2007 UAB Baseball Preview

Go C-USA! Ryne Lovdahl
Ryne Lovdahl

Jan. 23, 2007

A mix of new and old suit up for UAB in 2007 as the team returns eight starting position players from last year's squad and welcomes in 15 newcomers, in addition to a new coaching staff.

Brian Shoop was announced as the new head coach of the Blazers on June 12, 2006 after 17 highly successful seasons at Birmingham-Southern in which he compiled an overall record of 692-307-1.

One major challenge facing Shoop and the Blazers in his first season at the helm is the task of bringing a team together that includes 21 returning letterwinners, four transfers from Birmingham-Southern and 11 other newcomers from the junior college and high school ranks.

"We have returning players, players recruited by the past (UAB) staff that are coming into a situation that is different than they were expecting and then we have a few transfers from Birmingham-Southern and we have kids that didn't know the guys at (Birmingham) Southern but had signed with us there," Shoop said. "I think the level of unity has been amazing up to this point and we've really worked hard to cultivate an environment of that but we haven't played a game yet, we haven't had failure yet and we haven't had people sitting on the bench yet."

Shoop is quick to point out that following fall practice there is no certainty as to who would be starting on opening day and that the team's spring camp would be used to determine the starting line-up for opening day but said he could see the line-up changing a great deal throughout the season.

With so many positions remaining in doubt and being so tightly contested, Shoop points to the ups and downs of the season and different players playing and sitting out being the true test of the strength of the UAB baseball family.

"Those things will challenge the cohesiveness and whether or not the unity is strong enough to get through the inevitable advirsity of a season," Shoop said. "Again, I think time will tell and I'm optimistic and hopeful. I've been doing this long enough that you really don't know until you're put through the test."

With nine seniors and 14 juniors, the challenge of bringing a team together and maintaining that unity throughout the course of the season could prove to be the strength this year's team.

"I think the unity and comradery really has a chance to be a strength of this team, if it will weather the storm," Shoop said. "I'm actually anxious for all those things to happen because it will either thrust us forward as a program, or it will shake us where we have to make some adjustments."

One other factor Shoop believes the Blazers will gain positive energy from this season is the desire of the upperclassmen. UAB has made the Conference USA Tournament in each of the past three seasons. However, has won just two games in the postseason during that time.

"We have some guys that are hungry which is a good thing and they have faced Conference USA pitching so that is a huge plus," Shoop said. "I'm more focused on attitude, unity and mental toughness right now. How they carry their body posture and how confident they are has been a goal for us more so than number of wins."

UAB returns the majority of its offensive output from last season as only shortstop Ryan Metcalf departed last season after signing a free agent contract with the Milwaukee Brewers following his graduation. In all, the Blazers return a handful of experience that has UAB optimistic heading into opening day with Central Michigan on Feb. 17.

Senior Danny Sawyer returns this season after being one of three players to start in all 57 games last season. Sawyer led the team in batting average (.305), RBI (47) and doubles (16), while ranking second in home runs with seven. He was also impressive behind the plate, leading Conference USA in caught stealing putouts, while boasting a fielding percentage of .975.

"Danny is the returning starter behind the plate and the thing that has been most impressive to me was his leadership skills," Shoop said. "He possesses these intangible qualities I look for that will help him lead this team. He is one of the leading hitters returning but has to get better behind the plate by cutting down on passed balls."

Also vying for time behind the plate is junior transfer Ben Shelley who came to UAB after spending two seasons at Wallace Community College where he hit .340 in his sophomore season with seven home runs and 58 RBI.

Redshirt freshman Kevin Cope adds depth at the catcher position after he sat out last season due to injury.

"Ben is a great student, he's a Dean's List guy and to me that translates on to the field. He's an intelligent kid with a good work ethic," Shoop said. "Kevin had been out a year with arm problems and was out for the fall. He is a great kid and has a tremendous attitude. Right now we just want him to be healthy."

Three others that could slide in behind the plate are freshman Andrew Manning and sophomores Brint Hardy and Allen Aubin.

The infield is an area that has several positions where any of a number of guys could play this season. With defense being such a critical part of being successful at Young Memorial Field, the middle of the infield is an area that could prove to be a strength of Blazers defense.

A handful of players are trying to emerge as the front-runner at first base with junior Billy Lichtner and senior Ryne Lovdahl returning after both seeing a substantial amount of playing time last season. Lovdahl started in 52 games and hit .274 with a team-best eight home runs, while driving in 29 runs in 2006. Lichtner started in 28 games in which he hit .240 with three home runs.

