Feb. 12, 2013
After winning its sixth Patriot League tournament title last spring, the Army baseball program looks to reload again this season and challenge for back-to-back championships in 2013. The Black Knights steamrolled the Patriot League during the regular season last year en route to an 18-2 conference record. The 18 league wins established a Patriot League standard and delivered Army its fourth regular-season title in the last five years. The Black Knights, who advanced to their fifth NCAA Regional in school history after defeating Holy Cross in the Patriot League Championship Series, won a school-record 41 games in 2012. Army swept Navy in Annapolis, produced three All-Americans, collected all four of the Patriot League's major awards and eclipsed 45 Academy records during one of the most successful seasons in school history.
With several key pieces from the 2012 squad returning to the fold this spring, the expectations remain high for the 2013 Black Knights. Army head coach Joe Sottolano's goals before every season include winning the Patriot League regular-season title, capturing the conference tournament crown and winning in the NCAA Regionals. With a talented roster, which includes six-time All-American Chris Rowley on the mound and Freshmen All-American Harold Earls near the top of the batting order, the bar is set high for this year's club.
"The goals of the program remain the same," said Sottolano. "I think the young players we have are good baseball players, and it is our job to put ourselves in a position to win the Patriot League Championship. The biggest thing is to get into the conference tournament, and then we will take it day by day.
"We are athletic enough to accomplish what we want to this season," added Sottolano. "Obviously, we know we are young in a lot of areas and we're not as physical because of our youth, but we have good size, and the strength will come as guys develop."
One of the Patriot League's preeminent programs, Army has captured seven regular-season Patriot League titles and six Patriot League tournament crowns since joining the circuit in 1993. Six of those regular-season championships have come in the last nine years, a span that has seen the Black Knights earn eight trips to the league's season-ending tournament. Army has also sent 10 players to the minor leagues over the last decade, more than any other Patriot League program during that time.
Sottolano, the program's all-time winningest coach with 362 career victories, has guided Army to the NCAAs five times since taking over the reins of the program 14 years ago. The Black Knights have won at least 30 games five times since 2004 and advanced to the NCAA Regionals four times during that stretch.
"The program, over the last several years, has consistently won championships and competed for championships," said Sottolano. "The culture within our program is strong, and our captains and seniors have done a great job maintaining that culture. This is a very hungry group, and they believe they can win a championship. We need to understand the team we are and what we have to do in order to be successful. We will build on the things we know that we can do well, and make sure we do them as well as we can."
In order to maintain the championship form that has become the norm in 2013, Army must replace four starting position players and one of its top starting pitchers. The Black Knights lost All-Patriot League performers J.T. Watkins, Kevin McKague, Cody Murtle, Zach Price and Logan Lee to graduation last spring. All five players played vital roles in the Black Knights capturing the 2012 Patriot League title.
Watkins was a four-year starter at catcher and a two-time all-conference pick. Despite missing 10 games due to injury midway through last season, he batted .316 with five home runs and nine doubles en route to first-team all-league honors. Watkins also excelled defensively behind the plate, and brought tremendous leadership to the team. He will be sorely missed in 2013.
McKague was named the Patriot League Player of the Year in 2012 after leading the conference with a .379 batting average. The first baseman, who graduated as Army's all-time leader in base hits (283), smashed 16 doubles and five home runs last spring. He also led the Black Knights with 45 RBI.
Murtle collected All-Patriot League honors for the first time in his career last season as the right fielder produced some outstanding power numbers with five homers, eight doubles and 41 RBI.
A four-year starter at second base, Price batted .324 with eight doubles, three triples and 20 stolen bases last spring. He also excelled defensively, earning a Rawlings Gold Glove after committing just one error and finishing with a sparkling .996 fielding percentage. Price collected Patriot League Scholar-Athlete of the Year plaudits and was named an Academic All-American after the season.
Lee posted an 8-2 record with four shutouts and a 3.13 earned run average. The crafty lefty etched his name into the Army record books when he tossed the fourth no-hitter in school history versus Bucknell late in the season.
Despite the significant losses, Army welcomes back several key contributors to last season's squad. Sottolano and his coaching staff have also assembled a deep and talented 15-member freshman class, and several of those new faces will be called upon immediately.
"The Academy is a place built on leadership, and we expect others to step up to fill the void created by the graduation of last year's seniors," said Sottolano. "I think we will always have good leaders within our program; that's what the Academy builds. I look at it as an opportunity for people to take the lead role and build on what our previous players have already built."
