Feb. 14, 2012
ANNAPOLIS, Md. -
The Navy baseball team returned to the top of the Patriot League in 2011 as it captured both the conference's regular season and tournament titles. Under seventh-year head coach Paul Kostacopoulos, the Midshipmen return several key players from last year's team as they will look to repeat as league champions for the first time since 1998-99.
"We have a good nucleus of players who played extensively last season, which always helps because there is no replacing experience," said Kostacopoulos.
Navy lost a significant amount of experience from the class of 2011 as its six members combined to start a total of 480 games over their careers. However, several younger Mids received a considerable amount of playing time last spring with much of it coming toward the end of the season.
"Kash Manzelli, although he didn't play a ton, played a substantial amount at the end of the year," said Kostacopoulos. "Certainly Greg Dupell had a lot of playing time, as did Alex Azor, Brandon Beans and Andrew Hahn. When you have a nucleus of a few guys that have some experience, you should be able to build off that. This is certainly not a team that returns eight or nine starters and its entire pitching staff. We lost quite a bit from last year as far as players go. We do have a good nucleus of position players returning and we hope we can build off that.
"Like always here, we're looking to improve consistently throughout the season to get us to a point where we play our best baseball at the end of the year."
Navy used the combination of a durable senior class and rising underclassmen to be successful in 2011. Two underclassmen that provided huge contributions last season were Dave Milanes
and Dupell, who both started 57 games and ranked in the top four in the conference in hits.
With the elder Mids again expected to set the bar high, Navy will look for its younger players to step up further this season.
"The key is getting reliable and solid play out of our older and more experienced players and having the younger players really improve and perform at a higher level," said Kostacopoulos.
There were several contributing factors to the Mids' success last season, but perhaps none more significant than the performance of the pitching staff. The Mids established a program-record 423 strikeouts, which ranked atop the Patriot League, and their strikeouts per nine innings average of 7.6 ranked 50th in the nation. Navy also led conference in ERA at 4.97.
Navy returns two weekend starters from last year's squad in juniors Ben Nelson and Johnny Schoberl. Nelson, who is expected to be the team's No. 1 starter, was a workhorse for the Mids in 2011 as he started 16 games, throwing a total of 91.2 innings.
"Ben has obviously been rock solid for us over the last couple of years," said Kostacopoulos. "I continue to see him get better and improve. He has been our No. 1 and logs a lot of innings for us. He almost never has a short performance, which is great for the team. He has to continue to get better and we certainly feel confident with him as our No. 1 starter and as a guy that can do the job."
Fellow junior Schoberl went 3-0 in Patriot League play last season before a finger injury sidelined him at the end of April for the remainder of the year. Schoberl had offseason surgery and returned to throwing in the fall. He started 10 games in 2011, posting a 5-1 record.
"Johnny was very successful pitching in the No. 2 spot last year," said Kostacopoulos. "Unfortunately, he had an injury that required surgery so we've got to see how he comes back. Because he's missed so much time, it is going to take him a while to get back in the groove and we'll all have to be patient."
Another starting pitcher that was forced to miss much of last season was Zach Sipe. As a sophomore in 2010, Sipe went 5-2 as he started 11 games. But last season, the Huffman, Texas, native was limited to action in just eight games due to an injury. He also had offseason surgery and will look regain his form in the staring rotation.
"Since returning from surgery, Zach seems to be looking more like he was during his freshman and sophomore years prior to the injury," said Kostacopoulos.
A year after emerging as one of the team's top relievers, sophomore Preston Gainey will transition to a starting role in 2012. Gainey did not allow a run in 10 of his 14 appearances last season as he posted an ERA of 3.00 and picked up four saves.
"Preston was very successful for us out of the bullpen last season and had some very key appearances," said Kostacopoulos. "But now we're completely transitioning his role and taking him from his comfort zone as a reliever to a potential starter."
While Kostacopoulos knows the staff is talented, he acknowledges there is also some uncertainty entering the season.
"The starting pitching has a lot of potential, but at the same time, there are some unknowns," said Kostacopoulos. "It's really a part of this team that has to be good for us. While there is some uncertainty, I love their ability."
Navy relievers complimented the starting rotation well last season as the bullpen combined for 11 wins and 14 saves. However, with Gainey moving into a starting role and the graduation of Wes Olson, who won five games in relief in 2011, Navy will likely turn to younger arms in the late innings this season.
Junior Joel Rinehart led Navy in appearances (23), ERA (1.81) and saves (6) last season and enters 2012 as one of the top-returning relievers in the Patriot League.
"Joel has certainly been very good for us out of the bullpen and with another year of experience, Jordan Heller will move into a more significant role," said Kostacopoulos. "Matt Jackson had a good fall for us and newcomer Brad Borosak looks like he is going to be able to help us out of the bullpen in short relief as well."
Jackson made just four appearances last season, while Borosak, an infielder, is one of several new faces expected on the mound.
"We also have some guys with promise that haven't had a season to fit into a role yet, but we're certainly going to try and find a role for Charlie LaMar," said Kostacopoulos. "Stephen Moore, Anthony Parenti and Matt Kilby, who has made the transition to a pitcher, are all guys that have some potential and the ability to contribute."
