Feb. 15, 2005
What can you do for an encore after winning a league championship, setting new school and conference records for victories and breaking or tying 84 team and individual, league and school marks en route to the most successful season in school history?
If you're head coach Joe Sottolano and the Army baseball team, you set your sights on becoming the first Black Knight squad to repeat as conference champion. With 18 letterwinners, six positional starters and nine of last year's top 11 pitchers returning to the fold, nothing less would be accepted.
But despite returning a cache' of seasoned veterans, including those most responsible for last year's championship run to glory, Army will be sternly challenged to match the level of success experienced by the Black Knights' 2004 record-smashing club.
Consider that Army closed its magical season with a 37-15 overall record, captured the Patriot League's regular-season title by six full games with a 17-3 conference mark and finished the year ranked in the top 50 nationally for the first time in school history. Mind-boggling accomplishments for a team that was forecast for a third place Patriot League finish during a preseason poll of the conference's head coaches and sports information directors.
"Coming out of the fall, we felt we had a chance to compete for a Patriot League championship," offers head coach Joe Sottolano
. "We felt very good about our club, but it's safe to say that we exceeded even our expectations with the way we played last year."
The way they played was dominant. In fact, after opening the season with a 10-9 overall mark, Army reeled off 27 victories in the 31 games that followed. Included in the run was a mammoth 16-game winning streak, with an even dozen of those triumphs coming under the guise of Patriot League play. Both streaks stand as school and conference standards. There was also a similarly impressive 16-game winning streak at Doubleday Field, where the Black Knights prevailed in 21 of 23 contests overall last spring.
"Last season was special," Sottolano explains. "With so many young players on the squad, we weren't sure how fast the team would jell. But beating teams like Florida and Iowa during our trip to Florida really helped our confidence. The players started believing they could step on the field and play with anyone and that level of confidence showed in their performance.
"We return a solid group of players from last year's team, but this season must be approached like any other. This is a different ball club, although similar in personnel. We can't live off last year's accolades. It's very important that this team develops its own identity. We lost some very important pieces to our championship puzzle. We have to come out with the mindset that we are going to set out to improve every single day, just like we have in previous years. The big question regards the type of personality this team is going to take. That is a question we need answered early in the season."
Many times when a team experiences success, it must guard against complacency the following season. Sottolano does not believe that will be a problem for this driven group.
"I don't think the leadership of this club will allow that to happen," Sottolano states. "Our returning players were not satisfied with what they accomplished last year. This is a very focused group with immense leadership. During the offseason, our players did not take one single day for granted. They worked extremely hard at getting better. No one is satisfied right now with where they're at. That's a credit to the leadership of the senior class and all the returning players."
In all, 24 members of last season's title-winning club return, including players responsible for 70.7 percent (386 of 546) of the team's base hits, 72.9 percent (239 of 328) of the squad's runs batted in and 86.5 percent of club's pitching victories a year ago.
Heading the list of returnees are senior catcher Schuyler Williamson, last year's Patriot League Co-Player of the Year, sophomore pitcher Nick Hill, last year's Patriot League Pitcher of the Year, sophomore outfielder-pitcher Milan Dinga, last year's Patriot League Rookie of the Year and senior second baseman Nate Stone, a third team All-American who has been named to the Wallace Watch List this spring.
Prior to last season, no team had ever swept the Patriot League's top three individual awards. With all three honorees back again, the Black Knights should be well-powered for another run at the regionals.
That appears very likely considering the wealth of pitching talent returning from a staff that rated among the nation's best a year ago and finished the season ranked 12th nationally in team earned run average (3.44). Sottolano will be able to call upon 13 players from that unit this spring, a group that accounted for 19 of 24 conference, league tournament and regional starts for the Black Knights a year ago.
In addition to Hill, Army's veteran group of hurlers includes fellow first team All-Patriot League selection Justin Kashner, a mainstay in the Black Knights' weekend pitching rotation throughout his four years at the Academy, Dan Cappello, who has quietly authored one of the most successful starting careers in West Point history and all-league reliever Wade Greenlee, who blossomed into a major force out of the Black Knights' bullpen last spring. With Dinga fully healed from the broken finger that limited his closing opportunities last spring, Army features an abundance of impact players at both ends of the staff.
