It is time for William and Mary’s experience to start paying off.
After a 27-24 (10-14 CAA) record last season, Head Coach Frank Leoni believes his young players have gained valuable experience that should start paying dividends.
“When you look at a lot of our losses last year, they were very close games,” Leoni said. “Playing in these tight games on the road has helped our younger guys mature and so they have a lot of in-game experience.”
Led by a trio of captains — junior pitcher Matt Davenport, senior pitcher Logan Billbrough and junior catcher Chris Forsten — the Tribe is hoping that it will be able to close out games more efficiently this year.
“We actually posted in the locker room some statistical goals on hitting — fielding stuff like that,” junior infielder Tadd Bower said. “This year, we’ve all played before. We know what to expect, and I’m excited for it.”
The Tribe returns a lineup nearly identical to the 2010 squad, which featured only two seniors. A nagging injury to junior left fielder Stephen Arcure, who led the team in batting last season, is the team’s only setback so far this preseason.
With Arcure on the bench, senior shortstop Derek Osteen may move to left field, where he played two years ago.
“Osteen is an athletic kid who has played in the outfield before,” Leoni said. “[Sophomore Jackson] Shaver can also play out there. I’m not ready to pencil anyone in yet, but we have plenty of potential.”
In addition to its competition, the College will have to deal with an NCAA alteration on allowable composite bats. As a result, balls that would have been a double off the wall last year may now be routine fly outs. The modification will change strategy away from power baseball and toward a small-ball approach to scoring runs.
“There will definitely be more small-ball this year,” Bower said. “It completely changes the game. We’re doing more bunting and slashing to scrap for runs. I think a 10 homerun season will be a good season this year.”
But while the power hitters may see their numbers dwindle, the change may give the Tribe’s pitching staff a chance to stand out.
“This fall gave our pitchers the confidence to attack the strike zone more,” Leoni said. “That will be important for the coming season.”
The Tribe returns nearly its entire pitching staff, a group that had a combined ERA of 4.87 last year. The College is led by pre-season All-American Matt Davenport, who azzled last year with an 8-2 record and 1.92 ERA.
Leoni said he was surprised Davenport did not garner more national attention heading into the season.
“He doesn’t light up radar guns,” Leoni said. “But he’s ridiculous in the way he mixes up arm angles. Hitters don’t feel comfortable in the box against him.”
Among those “in the mix” of competing for a spot in the starting rotation are junior Cole Shain and a trio of sophomores with game experience — Brett Koehler, Brett Goodloe and Matt Wainman.
The season begins today at No. 5 Oklahoma. Last February, the Tribe took on then No. 1 LSU, and next year the team is scheduled to take on the University of Florida. Leoni emphasizes the importance of playing powerhouse schools near the beginning of the season both to measure the team’s talent level and to build confidence.
“We are trying to play the big schools to measure ourselves at the national level,” Leoni said. “Once our guys have played in front of 10,000 fans, playing at UNC Wilmington doesn’t seem so intimidating.”
Despite the excitement of a Big-12 game, Coach Leoni understands that the Colonial Athletic Conference games matter the most.
“It’s all about achieving our three goals, and to do that we need to win the conference games,” Leoni said. “We can go 31-25 and still not make it to the CAA tournament if we don’t win our conference games.”