"Ryne gives us a lot of options, he can play first, third or in the outfield," Shoop said. "I think he'll definitely be in there somewhere and hitting in the middle of the lineup. Positionally where he'll end up will depend on a lot of factors, but I think he could play in the corner outfield or corner infield or even designated hitter. I think one strength of our team is Ryne Lovdahl's toughness, he's a tough kid."

"Billy has played some first base and he is a left-handed hitter that has the potential to hit with some power," Shoop said. "He'll probably battle more for the DH spot."

Junior Ryan Keedy has also impressed the coaches with his play at first and even more so with his bat. Prior to sitting out the 2006 season, Keedy played two seasons at Wallace State Community College where he was a third-team All-America selection as a sophomore.

"Ryan missed last year and he is a capable player with a great swing," Shoop said. "We need for Ryan to hit in the middle of our lineup because he probably has the best swing on the team. He still needs to improve defensively in order to play first base for us everyday but he's a great kid and has the ability to be one of our leaders if he'll do the things he's capable of."

Two others right in the thick of things at first base are Manning and sophomore Robert Brewster. Manning came to UAB after having a successful career at LaGrange High School in LaGrange, Ga., while Brewster returns after playing in 16 games for the Blazers last season in which he had a fielding percentage of .938.

"None of these guys are light years ahead of the next one," Shoop said. "It's a tightlygrouped bunch so it will be interesting to see who emerges."

Second base and shortstop will be one of the strong areas of the UAB defense given the return of senior Jorge Gutierrez and the addition of a standout freshman in Jonathan Merritt. Gutierrez started in 51 games for the Blazers last season, hitting .269 with nine doubles, while posting 165 assists to rank eighth in Conference USA. Merritt comes to UAB after an impressive career at Douglas County High School in Douglasville, Ga., where he hit .302 with 22 stolen bases as a junior. Merritt was tabbed one of the nation's top prospects by Perfect Game.

"The middle infield has a chance to be a real strength of our team because they are capable of defending and if you defend well in the middle of the field it will give you a great chance to win," Shoop said. "Jorge and Jonathan were clearly ahead at those positions in the fall but I'm not sure who will play short and who will play second, we'll have to wait and see how that plays out."

Filling in behind Gutierrez and Merritt will be junior transfer Tyler Rollin, who played two seasons at Gadsden State Community College, and junior Brett Hall, who missed last season after playing in 16 games in 2005 in which he hit .333.

"Hall was hurt in the fall but in the limited of time I got to see him I was really impressed," Shoop said. "He's a small scrappy guy and a real competitor. If he's healthy he'll be a nice quick guy to have."

Third base is another position that lacks clarity entering the season as the team must overcome the loss of standout third baseman Zac Ward who has started in all 174 games in his career at third base. Ward is a career .257 hitter with 17 home runs and 118 RBI.

"Third base is a real predicament for us right now," Shoop said. "Zac Ward played everyday at that position for us last year and he's out for the year with an injury. That hurts us this year but helps us next year so he'll be a good leader for us in the dugout."

Leading a large pool of players looking to see time at third are Lovdahl and sophomore transfer Aubin who transferred to UAB from Birmingham-Southern where he hit .283 with five home runs and 36 RBI in 2006.

"We have Lovdahl who can play at third and also Allen Aubin who played well at Birmingham-Southern last year but did not have a very good fall," Shoop said. "If he plays like he is capable of, then he will be a great player for us. He's a great athlete and has a multi-facet game because he can run and defend the bunt and slow roll really well. He's a switch hitter who plays with a lot of energy so if he plays like he is capable of playing, then he is a very good player."

Also in the extended mix at third are Brewster and Manning.

"Brewster and Manning can also play that corner and are in the hunt," Shoop said. "I think third will come down to one of those four or a combination of the four."

The outfield is an area of great importance at UAB given the large outfield that Young Memorial Field possesses, and is an area that enters the season with a great deal of competition for starting jobs.

The outfield may be the most experienced area of the field as seniors J.R. Bond, Levi Patmon and Steven Turner all return after each saw a significant amount of playing time last season. Turner was one of the team's leading hitters with a .304 average while leading the team in stolen bases with 13. Bond hit .276 last year, while Patmon hit .227. The three combined for 129 starts.

