From the HCC sports desk:
By the end of the first weekend in March, the 2010 Harford baseball team should have 13 games on its resume; instead they opened their season Feb. 20-21, going 3-1 in a four-game series at Brunswick and haven’t played since.
The scheduling setback is a result of the historic snowstorms which pounded the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area in the beginning of February and its effects are likely to be felt well into March. Head coach Tom Eller is not all that worried, however, because of the veteran team he is putting on the field.
“I think [the snow] going to set just about everybody back, but it won’t affect us as much since we have so many sophomores,” he said. “They already know what is expected of them and they know the league and the competition that they will face. The delay might even help us because the players will be foaming at the mouth by the time we get out there.”
Eller’s 2010 Fighting Owls squad consists of 30 players, 16 of which were part of the 2009 team and three which transferred from other programs. All in all, Eller has 19 players that have college-level experience, a vast improvement from his 2009 team which listed just four returners.
“Last year we had no expectations as far as what the program was about,” the coach said. “There were really only two starters that were sophomores last year; this year we might have three freshman starters, which is going to help us minimize the mistakes and the impact of pressure.”
Eller expects his five captains: sophomores Paul Labe, Jordan “Woody” Wlodarczyk, Mike Krider, Joe Harbach and Mike Maxwell to manage that pressure and to teach the newcomers how to handle themselves.
“Joe [Harbach] doesn’t speak with words; he speaks with actions,” Eller said. “He handles himself the right way and does what he is supposed to do on the field and he doesn’t showboat. He provides the example that all the players should mirror, while Maxwell is the enforcer of the team. He’s probably one of the smartest players we have and he keeps the freshmen in line. He’s the in-between guy between me and the players; he knows what I expect and he relays that info as he needs. And Labe handles himself like a big-leaguer.
He does what he’s supposed to in the classroom and he’s as smart as a big-leaguer on the field. He knows everything about baseball and he’s going to be the anchor of our pitching staff and teach them how to handle themselves right away.”
With a solid core of sophomore leaders, Eller expects that his major losses from 2009 (Chazz Losito, Ron Trout) won’t be felt at all. Losito started 20 games behind the plate for the Owls in 2009, splitting time with Wlodarczyk, who Eller will look to in order to fill the void from Losito’s departure. Krider, who saw time at nearly every infield position last season, will assume Trout’s spot at third base and roving infielder, leaving no major holes from the 2009 losses.
One place where Eller will see a good amount of new blood on the field is on the mound, where he has added 11 newcomers to his pitching staff, eight of them first-year players. Under the direction of pitching coach Jay Witasick, a 12-year major-league veteran, Eller expects nine players—sophomore transfer Jordan Heller, a Collegiate Baseball Player to Watch, freshmen Jordan Lozzi, Brock Krumanocker, Dom Vattuone and Corey Taylor, along with Harbach, a Collegiate Baseball and NJCAA Player to Watch, and sophomores Chris Peacher, Mike Rappazzo and Bo Loar—to compete for a starting rotation spot, making his biggest problem the fact that he may have too much talent.
“There’s no true order to our pitching right now,” Eller said. We have so many guys that they are all going to be competing for a starting spot, but we are hands-down better than last year. Our pitching is our core, that’s what will win us ballgames. Lozzi, Krumanocker and Vattuone could be top guys at any other school and they’re going to be filling out the bottom end of our rotation.”
Harford’s strength will not only be in the starters, but in the bullpen as well, with Eller adding freshmen Aaron Jones, RJ Heinlen, Christian Wolfe and sophomore transfer Rich Santiago to his relief corps. Heller and Harbach will likely be working out of the pen to start the season as well, in order to save them for the end of the schedule.
“We’re going to have two of the best pitchers in the league [Heller and Harbach] in the pen so that we can save them for the rest of the season,” Eller said. “We had to go Harbach in mid-March as a starter last year and we sort of wore him out at the end.”
Labe will also be playing from the bullpen, while sophomore Mike Matthews and freshmen Eric Quinn and Alex Riley could also see time on the rubber.
Two of Eller’s top pitchers will remain on the field when they are not on the mound, as Harbach and Heller make up two-thirds of the Owls’ speedy outfield. Harbach will anchor the outfield after playing 39 games in centerfield as a freshman and posting a .977 fielding percentage, good enough for a spot on the MDJUCO and Region XX Gold Glove teams, while Heller and Riley, a transfer from Wesley College, will fill the right and left field spots.
“The first four games showed how great our outfield is,” Eller said. “We have three of the fastest guys on the team out there; no line drives should fall all season. All three can run under 6.8 [seconds in a 60-yard dash] and all three have great arms.”
Eller also expects two more members of his pitching staff, Labe and Taylor, to fill in as defensive replacements or when Heller and Harbach start on the mound, while redshirt freshman Matt Childress will also serve as a back-up outfielder.