Josh Elmore and Stephen Geiss combined for 12 appearances last season and expect to see more innings in 2012.
The Midshipmen had the luxury of an experienced, durable catcher last season in Jeff Bland, who started all but 10 games behind the plate. This year, the competition for the position will be intense with several capable players all vying for time.
"It's a wide-open competition this year," said Kostacopoulos. "We addressed it early in the fall that this is an open competition between Milanes, Chris Cannon, Chance Jones and David Norman. There was certainly some jockeying that was taking place during fall ball, but this is going to be a position that we will continue to evaluate during the preseason and as the first part of the season goes along. Each one of those guys merits consideration and it's now about going out there and playing well and seeing what they can do in game situations."
Regardless of who emerges as the top contender for the starting role, Kostacopoulos knows it will take more than just one capable catcher to be successful.
"I've also always felt that to be good behind the plate you have to have two guys," Kostacopoulos said. "It's more prevalent in the Patriot League than in other conferences because of the structure of our weekend schedules. I like the guys we have, but we have some work to do."
Milanes caught nine games last season, as he got the balance of his starts as the team's designated hitter where he ranked third in the conference in RBIs (48) and fourth in hits (62).
Norman started one game behind the plate last season while Jones did not see any action. Cannon and Jack Keller are both freshmen.
After some late-season shuffling last year, the Mids appeared to have solidified their corner infield positions. Dupell started nine of the final 10 games at third base and had a career-best season at the plate. Likewise, Manzelli started the final eight games at first base after having just seven starts prior.
"I like where we are with our corner infield because I think we have some depth," said Kostacopoulos. "Kash really played the most important games of the season at first base in starting in the Patriot League Tournament. He didn't have a ton of at-bats, but they were in critical games and I think that helps."
Dupell hit .329 and ranked second in the Patriot League in hits with 69, while he ranked in the top seven in the conference in eight other offensive categories.
"Greg had a good season last year and he will remain at third base," said Kostacopoulos. "He needs to continue to improve defensively and in his approach at the plate. Like Kash at first base, it wasn't a very long stretch that Greg played third base last season, but it was in some very important games."
Junior Craig Veech, who started 20 games at third base in 2011 and senior Josh Moore, who also stared 21 games at third base, solidify the depth at the corner infield positions. Chris Campbell saw limited action last season, but returns healthy this year and will certainly see some playing time.
"Craig is another guy that will get a shot at first after playing primarily at third base last season," said Kostacopoulos. "Josh is certainly experienced at third as well and Chris can play either first or third base.
"We have five guys that are going to be able to handle our corner positions fairly well."
At the shortstop and second base positions, the Mids enter the season less experienced. Dylan Wheeler, who started 51 games last season, joins sophomore Greg Bryant and newcomers David Wiedeman and Borosak.
"I think we have some competition in the middle infield," Kostacopoulos said. "David played very well at shortstop during the fall and obviously Dylan was the incumbent starter last year and that's going to be a competitive situation. Greg Bryant was a freshman last year and competed very well in the fall, as did Brad Borosak."
Kostacopoulos is hoping the competition pushes each player to perform at a higher level.
"I would say our middle infield is a lot like our catching situation - we have some options and some competition. We'll try a number of different combinations early in the year to find out what is best," said Kostacopoulos.
While there may be some uncertainty in the infield, the Mids enter the season with proven and experienced talent in the outfield. Led by the captain, Azor, Navy returns all three of its starters from last season in senior Andrew Hahn (right field) and sophomore Brandon Beans (left field).
"Obviously, we feel very good about Alex in center field," said Kostacopoulos. "He knows how to play the outfield and gets as good a jumps on balls as any player I've coached. Offensively, he's proven that he can do a lot of things for us."
Azor led the Patriot League in hits last season with 77 and his discipline at the plate made him the NCAA's 19th-toughest player to strike out with an average of just one K per every 18.0 at-bats.
"He's our captain and a lot in how he approaches the game is how we, as a team, approach the game," Kostacopoulos said. "I think one thing that is important is that as a team sometimes you do take on the approach of your leader. Alex is a smart, hard-working, disciplined player and you hope that rubs off on everyone else."
Hahn produced a career-best 22 RBIs last season and his speed in the outfield translates to the base paths where he has stolen 18 bags over the past two seasons.
"Andrew in right field is another senior with experience and certainly has had a lot of playing time," said Kostacopoulos of Hahn, who has appeared in over 100 games in his career. "He has tremendous speed and plays the game very hard. He is always giving it 100 percent, and like Alex, you hope that quality rubs off on your other players."
Beans started 43 games last season and hit .256 with a conference-leading six triples.
"Brandon started a majority of games last year and this year he has to take a step forward," said Kostacopoulos. "He's a skilled player, but now he needs to get better."
Navy's depth in the outfield includes sophomore Nikolai Simonsen and freshmen Jonathan Huggins and Grant LaTerza.
"Nikolai caught our attention in the fall after we moved him from the infield to the outfield," Kostacopoulos said. "He's adjusting and we like how he approached practice in the offseason as far as learning. Grant will also be in the mix in the outfield."