Senior Andrew Johnson and junior Gunnar Carroll will serve as the team's co-captains this season. Johnson saw time last season both at both catcher and designated hitter, while Carroll emerged as one of the top closers in the Patriot League with a 2.48 ERA and eight saves in 22 appearances.
"Andrew is a pretty optimistic individual, and people respect how hard he works and how dedicated he is to each and every member of the team," said Sottolano. "He's a strong-hearted person who truly cares about his teammates.
"Gunnar is the same way; he's an extremely hard worker and disciplined," mentioned Sottolano. "He's a hard-nosed individual who holds himself accountable as well as others. Both men have great leadership qualities, but lead in different ways. They complement each other very well."
Sottolano acknowledges the Black Knights will be young in certain areas offensively, but he sees versatility as a potential strength for the club.
"I think we will have great versatility within the lineup this season," said Sottolano. "I don't think you're going to see those typical 3-4-5 hitters in the middle of our lineup, but you will see a steady lineup.
"I believe our lineup will compete up and down the order, and be able to do the things that are necessary to play offense and produce runs, rather than just hit. Putting together consistent approaches at the plate is going to be key. Everyone in the lineup is going to have to be steady. We are going to have to be a team that plays offense really well and finds ways to produce runs."
Earls, who batted .341 last year en route to earning Patriot League Rookie of the Year honors, figures to remain one of the catalysts to Army's offense again in 2013. Sophomores Daniel Cortes and Alex Jensen also figure to play important roles this season after enjoying solid freshman campaigns a year ago.
Rowley, who led the Patriot League with 11 wins and ranked second in the conference with a 2.40 ERA last season, returns as the unquestioned ace of the pitching staff. The six-time All-American will look to maintain the form that helped him win Patriot League Pitcher of the Year accolades in 2012.
He will be joined in the rotation by sophomore Alex Robinett, who broke onto the collegiate scene with a steady freshman campaign last spring. The other two spots in Army's weekend rotation are up for grabs heading into the preseason. Carroll, who has started games in the past for the Black Knights, could serve in that role, though that has not been determined. A host of talented pitchers, including several underclassmen, will also vie for a coveted spot in the four-man weekend rotation.
Army's bullpen will be anchored by Carroll, should the junior righty return to the closer's role. Freshman Justin French has been pegged by the coaching staff as the closer of the future, and he could emerge as early as this season if Carroll becomes a starter. Several other talented pitchers will round out the relief corps.
The Black Knights won the Patriot League title last season as a fairly young group, and there is no doubt that this year's squad, while still young, is talented enough to claim back-to-back championships for the first time since 2004-05. The ability of the team to come together and play consistently will ultimately determine its ability to be successful on the field as the 2013 season unfolds.
Army opens the season with a three-game series at UNC Greensboro during the weekend of Feb. 15-17. The Black Knights then travel to Rock Hill, S.C., to compete at the Coca-Cola Classic. Army will face Eastern Kentucky, host Winthrop and Delaware State during the three-day event (Feb. 22-24). Army takes to the road for a third straight weekend (March 1-3) when the Black Knights make the trek to Lynchburg, Va., to take part in the Liberty Invitational Tournament. Two games versus host Liberty are sandwiched around a matchup against Siena.
The trip to Virginia marks Army's finale tune-up before traveling to Florida for its annual spring break trip. Army's first test in the Sunshine State will be a three-game series versus Yale. The Black Knights also have games scheduled against Indiana, Miami (Ohio), North Dakota State and Dartmouth.
The Black Knights return to West Point on March 20 for a midweek contest versus Quinnipiac. Army then welcomes New York Tech and Columbia to Doubleday Field on March 23, before traveling to face NYIT the next day. The next weekend kicks off with an exhibition game versus the New York Yankees on March 30. The Black Knights and Bronx Bombers have squared off 21 times, but the two historic institutions have not met since 1976. The busy weekend continues for Army the next two days (March 31-April 1) as the Black Knights open their Patriot League slate with a four-game series versus arch-rival Navy.
The Black Knights then take to the road for their next three Patriot League weekends, traveling to Pennsylvania to face Lehigh (April 6-7), Lafayette (April 13-14) and Bucknell (April 20-21). Army closes out conference play at home against Holy Cross (April 27-28) in a rematch of last season's Patriot League Championship Series. The Black Knights' midweek schedule during the month of April is highlighted by the eighth annual Hudson Valley Baseball Classic versus Marist on April 24.