At first base, Wolfe and Maxwell will split time on the bag, with whoever is not in the field serving as the designated hitter, while second base is a toss-up between Quinn, freshman redshirt Matt Logullo and Matthews.
“I’m a very offensive-minded coach,” Eller said. “I want guys to be able to hit, so that there are no holes in our lineup. I’m very confident in both Wolfe and Maxwell. They’re very good defensively, they know the game, and they’ll hit for us. Whoever is hitting and playing above par between Quinn, Logullo and Matthews will get the start.”
At shortstop, Eller returns sophomore Venezuelan native Willie Barnola, who saw 30 starts at the position in 2009, while Krider, who filled any infield spot as need last season, will anchor the defense at third base.
“Willie has a chance to be the best shortstop in the league,” the coach said. “He has the best range of everybody and the best arm. If he comes to play everyday, he will be the best in the MDJUCO conference.”
Sophomore Drew Burton is expected to play the role of the utility fielder, filling in anywhere in the infield or outfield, Loar could see some time at first, and both, along with Childress and Matthews, will join Maxwell and Wolfe in competition for the DH spot.
Behind the plate, Eller will count on Wlodarczyk to step up and catch on an everyday basis, with some time at third as well, while Maxwell could also see significant time with the mask. Newcomers Pat Liberatore and Jones are also expected to serve as back-up catchers.
“Woody [Wlodarczyk] is one of our strongest hitters and he has one of the strongest arms, not to mention he knows what we expect of him,” Eller said. “Maxwell came in as a catcher and we converted him to a first baseman, so we’re looking for him to catch some when we need him. Jones will also split some time and Pat [Liberatore] will be our defensive specialist when we need to get out of a jam. We know he won’t give up any passed balls and will be able to steal some strikes.”
Eller also expects to be able to steal some hits this season, with his opponents focusing in on Harbach, a First-Team All-Conference and All-Region selection in 2009 after hitting .413 with 18 doubles and 35 RBI.
“With everyone keying in on Joe [Harbach], other guys will see a lot more pitches and make some teams pay for it,” Eller said.
Maxwell, who got off to a slow start in 2009, but heated up at the end of the season (finishing with a .303 average) is in prime position to make some teams pay after leading Harford with four home runs in the Owls’ fall season. With nine of 15 players who had a home run last year returning to the active roster, Eller will have his share of power-hitters and one of the deepest lineups in the league.
“Every player we have in our lineup has a chance to compete for a big hit every time,” he said. “This is also the fastest team we’ve ever had, which will enable us to be a little bit more aggressive on the base paths, beat out infield singles and put more pressure on our opponents.”
Wlodarczyk, a .293 hitter in 2009 with three homers, already has two home runs this season from his first two chances at the plate and will look to continue his hot streak, while Barnola (.301 in 2009) and Krider (.280) round out the top returning hitters.
In his newcomers, Eller expects Riley, a switch-hitter, to make a huge mark in 2010, along with Wolfe.
“Riley can run and he squares up to balls all the time,” the coach said. “He’s going to be a huge part of our offense this year and Wolfe has a chance to hit 10-15 home runs this year. He has exceptional power, unbelievable bat speed and leverage with his height to really crank some balls out.”
THE FINAL WORD
After being denied a .500 season in 2009 after it was forced to vacate two victories due to a technicality, Harford is more than ready to improve on its 22-26 season from one year ago. Eller’s 2010 squad has heightened its expectations, partly due to the fact that the majority of the team from 2009, which fell short of its goal, is back for a second season. That fire has rubbed off on the newcomers and Harford as a team believes in itself.
“Every player on the team knows that we have a chance to be good,” Eller said. “With so many players that have experience at a higher-level, they know what to expect. One year later they’re smarter, they know what pitches to swing at, they know that if they make the routine play we can stay in the ballgame, the pitchers know if they throw strikes they’re going to get outs. We got rid of all the boneheaded mistakes from last year and everyone knows it.”
Eller and his team won’t be able to make too many mistakes if they want to reach their goal of the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the Region XX Tournament. The road will not be easy, though, as four of Harford’s opponents are ranked or received other votes in the NJCAA and Collegiate Baseball preseason polls, but that’s exactly how Eller likes it.
“We don’t have too many games that are guarantees,” he said, “but the tough competition is going to make us better. I would much rather play a hard schedule and at the end of the season we’re at our highest level, instead of playing powder-puff teams and cruising through, then getting to the playoffs and folding, not ready for top-notch competition. If we lose some close, tough ballgames, that just shows that we’re on the level of the top-tier teams and that’s where we want to be. If we can hang with them, then we’re going in the right direction.”
Harford’s next game is scheduled for Thursday, Mar. 11 when they travel to CCBC-Catonsville for a single nine-inning game that will serve as their conference season-opener and put them on the path to the Region XX Tournament from May 14-16.