WASHINGTON, D.C. – After a disappointing 2010 season, the Gallaudet University baseball team is ready to turn the page. As their new slogan - "New Year. New Team. Same Dream" - reflects, 2011 will be an opportunity to start fresh for the Buff and Blue. With a wealth of new talent and a renewed sense of optimism, the Bison are ready to put last season's 4-34 record behind them, as they look to make a splash in their first season in the North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC).
"The hardest thing for me last season was knowing we were a better team than we showed," said Gallaudet coach Curtis Pride, now in his third season. "We gave away a lot of our games due to sloppy plays, lack of pitching and bad attitude." That, he said, will not be the case this season; "We have better pitching and our defense has improved a lot. The players' attitude is a lot better and the guys are more committed to turning the program around," said Pride.
Gallaudet's only starting position player who bats left-handed, junior Ryan Hastings (Cherry Valley, Mass.), will be the team's first baseman when he is not on the mound. Last season on offense, Hastings led the team with a .397 on-base percentage, was tied for first with 20 runs scored and tied for second with 10 stolen bases. On defense, he led the team with 155 putouts, while contributing to 14 double plays turned. However, he also struck out 32 times (tied for first on the team) and posted a relatively mundane .263 slugging percentage. Coach Pride is confident that he will continue to get on base in 2011, but will look for Hastings to improve on his .211 batting average. "He needs to be more aggressive without losing his patience," said Pride. "He needs to find a balance."
Up the middle, the Bison will have a nice mix of experience and fresh talent with sophomore Tommy Barksdale (Brookeville, Md.) returning as the starting shortstop and freshman Jordan Walters (Anaheim, Calif.) taking over as the starting second baseman. Barksdale recorded a team-high 86 assists last season on defense but also racked up a team-leading 28 errors. Coach Pride acknowledged that defense was a weakness of last year's team, but he is confident it will be "much improved" this time around. Barksdale's .244 batting average is the highest of any returning starter, as he racked up 31 hits in 38 games last year. Walters will also see some time at first base when Hastings pitches, at which point senior Kyle Kuschmider (Olathe, Kan.) will likely fill in.
Freshman Chris Guinn (McLoud, Okla.) will start at third base for the Bison in 2011. Coach Pride described him as "a solid player with a strong arm and some pop in his bat." For a team that recorded one home run last year and lost much of its power with the departure of the academically ineligible Jeremy Shepps, Guinn could provide a major boost. In order to have a prosperous career, Pride thinks Guinn "needs to work on his footwork and improve his fielding range."
"He has the potential to be a solid player for the next four years," said Pride. In addition to the hot corner, Guinn will serve as an occasional starting pitcher and as the team's back-up catcher.
A former Major League Baseball outfielder, Pride feels a special connection to his outfield and takes satisfaction in their success. With junior William Chapman (Los Angeles, Calif.) slated to start in left field, senior Zane Noschese (Pittsburgh, Pa.) in center, redshirt freshman William Bissell (Brewer, Maine) in right, and sophomore Yuri Johnston (Greensboro, N.C.) expected to see significant time, Pride is excited about the group's prospects.
"We have the potential to be the best defensive outfield in the league. Zane is – no question – one of the best defensive centerfielders in the league and both [Bissell] and [Chapman]…have extremely strong arms," Pride said. Still, each will endure some unique challenges on their way to becoming a premier outfield. Bissell is looking to bounce back from a season-ending knee injury as he looks to recapture some of the magic that made him such a highly touted high school recruit. According to Pride, "he is 100 percent healthy and ready to showcase his unlimited potential." Noschese, on the other hand, is trying to bounce back from a subpar offensive season in 2010. "He batted .367 my first year, had an off-year last season but I am looking for him to rebound – to regain his old form from two years ago," said Pride. One thing is for certain; the group must play together in order to succeed. "The most important key is communication. They do not have a lot of experience playing with each other," said Pride.
The Bison will employ a four-man rotation this season with Hastings, Chapman, freshman Tyler Crace (Westfield, Ind.) and sophomore Layton Seeber (Champaign Ill.) getting the bulk of starts. Guinn and fellow freshman DJ Travaglini (Plaistow, N.H.) will start some games early in the season while Crace and Seeber finish out the basketball season. Out of the bullpen, Gallaudet will typically use two to three relievers throughout the season with Travaglini serving as the primary left-handed specialist, Bissell as the closer, and Guinn as a middle reliever when necessary. With so many pitchers also serving as primary position players, Pride acknowledges the potential hazards.
"It does create some unique challenges because we do not have a lot of depth," said Pride. "Ideally, I prefer specialization but we just have to be creative."
Perhaps the biggest addition to the team is heralded freshman Casey Hicks (Henderson, Nev.), who will have an immediate impact on offense, on defense and for the pitching staff. Said Pride of his knew catcher; "he is a great receiver, blocks well, and has a strong arm. I am excited because he is going to make a huge difference."
"He will give [Gallaudet] pitchers a lot of confidence because he not only blocks well but also calls a good game," said Pride. "He is probably going to be the best catcher in Gallaudet history."
The Bison baseball team will start the season on the road against Wesley on February 19, returning to Gallaudet for their home opener against Baptist Bible (Pa.) on February 26 followed by a doubleheader against Muhlenberg College to close out the month of February. An early-March road trip awaits and will include a welcomed March 5 match-up against Lancaster Bible College, a team the Buff and Blue swept last season. From March 11-18, they will head south to Orlando, Fla., for their annual Spring Break trip. GU's NEAC inaugural conference slate begins and ends at home, kicking-off with an April 2 game against SUNYIT and wrapping up three weeks later against Penn St.–Berks. The Bison will finish off the season with a non-conference home game against McDaniel on April 26, before the post-season NEAC tournament commences that weekend.
The team is looking forward to playing against national programs Christopher Newport University, Salisbury University and University of Mary Washington. "Those games will be a good test for us to see where we stand," said Pride.
As for playing in the NEAC for the first time, after 20 years in the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC), Pride says; "we are familiar with some of the NEAC teams having played them in the past two years." As other Bison teams have shown thus far, Gallaudet has been successful in its first-year in the NEAC. The baseball team is no different.
"We look forward to the challenge of reaching our goal this year which is winning the conference championship," said Pride.
Luckily for fans, Pride and the coaching staff is preaching an exciting brand of baseball for the upcoming season.
"Our philosophy is to throw first-pitch strikes. When you do, you will get the guy out 80 percent of the time; also, we want our pitchers to work fast. That way, we can keep our defense on their toes," said Pride.
On the base paths, look for the Bison to be extremely aggressive according to Pride; "I do not believe in never making the first or third out of an inning at third base. We are going to put pressure on the opposing defense and force them to make plays. We will put a tremendous amount of pressure on their pitchers, as well. They will be forced to throw more fastballs."
Pride knows that it will not be an easy journey but remains optimistic.
"It is okay to make mistakes," said Pride. "As long as the players are aggressive and smart, it is okay." Though their biggest weakness may be their relative inexperience, the team has a good core of players to build around, and they have the right attitude to begin building a winning culture.
"The team wants to win, and they know how to play the game the right way. I really believe that we are really going to surprise a lot of teams this season with our competitiveness and talents," said Pride.