SAINT LEO, Fla. – As second-year Head Coach Russ McNickle sits down to talk about his 2010 baseball team, he pulls out a piece of paper with a layout of a baseball field on it. On the ‘field’ some names are colored in black while some are colored green. The green, as Coach McNickle says, indicates newcomers to this year’s team, and the one thing you realize when looking at this piece of paper – there are a whole lot of new faces that will be stepping on the Southard Stadium diamond this season.
In fact, 19 ‘green’ players joined the Lions in the off-season, providing an entirely new look to the Saint Leo baseball team as they head into the upcoming season. As Coach McNickle mentions, this year’s team will have a very young look with 15 freshmen joining the squad, almost twice as many as any other class. Despite the inexperience at the collegiate level, the freshmen carry themselves with a tremendous amount of confidence and are a very teachable group, traits that they take from their senior leadership.
Despite the rookie-laden roster, the Lions will still look toward a solid group of seniors, all of whom play a major role on the team. All seven seniors return from a team that finished 22-34 overall in the coaching staff’s first year, but inside that schedule saw two eight-game winless streaks. Subtract those losses and the Lions were looking at a 22-18 record. McNickle feels that, with the leadership that developed having to fight through a year like the 2009 season, along with the Division I mentality that is beginning to overtake the team, the difference in attitude and approach is night-and-day with this squad compared to last year.
A point that is mentioned frequently involves helping the team develop the business-like focus that he was accustomed to as an assistant coach at Mississippi State. Referred to as ‘the Division I mentality,’ the Lions’ coaching staff sees the team becoming more focused and getting down to business every time they take the field. A lot of that can be attributed to newcomer Ryan Powers, whom Coach McNickle recruited to Mississippi State. Entering his junior season, Powers decided to reunite with his former coach as the Beacon, NY native left Starkville and transferred to Saint Leo. Despite his junior standing, the infielder brings the experience he learned while with the Bulldogs, serving almost as a mentor to his teammates on how their approach should be.
Looking toward the season, the most reassuring thing for McNickle is that every player on this year’s team will be a crucial part in the squad’s success as a whole. There are no ‘warm bodies’ or people who have no reason to be in the dugout. Everyone will have a role and ultimately, these combined pieces will result in a winner.
The most vulnerable part of the Lions during the 2009 season was in the pitching staff. Combined, the Lions posted a 7.21 earned run average and gave up over 11 hits per game. It was a factor that McNickle, along with assistant pitching coach Justin Pigott, were looking to completely overhaul.
Gone are 11 players from the staff, while five of the seven returners’ names sit atop the pitching charts as they finished with the lowest ERA last season. Those empty spots will be replaced with seven freshmen, sophomore Corey Marcus and junior Marshall Stalvey. A native of Florida and coming over to SLU after a successful junior college career at St. Johns River Community College, Stalvey looks to jump into the starting rotation and be a workhorse for this year’s pitching staff. A returner who surprised the coaching staff in the fall was junior Matt Smith, who went 5-5 in 16 appearances last season. With 46.2 innings under his belt in 2009, Smith made a serious effort to improve himself during the offseason. Traveling to Danville, Illinois, the Land O’Lakes, Fla. native regularly faced Division I batters in the Prospect League, which helped him to improve his performance on the mound. In the starting rotation to begin the season, Smith will look to transfer what he learned over the summer into his performance on the hill.
As far as the familiar faces from last year’s lineup who return to the rotation this year, the Lions will look to see how 11-game starter Aaron Brandt recovers from an injury suffered during the fall while the senior-heavy staff with Jeff Bloomer, Seth Fowler and Caleb Fuddy looks toward this season with more defined roles, despite the new faces.
As opposed to last year, where it seemed that the coaching staff was experimenting with the rotation and relief on a regular basis; this year, the Lions look to have a set plan as they also lean on freshmen Austin Buck and Henry Johnson.
Saint Leo is fortunate when it comes to the field general as the Lions return their two main catchers from the 2009 season in seniors Jason Hamm and Jovanni Fiallo. Although Hamm will take the main role this season, both will be leaned upon heavily as the Lions play in 14 doubleheaders this season.
For Hamm, again the mainstay in 2010, the Tampa, Fla. native saw time behind the plate in 45 games last year. Holding a season average at .316 in 136 at-bats he popped three homers and seven doubles while notching 19 RBI. On the defensive side, he only committed seven errors in 275 chances while runners held a .783 stolen base percentage on him.
Looking to relieve Hamm will be Tampa, Fla. native and Alabama State transfer Jovanni Fiallo. In his first year with the Lions, Fiallo played in 29 games while he was behind the plate in 22 of them.
Despite the sudden and unexpected loss of JD Cook to a career-ending injury during the off-season, Saint Leo looks toward much more depth at its infield positions than it has had in some time. The addition of Powers, a career .257 hitter in the SEC, at shortstop to replace graduated senior Bobby Munoz is a big improvement. Plus, the maturity he brings to the middle of the infield is a much-needed catalyst to help anchor a revamped group.
Aside from losing Cook at second and Aaron McLamar at third, the Lions new roster has nine potential infielders with J.C Suarez remaining at first base as the only returner. Playing in a utility position last season, Suarez hit .319 in 38 games before suffering a season ending injury at the end of April. The other two bags are still up for grabs as the Lions will have depth, but inexperience at those positions with freshman looking to grab the starting roles.
With as much change as the infield is seeing, the exact opposite can be said of the Saint Leo outfield as the Lions return a conference Freshman of the Year and a speedy senior to their lineup. Leading Saint Leo in hitting last season, Dustin Brown claimed the Sunshine State Conference’s top freshman honor as he hit .357 in 51 games and is the only one of the Lions’ three RBI-titleholders to return to the lineup this season. Camped out in right field from the start of the season, Brown will look to shake off the sophomore slump that has affected the two previous SSC freshmen from Saint Leo with another impressive season.
Senior Eugene Garnett Jr. returns to left field as he started in nearly every game last season a carried a .316 average in the sixth spot in the Lions’ order.
In center, the Lions will replace Kyle Hobbs with Hillsborough Community College transfer Ware Hart as the 6’3” righty will be tasked with replacing SLU’s home run and doubles leader from 2009.
Coach McNickle is still unsure of how the 2010 Lions will look at the plate. A bit of a ‘Heintz 57’ variety, SLU will not be known as the overpowering team of a year ago.
Last year, the approach by much of the lineup was to try and muscle the ball out of the park as Saint Leo hit over 60 home runs and was second in the conference in triples during 2009. The shift to a more speedy approach is what fans will see on the Southard Stadium diamond as the Lions will look to put more runners on base and use the ‘small-ball’ approach and pressure defenses in to mental mistakes and errors score runs.
As McNickle begins his second-season at the helm of the Lions, he feels fortunate to have every coach from his rookie season back beside him the year. In something that is somewhat rare in the Division II ranks, the Lions’ entire coaching staff returns for another season – something that the Saint Leo skipper feels is a necessity when you are trying to rebuild a program. Proof of that theory came in the fall when the Lions received four Letters of Intent for 2011, something that shows the program is headed in the right direction.
COACH McNICKLE’S KEYS FOR 2010
The key to the season, Coach McNickle feels, lies in two places – the season’s start, where he references last year’s 0-8 initiation into Division II baseball; and also with a quote he has shared with all 33 of his players – “Don't trade want you want most for what you want at the moment.” McNickle knows that it will take a lot of effort and commitment on his guys’ part, but a group that has posted the program’s highest GPA ever during the last reporting period and one that shows up early and stays late to all practice has him excited, and confident heading into the 2010.