Feb. 13, 2009
After winning the Conference USA Tournament Championship in 2008, the University of Houston baseball team returns in 2009 with high expectations. The Cougars return 2009 C-USA Preseason All-Conference Team selections, junior Wes Musick and sophomore Chase Dempsay, in addition to sophomore Blake Kelso, who was named to the C-USA All-Freshman Team a year ago.
UH put together a thrilling comeback at the Conference Tournament that included playing its way through the losers bracket to defeat Marshall, 3-2, to take home the title and advance to the 18th NCAA Regional appearance in school history.
Joining the Cougars this season are 12 newcomers that will be looked upon to make an immediate impact.
"We've got good young talent that is going to contribute from the field and on the mound," head coach Rayner Noble said. "We have some marvelous freshman walk-ons and at the same time as our returners can make strong contributions in what we're doing."
The Cougars return junior left-hander pitcher Wes Musick and sophomore right-hander pitcher Chase Dempsay to the pitching staff. Both earned numerous post-season honors in 2008 and were named to the 2009 Preseason All-Conference Team.
Musick finished last season 8-4, with a 4.35 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 97.1 innings of work. Dempsay recorded a season-high 11 saves and became only the fourth Cougar in program history to record double-digit saves. The Baytown native also finished with a 2.53 ERA and pitched 64.0 innings.
"Those are two guys that we are going to rely heavily on," Noble said. "I call them bookends, because you've got your Friday night starter and then you've got your closer. The Friday guy has to set the tone for the weekend and your closer, he's got to close."
Sophomore righthander Jared Ray looks to become a regular in the weekend lineup. Last season, he finished with a 4-2 record and had a break-out performance at the NCAA College Station Regional. Hours after recording his second save against Illinois-Chicago, he pitched a complete-game win against No. 9 Texas A&M during the first championship game. For his performance he was named to the NCAA College Station Regional All-Tournament Team.
Junior right-hander John Touchton emerged last season as the team's No. 2 starter and finished with 57 strikeouts, a 4.18 ERA and a 5-4 record. Touchton along with sophomore Ty Stuckey and junior Donnie Joseph will compete for starting positions as left-handers. Stuckey, as a freshman last season, had three saves while striking out 54 batters in 63.1 innings of work. Joseph added 40 strikeouts in 11 starts and finished with a 2-1 record.
In addition to Dempsay, senior right-hander Chris Wright will be used in the closing role when necessary and out of the bullpen. In addition, senior right-hander Jimmy Raviele, sophomore left-hander Matt Taylor will be used out of the bullpen for the Cougars.
Returning this season is junior right-hander Barry Laird, who sat out the 2008 season after shoulder surgery, while junior Taylor Hammack's status for the season is still undecided after shoulder surgery.
Newcomers to the staff include, junior transfers William Kankel and Frank Corolla, redshirt freshman David McClain and freshmen Mo Wiley and Michael Goodnight.
The Cougars have three athletes on the roster this season that will compete for the play at that catcher's position. The incumbent, junior Chris Wallace will start for UH.
"Chris is doing a nice job handling the pitching staff and throwing the ball to second very well," Noble said. "He's improved a lot behind the plate."
Last season, he competed in 57 games with 38 starts at catcher. In addition, he recorded a .318 batting average, the third highest batting average among returners.
Newcomers John Cannon and Joey Cesario will be added to the mix. Noble expects Cannon to share the starting duties with Wallace. While Wallace will start the majority of the weekend games, Cannon could catch the mid-week games. Cesario, according to Noble, is learning the speed of the game as a freshman and will contribute for the Cougars.
Sophomore Blake Kelso had an impressive freshman campaign in 2008 and should build on that success this season. Last season, he was one of two players to start all 66 games and was named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America in addition to being named to the C-USA All-Freshman Team.
Kelso started the season batting in the No. 9 position but moved to the leadoff position in the third game and stayed there for the remainder of the season. In that role, he finished with a .288 batting average, the second highest among returners, 79 hits, 15 doubles and 35 RBIs. He will look to nail down the started spot at shortstop this season.
Dempsay and Stuckey are expected to share duties at first base, in addition sophomore Matt Murphy, who is returning from arm surgery, may see action at first.
Two freshmen will be called upon in a starting role this season at second and third base. Taylor White, according to Noble, has locked down the starting position at second, with redshirt freshman David Murphy in a back-up role. At third base, freshman Codey Morehouse will open the season at third base. Noble feels Morehouse is a swing player and while he will start at third he may also see action at shortstop or second base.
Freshmen Carols Reyes, Tom Wertz, Jake Runte, Reed Watson and Tony Montalbano are also expected to be used in a back-up role in the infield.
Looking to lead the group of outfielders in 2009 is junior Zak Presley. He will start at center after a standout sophomore year, where he finished with a .310 batting average, the highest among returners, 63 hits, 30 RBIs and a .408 on base percentage. Presley also rattled off an 18-game hitting streak midway through the season, which tied as the seventh longest hitting streak in UH history.
At left field sophomore Caleb Ramsey will get the starting nod and junior transfer from Seminole State College William Kankel will settle into right field.
"Our outfield core is a little bit light, although we can take some of the infielders and move them into the outfield picture," Noble said.
After playing a challenging schedule in 2008, this season will be no different.
The Cougars will play 28 games at Cougar Field, opening the season in a weekend non-conference series against Kansas State on Feb. 20-22. After the season-opening series, the Cougars will spend the next three weeks on the road beginning with two mid-week games against Stephen F. Austin (Feb. 24) and Rice (Feb. 25).
Then Houston is slated to play in the Houston College Classic at Minute Maid Park on Feb. 27-March 1. At the tournament UH will play Baylor (Feb. 27), UC Irvine (Feb. 28) and Texas A&M (March 1).
Following a mid-week game at Louisiana-Lafayette (March 3), Houston will return home for a single game against Texas-San Antonio (March 4) before hosting Cal Poly on March 6-8 and Sam Houston State on March 10.
Houston will travel out of the state of Texas for only the second time in 2009 when they head west for a series against Pacific on March 13-15 and before returning to the Lone Star State for a single game against Lamar (March 17) and Rice (March 18) prior to opening conference play.
In the opening weekend of C-USA play, the Cougars host the UAB Blazers March 20-22 and travel the next weekend to Tulane (March 27-29). In between those two series, UH will host Louisiana-Lafayette in a single game on March 24. Three-straight Texas opponents will be next on the schedule in a trip to Texas-San Antonio (April 1) and Texas A&M (April 6) and a home series against Texas-Pan American (April 3-5).
Conference play picks up the next weekend against Southern Miss on April 10-12 and Memphis (April 17-19) with a single game against Sam Houston State on April 14. The month of April will close out will contests against Stephen F. Austin (April 21), Lamar (April 22), at Marshall (April 24-26) and at McNeese State (April 29).
The final month of the season will see the Cougars welcome Rice (May 1-3), McNeese State (May 5) and East Carolina (May 8-10) to Cougar Field before closing out the season at UCF (May 14-16).
The 2009 Conference USA Championship will be hosted by Southern Miss on May 20-24. The league's top eight teams will head to the tournament, with the winner of the championship earning the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Regionals, which begin on May 29.
"It's a good schedule for us and we're capable of doing some damage in the league," Noble said. "If we can score enough runs, we'll be a Super Regional team, but we got our work cut out for us. We've got so many new faces and we have just got to get the offensive personnel together."