Greenlee promises to challenge for the lone vacant spot in Army's weekend pitching rotation, along with talented sophomores Ben Mayhew, Logan Brannon and promising newcomer Drew Clothier. Hard-throwing right-hander Dan Pluff returns to his familiar bullpen role, possessing the ability to close games or serve as a late-game bridge to Dinga.
While last year's pitching staff was widely regarded as one of the deepest and most talented in school history, this year's group possesses the potential to rate similarly.
"Our biggest strength overall has got to be the depth and talent of our pitching staff," Sottolano says. "The depth of our staff and the ability to use certain players in specific roles has got to be the number one strength of this team."
If the pitching staff heads Army's vast list of positives, the Black Knights' infield, to include the catching position, trails closely behind.
Besides Williamson, the Black Knights will feature an all-league player at all four infield spots.
While Stone emerged as one of the nation's top second basemen and a prime run-producer on his way to an All-America citing last spring, Jeremy Stache and Kyle Scogin combined to bring air-tight defense to the left side of Army's infield. Both were selected to the Patriot League's second team all-star unit at year's end. Senior Walker Gorham rounds out the group, returning to a first base position he has manned each of the past two years. Though narrowly missing an all-league certificate last spring, Gorham remains a dangerous presence in the middle of Army's batting order. He was a first team all-league choice as a sophomore.
"We feel very good about our infield as a whole," Sottolano offers. "With Williamson behind the plate and Scogin and Stone returning at shortstop and second base, respectively, our defensive strength up the middle is very impressive. If Stache continues to improve on his overall consistency, he can develop into a very special defensive player for us as well. Gorham brings a lot of game experience and is one of the real leaders of the infield, not to mention what he means to our offense."
The one area that remains unsettled for Sottolano entering the season rests in the outfield, where only Dinga returns to a starting role. The Black Knights must find a way to replace graduated senior Wes Bumgardner, who anchored the group from his center field position last spring. Steady junior Jason Meloy is expected to vie for the role, along with freshmen Matt Pryor and Caleb Love. The latter two, along with freshman Cole White and sophomore Barnes Connell, will also compete for playing time in right field.
"Our biggest concern entering the season is the outfield," Sottolano admits. "That group needs to step up during the preseason. If our young men play to their potential, then I think we have a chance to be sound defensively. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds, because if we play solid outfield defense, I think this team could be difficult to beat."
Opposing head coaches learned that a year ago. Now, they could be ready to experience the phenomenon all over again.
With all four starters returning, including an All-American and three other all-league performers, Army could feature the strongest infield grouping in school history.
Senior second baseman Nate Stone (.414, 47 R, 18 2B, 6 HR, 53 RBI, 111 TB) anchors the group after experiencing a "breakthrough" campaign that saw him garner third team All-America honors from the American Baseball Coaches Association, despite playing the majority of the season with a broken finger on his throwing hand. A clutch performer with the ability to carry a team offensively, Stone flourished following his third position change in three years, completing a smooth transition from shortstop. This, after beginning his collegiate career at third base.
Stone ranked among team and Patriot League leaders in nearly every offensive category and finished the year posting a remarkable .526 batting average with runners in scoring position. He also batted .500 with runners on base, collected a school-record 22 multiple-hit performances and provided head coach Joe Sottolano with solid defense up the middle. As one of the team's co-captains this spring, Stone will be counted to provide veteran direction to the club.
"I can't say enough about the sacrifices Nate Stone has made for this team," Sottolano states. "We moved him to his third different position last season, and he just accepted it without saying a word. It's that type of unselfish dedication that allows a team to win a championship. He just continues to get better as the days go on."
Although his offensive numbers were not quite as gaudy as his double-play partner's, sophomore shortstop Kyle Scogin (.282, 36 R, 10 2B, 1 HR, 21 RBI) may have been every bit as important to the Black Knights' championship mixture last spring. A consistent performer at the plate, Scogin solidified Army's infield defense, starting all 52 of the Cadets' games.
A second team All-Patriot League selection, Scogin displayed outstanding range and a strong, accurate throwing arm, providing the Black Knights with tremendous glove work up the middle. He boasts a relentless work ethic and tremendous passion, while thriving in pressure situations. Like Stone, he played the majority of last season with a broken finger on his throwing hand, but did not miss a single start.
