SALISBURY, Md. – Coming off a trip to the NCAA tournament south regional championship game, the Salisbury University baseball team is looking to get back to the NCAA College World Series for the second time in three seasons and fourth overall in 2013.
The Sea Gulls, who finished last season 34-9 overall and 15-3 in the Capital Athletic Conference, faced elimination after falling to Shenandoah University, 6-1, in the second game of tournament. But Salisbury topped Messiah College, 9-3, setting up a rematch with the Hornets, which proved to be one of the best games of the year. Then-senior right-hander Jeff Hoffman went 12 1/3 innings on the mound before Johnny Schiotis crossed the plate in the 14th inning to give SU a 2-1 win.
"We were in a great situation there at the regional last year," said 13th-year Head Coach Doug Fleetwood. "We thought when we won the 14-inning game on Friday night and then Shenandoah and Christopher Newport had to play an elimination game before the championship game, then we kind of just sat and waited and we thought, 'what a great opportunity for us?'"
But, after the host Captains moved on with a victory over Shenandoah, they dispatched Salisbury, 12-3, to end the Sea Gulls' season.
"We were disappointed last year," said Fleetwood. "We thought after the year before, at the World Series, we thought that we had the kind of team that could go back and when we got called on, we didn't perform.
"So, it's back to the drawing board and go again."
With nine starters and 22 letterwinners returning, that's exactly what Salisbury – ranked No. 9 in the D3baseball.com preseason top 25 – will do.
Levy, an All-CAC first team selection last season, had a breakout year in 2012, going 8-2 with a 3.31 ERA in 89 2/3 innings, four complete games and one shutout. He was named to the D3baseball.com All-South Region Second Team after leading the league in wins and starts (14). He finished second in the CAC in innings pitched and seventh in strikeouts (49).
"He's our number one, our leader, he's a great young man and a great worker," said Fleetwood. "One of the things we tell our kids all the time is you want your leaders to be your hardest workers and he fits that category. So, we think he'll have a great year for us and be a great leader and show these younger kids the way."
Collacchi enjoyed a stellar freshman campaign last season with a 6-0 record and a team-leading 2.56 ERA in 10 games. He pitched 45 2/3 innings, allowing 41 hits and 14 runs (13 earned). He struck out 29 and walked 15. Collacchi threw the first five innings of a shutout win against the Apprentice School on March 7 and had a complete-game win against Messiah in the NCAA regional in his first game back from injury in more than a month.
"He had a little bit of shoulder tendonitis and kind of got shutdown a little bit there in the middle of last year," Fleetwood said. "But he actually came back and threw in the regionals and did some good things. He's a very talented young man. He'll go as a far as his work ethic takes him, and if he works hard, he could be really successful."
"Dan is one of the kids who did some nice things for us out of the bullpen last year; we're looking at him," said Fleetwood. "We think Connor Shockley, a true freshman left-hander, could be a kid that could be in the rotation. Danny Druzgala could be that guy, but we think Danny's maybe more important to us in the back end of the bullpen somewhere because he's the kind of kid who can throw several times a week for you – he's very resilient – so he could be that guy, but at the same time, he may be the guy who means more to us in the other positions.
"Dylan Anderson is another guy who could fit into that role," Fleetwood continued. "He's got some great stuff and if he hits spots, he could be very effective."
Fein was 1-0 with a 3.68 ERA in 11 games out of the bullpen last season, while Anderson made four appearances on the year. Shockley was a two-time All-Bayside Conference lefty at James M. Bennett High School, helping the Clippers to two state championships.
Whether Druzgala is a starter or reliever, he will be a weapon. He was 5-1 with a 1.50 ERA in 19 games and 30 innings in his first season for the Sea Gulls. He struck out 20 and walked six while picking up a pair of saves.
Sophomore righty Kyle Hamby will close games for SU this season after appearing in eight games and compiling a 3.68 ERA last year. He fanned nine and walked one as a freshman. Hamby is also a standout punter on the Salisbury football team, and earned Empire 8 Special Teams Player of the Year, among other honors.
The rest of the bullpen spots are open.
"We're looking at guys like the starters we talked about who don't end up being in the top three, we look at guys like Max Shannon, a left-handed sophomore, and we're going to try to work the freshmen in easy and see where they get."
Shannon got into four games as a freshman last year before going down with a season-ending injury.
"I think we've got some good young freshmen arms," Fleetwood added, "we like what we see there, but they're still freshmen, and you've got to take them one step at a time. But, I think there's the ability here, if we can stay healthy, to have a pretty good group here by the time we get to May."
Salisbury will see a new backstop as 2012 All-CAC first-team honoree Tyler Bennett has graduated and Fleetwood will be looking for a fresh face to step up and take that role.
Bennett was also named to the ABCA All-South Region Third Team and D3Baseball.com All-South Region Second Team after hitting .346 with 14 doubles, four home runs and 40 RBIs as a senior.
