SALISBURY, Md. – The No. 18 Salisbury University baseball team has been anxiously waiting almost nine months to return to the field and begin the 2018 season for a variety of reasons. That wait will finally end when it opens up the 2018 season – and a brand new stadium – on Saturday, February 10 against Gwynedd Mercy University.
Last season, Head Coach Troy Brohawn helped lead the Sea Gulls back to the NCAA regionals. The 2017 squad had an impressive year, finishing with a 35-11 record overall, and ranking as high as No. 9 nationally, but fell just short of its goal of returning to the World Series with a 13-6 loss to Roanoke College. That loss stung, but should no doubt prove a great motivator for the coaching staff and returning players.
"Last year we were 11 outs away from getting back to the World Series", said Brohawn. "We were tied with one out in the sixth and we didn't handle our business."
When asked whether or not the expectations have changed this year, the answer was obvious:
"Our goals are the same ones we always set," said Brohawn. "Obviously, we want to win the CAC first. If we do that, we get back in to the regionals. And then obviously we want to get back to the World Series and play on the last day. We've been there five times, but we haven't played on the last day."
The goals are lofty, but not unexpected nor unreasonable with such a talented squad loaded with returning starters. However, Brohawn emphasized that the team understands there are steps that must be completed prior to reaching its ultimate goal.
"We had Dean in right last year and Canavan in left," said Brohawn. "Both are tremendous athletes. Meekins roamed center field all last year. He's a high-energy guy and extremely athletic."
Dean is also expected to soak up a few innings on the mound for the maroon and gold this season, which will open the door for other fielders to find plenty of opportunities to play the field.
"We have Jake Terry who's in the mix for playing time", said Brohawn. "We have Brad Haas who's in the mix. Dillon Waters is in the mix. And then we have a football player, Joe Doherty, who came over. Brad Keith is another one. There's quite a few outfielder who are out there."
Three of the four primary infielders from last season return to man their positions in 2018.
Jack Barry — who led the Capital Athletic Conference with 12 home runs in 2017 — will hold down third base the majority of the time.
"Jack brings it every day," said Brohawn. "He's selfless and a great young man. We're looking for him to step up again for us this season."
Barry is also likely to see some time as a relief pitcher this season.
"Scott is an extremely valuable guy to have in the middle out there," Brohawn said. "When a ball goes his way, it's usually an out."
Ardoin had 221 total fielding chances in 2017, making only five errors and recording a .977 save percentage.
As for second base, a void has been left after the graduation of All-American Pete Grasso. Grasso earned national recognition as a pitcher, but was also the team's primary starter at second when not getting the nod. A player of that caliber is never easy to replace, but Brohawn is confident in the players he has this year that can step in and compete for the spot.
"We have a transfer, Jimmy Adkins, coming in," Brohawn said. "He's a good middle infielder. Ron Villone is kind of our hybrid guy. He can play anywhere for you, whether he's starting or coming in later in games."
The role of catcher has the biggest question mark attached to it this season. The void is left following the graduation of First-Team All-CAC player Tom Labriola. Brohawn has some options to go to on the team, but currently a front runner has yet to be identified.
"Everybody has a different strength," Brohawn said. "We've got three juniors and a sophomore, but they're all young, playing-wise. None of the guys have yet to have much big-game experience."
When asked what he'll be looking for from his catchers to start the season, Brohawn was clear which tool he wants to see displayed.
"I'll go with the defensive catcher," Brohawn said. "I'll take 722 strikeouts in a season. I don't care. We need someone who receives, blocks, and throws. That is our priority. We can teach you how to hit, but we need someone who is steady behind the plate and can be reliable."
The starting rotation will also be moving on from a one-two-three punch in Grasso, Jeff Oster, and Micah Wells, which Brohawn believes was the best in the program's history. But he's also very confident in the guys he has to fill such big voids.
"Replacing those guys will be tough," Brohawn said, "But we went out and got some transfers to come in. We've got some young guys who have really developed, so they will be counted on a lot more this year."
Specifically, those players are Austin Heenan, Wes Whitlock, and transfer Connor Reeves. The season will begin with those three as the primary rotation, with hybrid outfielder/pitcher Dean getting some starts later in the season when the schedule begins to become more condensed.
As for the bullpen, Brohawn admits there was a bit of a drop-off behind their three starters, but feels those issues have been addressed through additions and growth.
"We've got a mix of some guys with experience coming out of the bullpen, as well as some guys who are young and hungry and ready to prove themselves," Brohawn said. "It's probably the best depth we've had."
Brohawn mentions a number of players he expects to have important roles out of the bullpen. They include the previously mentioned Barry, Dean, and Reeves, as well as Andrew Kramer, Brady Thomas, Brian Tribbett, and Aj Korczynski. Caleb Johnson, coming off an injury from 2017, rounds out the bullpen.
One thing worth noting is the number of two-way players on the roster this season that will split between pitching and playing other positions.
"We've got four or five guys this year that can do that," said Brohawn. "I've always had this philosophy that I've wanted to do as far as how to use a pitching staff. This year we have the depth, not only pitching-wise, but also position player-wise, that if we brought in a right fielder or third baseman or second baseman to pitch, we won't lose anything defensively with the backup going in."
As per usual, Salisbury will play a strong out-of-conference schedule to begin the season that includes four teams currently ranked in the top 25 nationally before shifting to Capital Athletic Conference play.
Included on the slate are No. 1 State University of New York at Cortland, No. 8 Johns Hopkins University, No. 11 Oswego State University, and No. 13 Keystone College.
"We open up the stadium with Gwynedd Mercy, and they play us tough every year," Brohawn said. "It's no slouch early. I firmly believe that playing a tough schedule early will prepare us for later.
"Then we get into conference and conference is always tough."
The team will open up its season – as well as its brand new ballpark – this Saturday, February 10 against Gwynedd Mercy. First pitch is scheduled for 12 p.m. with an official pregame stadium opening ceremony set to begin at 11:45 a.m.