"Kyle Scogin is a fierce competitor," Sottolano says. "The bigger the situation, the more he produces. He solidified our infield last year and was a huge part of our success. You cannot overstate his ability to perform under pressure."
Freshmen Cole White and Thomas Carnes will be counted on to provide depth to both middle infield spots. White is an exceptional athlete boasting outstanding physical tools. He will be counted on to supplement several defensive positions for the Black Knights.
Fresh off a second team All-Patriot League citation and a spot on the All-Baton Rouge Regional squad, junior third baseman Jeremy Stache (.330, 31 R, 5 2B, 1 HR, 37 RBI) appears poised for a "breakout" showing.
A rangy defender with the ability to make jaw-dropping stops, Stache flashes "cat-quick" reflexes and charges the "slow-roller" as well as any third baseman to pass through the Academy's gates. Offensively, the native of Louisville, Tenn., wields a clutch bat and features steady gap power.
"Jeremy always seems to come up with the big hit for us," Sottolano mentions. "He also has the ability to make the big play at third base. He can change momentum with his glove or bat at any time."
The Black Knights are well-stocked at the other infield corner slot as well, with the return of senior Walker Gorham (.294, 41 R, 12 2B, 4 HR, 37 RBI). A two-year starter and one of the Patriot League's most feared left-handed power threats, Gorham remains a key figure in the middle of Sottolano's batting order. He batted .359 with runners in scoring position last season and delivered 15 of 20 base runners from third base with less than two outs. He will be supported by senior defensive specialist Scott Komaromy and impressive freshman Chris Simmons. All three should also see additional plate appearances at the designated hitter spot.
"Walker has been in the middle of our lineup each of the past two years," Sottolano adds. "He brings a left-handed power presence and regularly comes up with big hits in pressure situations. He balances our lineup while protecting the batters around him.
"There's no question that as we enter the season, we view our infield play as one of the team's strengths. We return a lot of game experience at every position and we have a good deal of athleticism in the group. That allows us to utilize several different combinations of players if needed."
For the second consecutive season, Army's greatest area of transition lies in the outfield. One year after employing three first-year starters, the Black Knights will be forced to replace two lead players from last year's championship outfield. Head coach Joe Sottolano will cast a trained eye toward the center field and right field positions during preseason with an interesting blend of veterans and newcomers battling for those starting spots.
Uncovering a replacement for the graduated Wes Bumgardner in center field remains Sottolano's tallest task. Following a shift from second base, Bumgardner blossomed into an all-league outfielder and anchored the group last spring.
Senior Jason Meloy
(.164, 3 2B, 3 RBI, 4 SB) opens as the favorite to inherit starting duties in center field after seeing significant time there last spring. A defensive stalwart possessing the ability to run down balls in the gaps, Meloy provides the type of defense Sottolano craves in the outer reaches. Freshmen Caleb Love
and Matt Pryor
promise to lend the strongest challenge to Meloy.
Competition for the starting job in right field could be just as heated where Love, fellow freshman Cole White, sophomore Barnes Connell and senior David Plotts will all vie for playing time. Sottolano figures to use the early portion of this year's schedule to determine the starter at the position. Schuyler Williamson could also see innings in right field after spending time there this fall. Williamson will be given occasional breaks behind the plate over the course of the long, grinding season and could shift to right field on those days.
"We have some depth and flexibility in the outfield," Sottolano says. "We have a nice blend of experience and youth out there. It will be interesting to see how competition for the starting jobs in center and right unfolds. The ability of the freshmen to make the necessary adjustments in their defensive games will dictate how quickly they progress."
While center and right field remain unsettled entering the season, no questions surround the starting spot in left. Sophomore Milan Dinga (.323, 51 R, 9 2B, 4 3B, 2 HR, 36 RBI, 85 TB) returns to that position after completing an easy transition from the infield last spring. A dangerous offensive threat at the top of Army's batting order, Dinga evolved into an above-average defensive outfielder last season, despite playing the majority of the season with a broken finger on his throwing hand.
A clutch performer who doubles as Army's closer out of the bullpen, Dinga became the first Black Knight to earn Patriot League Rookie of the Year honors last spring and was named a Freshman All-American.
"Milan got better offensively and defensively last season as the year went on," Sottolano says. "He developed into a very solid contributor and made some great defensive plays to preserve wins. He works every single day at improving some facet of his game and it shows through his overall production.