Army's season wraps up with single games against New York Tech (May 1), Hartford (May 2), Nyack (May 4) and Chestnut Hill (May 5).
The Patriot League Tournament is scheduled to be played over two weekends with the semifinal round slated for May 11-12, and the Championship Series set for May 18-19. The NCAA Regionals will be contested May 31-June 3.
"We have another very difficult schedule," said Sottolano. "We are going to play some good ballclubs and some very talented teams that are going to be very physical. The teams we are going to face are probably going to be more physical just based on the sheer fact that they are older. That's okay; you don't need to win games by being more physical. We like the fact that we're playing good ballclubs, because we're going to learn a lot. We have to view every game as a test and an opportunity to learn more and to get better. We need to play as much as we can play, we need to learn as we're playing and keep making the adjustments as necessary so that we're playing our best baseball by the time we get to the conference season. If we can be resilient, I think you will see a team that grows and mature throughout the course of the season."
Army will have to replace two starters on the infield following the graduation of All-Patriot League performers Kevin McKague (1B) and Zach Price (2B). Both players earned a slew of accolades last spring with McKague collecting Patriot League Player of the Year honors and Price earning Academic All-America laurels. Their departure leaves a huge void on the right side of the infield, as the duo combined to produce 32 extra-base hits, 89 runs scored and 70 RBI. Both players were also outstanding defenders with McKague posting a .997 fielding percentage and Price a .996 en route to earning the program's first-ever Rawlings Gold Glove.
"Pitching and defense wins championships, there is no question about that," said Sottolano. "The ability to pick up the baseball allows our pitching staff to relax and stay composed. I think our group of infielders is athletic enough and talented enough to perform very well defensively, and that is imperative at this level."
Sophomore Harold Earls, who was named Patriot League Rookie of the Year and earned Freshmen All-America honors as a third baseman in 2012, has moved over to second base to fill that spot. The offensively-gifted Earls batted .341 with eight doubles, 27 runs scored, 21 RBI and 23 stolen bases in 54 games a season ago.
"Harold is a talented infielder, who played very well for us last season and picked up where he left off during the fall," said Sottolano. "Harold has excellent range, a strong arm and good hands. Coach (Matt) Reid has done a great job developing Harold into a good infielder. I think, once he learns the position, he could turn into a force and become an outstanding second baseman for us."
Sottolano envisions Earls remaining a fixture near the top of the batting order after hitting out of the two-hole for most of last season. Freshman Justin Reece will serve as Earls' backup at second base.
Sophomore Alex Jensen, who was one of just two Army players (Price was the other) to start all 56 games for the Black Knights in 2012, will return to his familiar role at shortstop this season. Jensen batted .264 with seven doubles, 23 RBI and 22 runs scored as a freshman.
"Alex is a tough, hard-nosed ball player," said Sottolano. "He is the kind of player you want in your program. He has gotten better defensively at shortstop, and we're excited to having him solidify that position for us."
Jensen will be backed up by freshman Garrison Franklin, who brings consistent defense to the team.
Freshman Grant Van Orden has been penciled in as Army's starter at third base. The New Jersey native is polished defensively and continues to improve offensively.
"Grant is a real talented third baseman," said Sottolano. "He is a plus infielder with great instincts for the game. Grant is a complete ball player. Defensively, he has very good hands, good range and a strong arm. Offensively, he works hard to improve each day."
Junior Patrick Mescher, who appeared in 21 games with five starts last year, will compete with freshman Ryan Levenhagen for the starting role at first base. Mescher, who stands at well over six feet tall, has power potential.
"Patrick is a big, strong and physical young man," said Sottolano. "He fields his position real well, and we believe he can become a complete ball player for us if he makes the jumps we think he can make.
"Ryan is a talented freshman who will have a pretty good career, offensively, once he fills out," added Sottolano. "He is developing defensively each and every day. I think Ryan will become a complete player once he logs some innings and matures a little bit."
Fellow freshman Brock Davidson also figures to see some time at first base when he's not on the pitching mound.
Army will need to replace one of its starting outfielders this season after losing All-Patriot League performer Cody Murtle to graduation. Murtle batted just .241 last season, but the right fielder smacked four home runs, eight doubles and drove in 41 runs, and his production will need to be replaced.
The Black Knights return sophomores Daniel Cortes and Dakari Cooke, who saw significant playing time as freshmen last season.