"Levi and J.R. were hurt all fall so we got to see very little of them," Shoop said. "They both played last year and are both good kids so they are in the hunt. Steven is one of the fastest guys I've ever seen. If he can put the ball in play and cut down on his strikeouts, then he could be a very dynamic player for us. He's got to get better defensively as well."

Two other very talented players will also be in the tight competition for starting jobs in the outfield as junior Phil Bell returns after hitting .280 with nine doubles in 2006, while sophomore transfer Brint Hardy comes to UAB from Birmingham-Southern. Hardy was second on the Panthers' club last year with a .346 batting average while driving in 31 runs and stealing 18 bases.

"Phil is one of the guys who I believe can really hit at this level," Shoop said. "He's never been in the starting lineup at the beginning of the season, yet has always started by the end, so I wouldn't be surprised if he's in the mix."

"Brint did not start for us right away at Birmingham-Southern last year and ended up being a pretty key component," Shoop said. "He would be considered our second fastest player on the team behind Turner."

UAB's pitching staff is the least experienced of all areas for the Blazers, however might possess the most depth. Junior right-hander Jimbo Crew threw the most innings on the staff last season (77.1) with junior Ben Styes with the second-most innings pitched of the returners at 36.2.

Crew finished 2006 with a 6-4 record to lead the team in wins and boasted an ERA of 4.07, also a team-best. He topped the team in strikeouts with 49, however issued 60 walks. Styes was also impressive as he held an ERA of 5.40 while earning two victories.

"A lot of guys are very close, there isn't really a clear definition of who is our Friday guy, our Saturday guy, our Sunday guy and our closer," Shoop said. "We'll just have to let the roles unfold."

The Blazers hope to benefit from a late transfer in junior right-hander Dustin Colburn, who came to UAB from Shelton State Community College for the spring and has been cleared to play for the green and gold this season. Colburn brings more than 51.0 innings worth of collegiate experience to the club.

Junior right-hander Brandon Flaherty was the team's leading closer last season, finishing with three saves in 14.2 innings of work in which he struck out 13 batters.

Sophomores Kyle Roberson and Mitch Kloskowski also impressed the coaches during fall camp. Roberson is coming off a season in which he threw for 18.2 innings and struck 14 batters.

Senior right-handers Grant Addison and Kasey Croft bring quality experience back to the UAB staff. Addison logged 20.2 innings of work last season, earning one victory and making two saves, while Croft put in 10.2 innings of work.

Some new arms will also aid the depth of the bullpen this season as Birmingham-Southern transfers, junior left-hander Paul Jones and sophomore right-hander James Oliver, join a lengthy list of capable arms that includes junior lefty Rodney Wodson, junior right-hander Brandon Wallace, sophomore right-hander Mikael Saway and freshman right-hander Bradley Myer.

A standout freshman in left-hander Shay Crawford has also caught the coaches' eyes and is expected to see some time on the mound. Crawford joins the Blazers after an impressive career at Harding Academy in Bartlett, Tenn., where he was an all-state selection.

"There will be great competition for innings amongst the staff but at the same time I hope there is great support for one another," Shoop said. "It has to be a group that really pulls for each other and rallies around each other and helps each other."

UAB is yet again braced to play one of the toughest schedules in the country in 2007. The Blazers will open the season at home against Central Michigan, Feb. 17-19, before traveling to play its first-ever Pac-10 opponent in Arizona State, Feb. 23-25.

The Blazers open Conference USA play when UCF comes to Birmingham for a three-game series, March 30-April 1. A late-season series with Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball Newspaper's preseason No. 1 Rice is sure to be a big draw at Young Memorial Field, April 27-29, while other C-USA opponents coming to Birmingham include Memphis (April 13-15) and East Carolina (May 17-19).

For the fourth straight season the Blazers are looking to qualify for the Conference USA Tournament, which will be held at Tulane in New Orleans, La., May 23-27.

In all, UAB will play three teams (No. 1-Rice, No. 14 Arizona State, No. 16 Tulane) ranked in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper's Preseason Top 25 poll, in addition to playing three others (No. 32 Mississippi State, No. 33 Houston, No. 35 Troy) on the extended list.

"We are committed to playing a challenging and exciting schedule every year and this year's schedule proves that commitment," Shoop said. "We play in some great baseball environments, in some fabulous cities and against some of college baseball's best. Our home schedule will allow Birmingham baseball fans to see us play some of the best college baseball teams in America."



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