"We have some work to do, but I think we can put together a very talented outfield."
Patriot League Co-Player of the Year Schuyler Williamson (.357, 52 R, 12 2B, 4 3B, 12 HR, 48 RBI, 127 TB) returns for his final campaign after emerging as one of the premier players in the East last spring. A two-time first team all-conference selection and an All-Northeast choice, Williamson remains the spiritual leader of the club, both on and off the field.
The conference's premier backstop for three years running, Williamson drives in runs in bunches, thrives in pressure situations and boasts the ability to carry a team offensively for weeks at a time. He was also named to the third team Academic All-America squad last spring.
In addition to his offensive prowess, Williamson has developed into a defensive dynamo behind the plate, routinely stymying the opposition's running game. He established a new school record by throwing out nearly 44 percent of potential base-stealers last spring and manages the game extremely well from behind the plate. A trusted handler of pitchers, Williamson played a large role in Army's vast mound success a year ago.
"Schuyler remains the `heart-and-soul' of this team," head coach Joe Sottolono quickly states. "He is one of our strongest leaders and is a two-year team captain. Our players respond to Schuyler. He has the ability to hit for power and steal bases. That is a very rare commodity at this level. He has continued to develop his game every year, and it's exciting to think what he can do for us this season."
With an eye toward uncovering Williamson's eventual successor behind the plate, Sottolano and his staff imported a pair of talented freshmen through last year's recruiting process.
Freshmen Chris Simmons and Chris Brehm performed well during the fall, flashing the skills necessary to eventually assume the lead role. A gifted offensive performer with the ability to hit for a high average and for power, Simmons could be called upon to spell Williamson on occasion this spring. Simmons promises to receive additional at-bats at first base and designated hitter as Sottolano attempts to work his potent bat into the lineup on a regular basis. He boasts the ability to hit all pitches and is adept at using the entire field.
"This is a very valuable year for Chris Simmons," Sottolano says. "He couldn't have a better mentor than Schuyler Williamson. Chris will gain as much knowledge about the position as he really wants this year, because Schuyler will give him everything he's got. Schuyler will push Chris every day to develop into a better player.
"That's where you want your program to be ... you want your program at a level where your freshmen can sit and learn for a year before immediately throwing them into the fire. We are very fortunate to be in that position -- having Schuyler available to work with Simmons and Brehm this year."
Throughout his three-year rebuilding process, Army head coach Joe Sottolano stressed the need to inject quality pitching arms into the Black Knights' program. The philosophy yielded great rewards last spring with Army's pitching staff widely regarded as one of the most talented mound units in the East.
The best news surrounding Army's program is that the majority of last year's pitching staff, which ranked 12th nationally in team earned run average (3.44), returns to the fold this spring. Sottolano will be able to choose from 13 returning members of that staff, including pitchers responsible for making 41 of 52 starts in 2004. In all, nine of Army's top 11 pitchers from last year return, including three of four weekend starters and the team's top four relievers.
Sophomore standout Nick Hill and steady seniors Justin Kashner and Dan Cappello headline the list. While Hill grabbed the lion's share of attention last spring by authoring a record-setting showing in his rookie campaign, Kashner closed as the Patriot League's earned run average champion and Cappello ended the season in dominant fashion.
"We're very excited to have three of our four weekend starters coming back this season," Sottolano offers. "Hill enjoyed an outstanding freshman year and Kashner and Cappello have had great careers for us."
A savvy southpaw long on poise and talent, Hill burst on the collegiate scene last spring as he posted a 10-3 record and 2.60 ERA (which ranked 50th nationally), setting Army and Patriot League single-season records for victories in the process. He fashioned a flashy 81-24 strikeout-walk ratio and limited opponents to a meager .203 batting average. He also fired three complete-game shutouts and tossed six scoreless innings in combining on yet another. The first freshman to be named Patriot League "Pitcher of the Year," Hill also became the first Army freshman to earn All-America honors.