Cortes was Army's primary option in left field, starting 54 games in 2012. He played a key role in setting the table for Army's offense last year, establishing an Academy single-season record with 40 walks as a freshman. Cortes also ranked among the team leaders with 15 stolen bases, 11 sacrifice bunts and five sacrifice flies. The scrappy outfielder batted .273 with five doubles, 45 runs scored and 23 RBI. Cortes also played well defensively, handling 59 chances flawlessly in left field.
"Daniel will certainly see time in the outfield, whether that's in left field or center," said Sottolano. "He is a real good leadoff hitter who continues to develop defensively."
Cooke, meanwhile, split time in center field with Matthew Carter last season. The athletic outfield prospect appeared in 23 games with 15 starts. He batted .264 with a pair of doubles, nine runs scored and five RBI. Cooke was also 5-for-6 on stolen base attempts, and was perfect in the field.
"Dakari is really starting to understand things, and he has a great deal of potential moving forward," commented Sottolano.
Senior Michael Sands has gotten better over the offseason and could claim the starting spot in right field.
"We feel like it is Mike's time," said Sottolano. "He has certainly gotten a lot better, and we're excited to see what this season brings for him."
There are several promising outfield candidates within the freshman class led by Jacob Page, who can play all three positions.
"Jacob runs well and hits with some power," said Sottolano. "We believe he will have a very bright future. I think his development will be an important factor on the success that we have this season."
Sophomore Mark McCants, who saw time exclusively as the designated hitter in 2012, could see time in the outfield this spring. McCants batted .246 with two home runs and 28 RBI as a freshman a season ago.
"Mark has developed very well," said Sottolano. "He is surprisingly fast and he's really doing a nice job of becoming a good outfielder."
Junior Jon Crucitti will add valued depth to the Black Knights' outfield corps.
"It's great to have Jon back this season," noted Sottolano. "Jon is a natural born leader, hard-nosed competitor and great young man. Watching him progress is going to be important to us. He's someone that we are looking to develop this year."
Army will have to replace J.T. Watkins behind the plate this season. Watkins, who started 194 games the past four years, capped his career by earning All-Patriot League and All-Northeast Region honors last spring.
Senior Andrew Johnson, who stepped into the starting lineup last season when Watkins got injured, has been penciled in as the Black Knights' starting catcher in 2013. Johnson was called upon to start Army's first eight Patriot League games behind the dish last spring and played well in Watkins' absence. He finished the year with a .291 batting average, 15 runs scored and five RBI in 23 games. He started 19 contests, splitting time between catcher and designated hitter after proving himself at the plate. He will be counted on to play well defensively, help manage Army's pitching staff and provide some offense.
"Andrew did a great job for us last year," said Sottolano. "He caught two conference weekends for us, and we won all eight of those games. He is a very good leader, excellent blocker and receiver and has good arm strength.
"Andrew also did a nice job for us offensively last year as well. He has developed into a mature young man who understands the game. We look for him to lead this pitching staff. He has a tough road because it is a young pitching staff, and he has to take ownership of the staff and lead it to success."
Junior Connor Love, whose 2012 campaign was derailed by injury, returns to the fold looking to make an impact this season. Love appeared in 16 games last year, with 11 starts.
"Connor works real hard each and every day to improve, and he continues to develop," said Sottolano. "We are starting to see significant gains, and he will push Andrew for the starting position."
Freshmen Davis Marlar and Ben Smith figure to push both upperclassmen throughout the season and provide valued depth to the position. Both will also see time in the bullpen, helping to prepare Army's pitchers before entering games.
"Davis has a very strong arm, and he also receives the ball well," said Sottolano. "He's not tall, but he's very physical. He has good power offensively. I think he will develop into a real good ball player.
"Ben had a lot of success in high school, and he's a solid baseball player," added Sottolano. "There is a lot to learn in that position, and I think he will develop into a good catcher once the game slows down for him."
The Army pitching staff, which led the Patriot League and ranked 31st nationally with a 3.25 earned run average last season, returns a pair of weekend starters in senior Chris Rowley and sophomore Alex Robinett. The Black Knights also ranked 21st nationally in hits allowed per nine innings (8.03), 28th in walks allowed per nine innings (2.81) and 18th in WHIP (1.20).
Rowley was a huge part of that success a season ago, ranking among the national leaders in wins (11), earned run average (2.40), strikeouts (80), hits allowed per nine innings (5.92), WHIP (0.88) and complete games (6). The junior from Duluth, Ga., collected three All-America certificates following his standout junior campaign, and received three preseason All-America awards heading into this season. The talented right-hander established several single-season Academy records last year, including wins (11), innings pitched (97.1), consecutive scoreless innings (29) and shutouts (5). He was selected as the Patriot League Pitcher of the Year and earned a spot on the all-conference first team after recording a perfect 5-0 record against league foes during the regular season.