"Right now, we probably have two guys who are battling it out, Austin Barefoot is a sophomore who we think has got a lot of potential for us, and then a junior, Matt Cuervo, who's a transfer from Gloucester County College," said Fleetwood. "He's a good player; he's got a lot of talent. We've had a lot of success out of that program."
Cuervo looks to get the bulk of the time behind the plate. He helped the Roadrunners to the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III national championship in 2010 and a regional championship in 2011.
Barefoot didn't see game action as a freshman at SU last year.
Taking over full-time at first base in 2013 is junior Quinn Griffith, who hit .309 with 43 hits, 25 runs scored, seven doubles and 27 RBIs. He also led the team with eight sacrifice bunts.
"I think he's a guy who's going to hit in the middle of our lineup and a guy who we going to count on heavily, I can tell you," Fleetwood said. "He's a real good baseball player and just a really hard-working kid. I think he is our best overall position guy, I really do."
The double-play tandem of juniors Schiotis at second and Ken O'Neill at shortstop are back. The coaching staff is looking for more stability from the pair, who are starting for the third straight season. Schiotis' numbers dipped last year, hitting .232 in 125 at-bats with 32 runs and 15 RBIs last season after hitting .318 with seven doubles, three homers and 26 RBIs as a freshman.
O'Neill batted .326 with 46 hits, 28 runs, nine doubles, two triples and two home runs, while knocking in 31, but struggled in the field, committing 23 errors.
"Probably neither one of them was as consistent last year as we had hoped for, so the consistency is a big key out of both of them," said Fleetwood. "Maybe offensive consistency out of Johnny, defensive consistency out of Kenny, but both of them have just a wealth of talent. If they can perform up to their abilities, they can both be high-level players."
Playing third this season will be sophomore Bobby Sanzone, who saw limited action a year ago, appearing in 10 games with seven starts.
"It looks like Bobby Sanzone, right now, is leading the group at third base. Probably the best arm on our infield and he's a pretty talented young man," said Fleetwood.
Center fielder Bill Root returns for his junior season batting .351 (61-for-174) with 42 runs scored and 26 RBIs. He started 41-of-42 games, leading the team in hits, runs and stolen bases (22). Root had 22 multiple-hit games and collected a hit in a team-leading 21 consecutive games from March 11, against Frostburg State University, to April 28, versus Stevenson University, batting .446 in the stretch. He was named to the ABCA All-South Region Second Team, to the D3baseball.com All-South Region Second Team and All-CAC First Team.
Sophomore Kyle Hayman is back to patrol right field after starting 26-of-33 games he played in last year. Hayman led the team, hitting .391 and was second in on-base percentage (.456) and fourth in slugging percentage (.467). He reached base in 13 consecutive games from April 9, versus Messiah, through May 18, also against the Falcons in the NCAA tournament.
Senior Nick Gentry claimed regular left-field duties near the end of 2012 and ran with it. He batted .287 in 31 games and 21 starts with 25 hits and 24 runs. He knocked in 17 runs, while leading the team with three triples.
"Root and Hayman are kind of staples there, and both of them have outstanding speed and have played very well for us," Fleetwood said. "I think Nick Gentry is a guy who has done some good things as a senior – really the only senior we've got out there – and I think he'll be the guy who gets some looks. And, there will be some other guys who will get some looks there, as well.
"I think you could see, whether it's in the outfield or in a DH role, Danny Breen is looking really good so far, so there are several guys there, but those are the top three."
Breen, a sophomore, got a single in his only at-bat of the season against Catholic University of America on April 4. Junior Joey Jones, who hit .360 with 10 doubles last year, could join him as an extra outfielder or designated hitter.
Salisbury opens the season against Virginia Wesleyan College on Feb. 12 at the SU Baseball Field and will play 18 of its first 20 games at home. The Sea Gulls will take on two teams in the D3baseball.com preseason poll in the fourth-ranked State University of New York at Cortland and No. 8 CNU.
SU hosts the Red Dragons in a three-game series Feb. 23-24 at home, while CNU and SU will play a pair. The Captains host the Gulls March 6 before traveling to Salisbury on March 12.
Salisbury also travels to Johns Hopkins University on April 29, to meet the always-tough Blue Jays.
"It's a good one, as usual," Fleetwood said of the 39-game regular-season slate. "We're going to play a bunch of teams in the top 10 in the country, and who knows how many more by the time it's all over? But you're talking right off the bat with Cortland, a three-game series and you're going to have Christopher Newport a couple times early in the season, who are actually both in front of us in the poll. Hopkins is always going to be there, so you have those guys. And then, you have the conference situation."
The Gulls open CAC play on March 16-17 at home against York (Pa.) College.
"Our conference every year has been a battle, and you play somebody three times in a weekend. It's tough to win three, it's tough to do. So, it's going to be very competitive. And we're going to have to be extremely focused and have to prepare well, and if we do those things, then we have the ability to be very successful."