Kashner quietly fashioned an outstanding junior campaign, registering a 7-3 overall record and 2.57 ERA. The latter figure ranked 47th among national leaders. He became the first Army pitcher to post a perfect 5-0 league mark and joined Hill on the conference's first team all-star unit at season's end. Cappello (3-1, 4.06 ERA), meanwhile, closed the season on a roll, capturing Patriot League Pitcher of the Week honors during two of the season's final three voting periods. He was unhittable during Army's title push down the stretch, allowing only 14 hits and four earned runs over his final 24.0 innings of work. He struck out 21 and walked five during the span, while posting a 1.50 ERA and establishing himself as one of the Patriot League's most dominant hurlers. Cappello sports a 12-6 career record and ranks eighth on Army's career wining percentage list (.667).
"One of the biggest things Nick gives us is the ability to compete with anyone every time out. He's also allowed Kashner to settle into the No. 2 spot. It's like having a No. 1 and a No. 1A. They both pitch big games for us. Cappello has been a consistent winner over the years. He seems to be extremely focused to produce another successful season.
"All three of those guys have the ability to give us quality starts and pitch deep into ball games every time out. That makes our bullpen that much stronger."
An interesting battle is shaping up for the fourth spot in Army's weekend rotation with senior Wade Greenlee, promising sophomores Logan Brannon (3-2, 3.50 ERA) and Ben Mayhew (3-1, 4.85 ERA), and talented newcomer Drew Clothier emerging as the strongest candidates to claim that spot.
Greenlee developed into a dominant force out of Army's bullpen last spring, registering a 4-0 record with two saves and a 2.78 earned run average. His remarkable 28-2 strikeout ratio ranked among the nation's best.
After beginning his Army career as a starter, Greenlee has filled nearly every position in Army's bullpen the past two years. He flourished in his late-game setup role last spring, but will be given the opportunity to crack the starting staff this time around.
"We'd love to keep Wade in the same role that he was in last year," Sottolano explains, "but he's earned the chance to start. He was extremely important to us last year and was a key ingredient in winning the championship."
The role Greenlee fills could ultimately be dictated by the development of Brannon, Mayhew and Clothier. Brannon and Mayhew displayed flashes of their vast potential as freshmen last season. Both possess lively right arms and should contribute in either starting or relief roles. Clothier could boast the highest talent ceiling of the lot. A hard-throwing southpaw with command of two breaking pitches, Clothier could follow in Hill's footsteps and earn a spot in Army's starting rotation as a plebe. Should one of those individuals develop swiftly, Greenlee would be free to return to his valued position in the Black Knights' bullpen
That bullpen should remain an area of strength for Sottolano's club. In addition to three of the four players listed above, Army's relief corps will include veteran setup specialists Monte Jones (1-0, 5.23 ERA) and Dan Pluff (1-0, 3 SV, 6.23 ERA) and sophomore closer Milan Dinga (0-1, 3 SV, 3.86 ERA).
Jones fired two shutout innings of relief against LSU at the Baton Rouge Regional last June and carried that momentum into an impressive fall showing. He has elevated his level of performance dramatically and could be the most improved member of Army's pitching staff this spring. Though fighting through an uneven sophomore showing, Pluff remained dominant at times, as witnessed by his impressive 20-5 strikeout-walk ratio. He possesses the "stuff" and makeup to handle pressure situations, and remains a valuable "shutdown" component in the Black Knights' bullpen. Dinga, meanwhile, was limited to just 10 mound appearances after breaking a finger on his throwing hand during an outfield practice mishap last spring.
The fireballing right-hander was routinely clocked in the low-to-mid 90s and is expected to excel in the closer's role. Should he falter, both Greenlee and Pluff possess the ability to finish out games.
"We feel that Milan Dinga can really be something special," Sottolano explains. "But we have several other people that are very capable of closing for us as well. That provides a great deal of flexibility late in games."
Hard-throwing freshman Cole White could also factor into the mix after spending last season at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School. Blessed with tremendous athleticism, White will be utilized at several positions for the Black Knights this spring and has been clocked in the upper-80s off the mound. He will yield Sottolano yet another quality late-game option.
Rounding out the multi-faceted staff are senior Jason Mulligan, junior Kevin Kalkwarf, sophomores Bill Fleming and Erick Taylor and freshman Gabe Jimenez.
"We thought last year's staff might have been the deepest group of pitchers that we've had, but this year's staff could be even stronger," Sottolano claims. "We have a lot of work to do, but we feel very good about our pitching staff heading into the season. Upgrading the overall talent in our pitching staff has been a major recruiting focus the past few years. We feel we have some quality young arms in our program now."