons, the FGCU baseball team looks to make its’ first-ever NCAA post-season appearance. The Eagles and Tollett are optimistic about making another run at the tournament and the key may be the depth and quality of the pitching staff. The Eagles return five key members of last year’s pitching staff that posted a 3.81 ERA and a talented group of newcomers.
“We return a number of guys who have been through this before,” said Tollett, whose team posted a 3.81 ERA a year ago. “And we have five or six guys that can hit around 90 mph on the radar gun. We think our starters can keep us in every game.”
Six players will be vying for spots in the starting rotation. The group is led by red-shirt junior Chris Hassen (Port Charlotte, Fla.), who has won 17 games in his career, including an 8-4 record and 4.43 ERA as a red-shirt sophomore in 2004. Junior righthander Jason Kiley (Palm Harbor, Fla.) won five games a year ago while senior left-hander Ryan Williams (Fort Myers, Fla.) won eight games in 2004 but was limited to just five innings last year due to an injury. Three righthanders, junior transfer Justin Stiver (Englewood, Fla.), freshman Casey Coleman (Cape Coral, Fla.) and sophomore J.J.Crumbley (Tampa, Fla.), will be counted on heavily. Coleman was a first-team Florida High School Athletic Association all-state selection on the mound last spring while Crumbley tied a single-season record with four saves in a relief role last year. Stiver transferred to FGCU from the University of Florida last year.
The bullpen may be just as strong for the Eagles. Senior right-hander Troy Beall (Kissimmee, Fla.), who recorded two wins and a save in 15 appearances a year ago, and junior right-hander Matt Laliberte (New Port Richey, Fla.), a transfer, lead the way. Freshmen lefthanders Jordan Fischer (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) and Richard Bleier (Plantation, Fla.) will see innings out of the pen, as will freshman right-hander Jimmy Richter (Palm Harbor, Fla.). Junior right-hander Robby Rotunno (Sanford, Fla.), who also plays outfield, will see action as a closer out of the pen.
Tollett is also pleased with the depth among the position players. “This is the best depth we’ve had and it should keep us fresher,” said Tollett. “It’s a long season but I feel very comfortable with our younger players stepping into the lineup.”
The line-up is led by senior All-American Jason Louwsma (Sanford, Fla.), who hit .374 with a school-record 14 home runs to go with 61 RBI last year. This spring Louwsma will see time at both third base and shortstop. Freshman Patrick Garrido (West Palm Beach, Fla.) has the inside track on the shortstop position when Louwsma’s at third base. Senior Kip Perry (Largo, Fla.), the first four-year player for FGCU, and Coleman will both see time at second base. Sophomore Mike Cleghorn (Jacksonville, Fla.) and junior Mike Mathews (Venice, Fla.) will see time at first. Senior Ian Manson (Plano, Texas) can play either third or first base. Sophomore transfer Walt Esser (Jacksonville, Fla.) provides quality depth in the middle infield.
Perry is among the all-time leaders in on-base percentage, thanks in part to being hit by a pitch 51 times in his career, and hit .301 a year ago. Cleghorn batted .304 while Mathews has 13 career home runs. Manson hit .346 a year ago while making 25 starts.
“We feel comfortable with our infield situation, both offensively and defensively,” said Tollett. “Jason is one of the best players in the country and we look for him to be a leader. Kip Perry is our best overall situational hitter and a blue-collar guy who has helped build this program. Ian was our top hitter against the best competition a year ago and the other guys can all swing the bat as well.”
The Eagles might just have their fastest and best defensive outfield in their four-year history. Junior Travis Cunningham (Coral Springs, Fla.) was the team’s leading stolen base threat two seasons ago before missing last year due to injury. Sophomore Shawn Griffin (Hollywood, Fla.) belted eight home runs and hit .309 as a true freshman starter a year ago. Newcomer Josh Upchurch, a first-team FHSAA all-state selection and prep teammate of Coleman, is a solid hitter and quick centerfielder. Junior transfer Geoff Rottmayer (Clearwater, Fla.), is a power hitting right fielder who should make an immediate contribution. Junior Derek Mollica (Boca Raton, Fla.) will be invaluable as he can play either outfield or infield. Junior transfer Michael Yates (West Palm Beach, Fla.) will provide outfield depth. Rotunno also has a powerful bat that may see time in the outfield or at designated hitter when not on the mound.
“This is our best defensive outfield in four years,” said Tollett. “They are athletic, can run and all have good arms. And offensively, we expect them to be big contributors.”
The loss of senior all-American catcher Jason Cooper (Bradenton, Fla.) to a preseason injury will be a big blow for the Eagles. Cooper is the school’s career leader in hits, home runs, and RBI and is a two-time all-region selection. But sophomore Graig Smith (Venice, Fla.), who started 37 games a year ago and hit .265, will be counted on heavily to carry the load behind the plate. Manson has shown he is a capable receiver as well and the Eagles have freshman Dan Branca (Tampa, Fla.) to provide depth at the position.
“If we can stay healthy in key positions, I think we can challenge for an NCAA bid,” said Tollett. “We might have had enough bad luck the past two years with injuries. But our expectations have always been high here. Once we get everyone healthy and playing well, we think can be right there with anyone in the region.”