"Chris has really developed throughout his time here at the Academy," said Sottolano. "I think coach (Anthony) DeCicco has done a great job with him in terms of his mechanics. He has helped transform an outstanding athlete into a truly outstanding pitcher.
"Chris is very determined, hard-nosed and competitive. He's a very good athlete, who takes pride in the little things. He has the ability, every time he steps on the mound, to keep us in the ballgame. He puts us in position to win, and that's his job. We ask our starters to keep us within reach and I think Chris has the opportunity to do that, no matter who we're playing."
Rowley will be joined near the top of the weekend rotation by Robinett, who is coming off a strong freshman showing in 2012. The second-year righty showed signs of brilliance last year en route to a 3-1 record and 2.73 ERA in 12 appearances (nine starts). He finished with 42 strikeouts and just 14 walks in 52.2 innings of work.
"Alex is a real tough competitor with a strong arm," said Sottolano. "He is developing a third pitch, which I think will aid him. He's getting better at fielding his position. Alex's inner toughness is probably one of his biggest strengths, and his ability to stay composed is what will elevate him to the next level. He is a tough, athletic kid, who competes every time he steps onto the mound."
Another key contributor to Army's pitching staff this season will be junior Gunnar Carroll, who has the desired versatility to perform as either a starter or reliever. The third-year righty, who has mostly appeared out of the bullpen over his first two seasons in an Army uniform, posted a 2-1 record with a 2.48 ERA and eight saves in 2012. Carroll appeared in a team-best 22 games, with two starts. He struck out 40, walked only 12 and allowed just 48 hits in 54.1 innings pitched. This season, following the loss of Logan Lee to graduation, Carroll could be inserted into the starting rotation. His ability to close games could also be called upon, however, depending upon the development of some of Army's younger hurlers.
"Gunnar has the ability to be one of our starters, or he could go into the game to close, depending on what we come up with in the back end of the bullpen," said Sottolano. "He has shown the ability to do both, and I think that will aid him. His ability to establish that third pitch will dictate how well he can perform as a starter. Obviously, he has done a good job of that during the offseason.
"Gunnar is very similar to Chris Rowley in what he throws. They both have good sinking fastballs, good sliders and quality changeups. Like Chris, Gunnar is also very athletic on the mound. He competes each and every time he steps on the hill and has good knowledge of the game. He approaches every pitch as if it's the most important."
Sophomores Andrew Flaherty and Brian Hapeman have caught the eye of the coaching staff, and both will compete for a spot in Army's weekend rotation this spring. Flaherty pitched to a 3-1 record and 3.42 ERA last season in nine appearances (three starts). Hapeman sat out last season while rehabilitating injuries.
"Andrew has a real good arm, and he showed signs last year," said Sottolano. "If he progresses the way we think he can, he will compete for a starting job.
"Brian is coming off of an injury he sustained in high school," added Sottolano. "He's a hard-nosed competitor who is very athletic. I think as the season goes along you will see him get better and better.
The Black Knights also return junior Erik Washburn and sophomore Taylor Goucher. Army will rely on several freshmen to round out the pitching staff in 2013. Chief among those prospects are Brock Davidson, Jack Verrill, John Malcolm, Blake Burrus and Jonathan Thiess.
"Brock is a lefty who is very knowledgeable about the game," mentioned Sottolano. "If he can get his arm strength back to where it was, he will be a factor for us.
"Jack is a big right-hander who is athletic and has a bright future once he becomes a little more consistent.
"John Malcolm has a very strong arm, and he will compete for a starting position as well," said Sottolano. "He has a solid fastball and a good breaking ball. I think he will see a lot of innings this season.
"Blake has a good arm, but he is still working on becoming a complete pitcher," added Sottolano.
"Jonathan's biggest thing is getting his strength back," said Sottolano. "He will see more and more time as his velocity picks up. He knows how to pitch.
"Justin has a good arm, and we recruited him to pitch late innings for us. I believe he has that ability. He will certainly be given some opportunities early, and I think he has the potential to develop into a really good pitcher as he matures. He is working to become a more complete pitcher and I think he will as time goes on."
Sophomore Julian Larimer will probably be a factor by the middle of March as his arm strength continues to improve.