Feb. 15, 2012
WEST POINT, N.Y. -
The Army baseball team is set to embark upon its 2012 campaign this weekend when the Black Knights travel to High Point, N.C., to face the Panthers of High Point University.
For a comprehensive look at the 2012 Black Knights, a detailed season outlook follows:
After coming within just a few innings of capturing its sixth Patriot League tournament title last spring, the Army baseball program is determined to return to its championship form this season. The Black Knights won three straight Patriot League regular-season championships before falling one game short in the conference standings last season. Army swept Lafayette in the Patriot League semifinals series, before dropping the PLCS in three highly competitive games. Army lost several key contributors from last year's squad to graduation, but a solid nucleus returns to the fold hungry to lead the program to its fourth regular-season conference title in the past five years.
One of the Patriot League's preeminent programs, Army has captured six regular-season Patriot League titles and five Patriot League tournament crowns since joining the circuit in 1993. Five of those regular-season championships have come in the last eight years, a span that has seen the Black Knights earn seven trips to the league's season-ending tournament. Army also sent eight players to the minor leagues last decade, more than any other Patriot League program during that time.
Sottolano has guided Army to the NCAAs four times since taking over the reins of the program 13 years ago. The Black Knights have won at least 22 games in eight straight seasons and advanced to the NCAA Regionals three times during that stretch.
In order to maintain that form in 2012, Army must replace two starters on the left side of the infield and two more in the outfield. The Black Knights graduated one of the most successful classes in program history last May, and it will not be easy to forget all-conference standouts Joey Henshaw, Ben Koenigsfeld, Steve May and Clint Moore. That quartet combined to account for 69.7 percent of Army's home runs (23 of 33) and 55.5 percent of Army's RBI (132 of 238) last season. Moore, a four-time league all-star at shortstop, graduated as the Academy's all-time leader in home runs, doubles, RBI, runs scored, total bases and slugging percentage.
Sottolano is confident that some of those holes have been filled after watching his young squad turn in a strong showing during the non-traditional fall season. It was during that developmental portion of games and practices that he and the coaching staff were able to evaluate and identify some of the key cogs to this year's squad.
"We had very consistent at-bats and approaches during the fall season," said Sottolano. "I liked the tenacity and toughness the club brought to the field. Some of the new players have that same type of toughness that we're looking for. That's something we hopes carries over to the spring."
Seniors Zach Price and J.T. Watkins, who were the only two Black Knights to start all 48 games last season, will serve as the team's co-captains this season. Sottolano feels that his squad is in good hands with Price and Watkins serving in key leadership roles.
"Zach Price is a leader by presence," said Sottolano. "He's an intense competitor who gives 100 percent every single day. He arrives at practice early and stays. He never takes a rep off, and he's very consistent at what he does. He's a person of few words, but when he speaks, you listen.
"J.T. leads by presence, but he's also very vocal," added Sottolano. "He's an extremely determined young man, and I think both he and Zach do an outstanding job of leading our team."
Price bounced back from an inconsistent sophomore season with a terrific junior campaign last spring. The diminutive second baseman played very well defensively and served as the key catalyst at the top of the Black Knights' batting order. His efforts earned him a spot on the All-Patriot League first team.
Watkins, meanwhile, was exceptional defensively once again last season. The Black Knights' backstop, who has started behind the dish since arriving at West Point four years ago, also shined offensively in 2011. He batted .298 with five extra-base hits and 27 RBI en route to his first All-Patriot League selection.
Army also returns senior Kevin McKague, who was granted a waiver from the NCAA after missing the majority of last season with an injury. When healthy, McKague excels in a variety of roles for the Black Knights. He's a strong defensive infielder, one of the most powerful hitters in Army's lineup, and also serves as the team's shutdown closer out the bullpen.
Sottolano figures to be putting together a much younger lineup than he did last season. While that can be viewed as a challenge, Army's mentor sees positives in having so much youth on the roster.
"The nice thing is that young kids are sponges," said Sottolano. "They really listen, work hard and have something to prove. They are always very determined. The key is having the upperclassmen lead them to success and sticking with them through times of struggle. I think it will be crucial for the older guys to help develop them. You'll start to see the game slow down for some of these freshmen about midway through the season, and at that point they won't really be freshmen anymore."
With such a relatively young lineup, Army will lean on its experienced pitching staff early in the season. The Black Knights return all four of their weekend starters from a year ago, as well as several key bullpen arms.
Senior Logan Lee leads Army's contingent of starters, having emerged as the Black Knights' ace last season. Senior Scott Lucado, junior Chris Rowley and sophomore Nick Dignacco, who rounded out Army's Patriot League rotation last spring, all return to the fold as well.
"We return all four of our weekend starters from last season, which is good," said Sottolano. "I think they all have the ability to throw a very good ball game on any given day. The biggest thing we need to see is consistency from each of them, and that starts with locating their pitches for strikes."
Lee and Rowley ranked among the Patriot League leaders last season in earned run average, strikeouts, wins, complete games and innings pitched. Army was a perfect 5-0 in Patriot League games started by Lucado, and Dignacco took the ball in the third game of the Patriot League Championship Series at Navy. All four return poised to make an impact on this year's team.
Senior Manny Fernandez returns to the bullpen after missing last season due to injury. The Black Knights' relief corps also returns sophomore Gunnar Carroll and junior John Buckley, who pitched key innings for Army last spring.
Although Army may be a bit younger and less experienced this year as compared to recent seasons, Sottolano is confident that the Black Knights are capable of vying for a Patriot League title and returning to the NCAA postseason.
"I think you look at each ball club individually," said Sottolano. "You coach each ball club differently. This team is about repetitions, playing the game and developing confidence. We need to make sure that the younger players understand that their better days are coming as they develop.
"There are a lot of questions, but not questions about our athletic ability or our ability to succeed," noted Sottolano. "There are questions that time is going to tell. I know the goals and aspirations of our program will always remain the same. We believe that through hard work and determination we have the ability to achieve our goals.
"We've always taken pride in playing our best baseball at the end of the year, and I think that's evident if you look through the records. It's going to be a very interesting and challenging coaching year, but I'm very excited about that challenge; I think we all are. We certainly look at is as a great opportunity to succeed and we're going to meet those challenges head on."
Army opens the season with a three-game series at High Point over the weekend of Feb. 17-19. The Black Knights then play three-game road sets at George Washington (Feb. 25-26) and UMBC (March 2-4) before traveling to Florida for their annual spring break trip. Army will test itself in the Sunshine State, facing Sacred Heart in a three-game series and locking horns with Nebraska-Omaha, Iowa and Illinois State.
The Black Knights return to West Point on March 20 for a midweek contest versus Quinnipiac. Army then welcomes Ivy League foe Harvard to Doubleday Field for a four-game series over the weekend of March 24-25. After a midweek contest at Columbia (March 28), Army begins its Patriot League schedule at Navy (March 31-April 1).
The Black Knights then return to West Point to host Manhattan on April 4, before taking on Lehigh (April 7-8). After a road test at Siena (April 10), Army kicks off its season-long 10-game homestand by hosting Fairleigh Dickinson on April 11. The Black Knights continue their homestand with a four-game series opposite Lafayette (April 14-15), a midweek tilt against Saint Peter's (April 18) and a four-game set versus Bucknell (April 21-22).
Army then finishes its regular-season slate with six straight road games. The Black Knights travel to Fishkill, N.Y., to take on Marist in the annual Hudson Valley Baseball Classic on April 25, before making the trek to Worcester, Mass., to battle Holy Cross (April 28-29). Army then closes out the regular season with a road game at NYIT.
"I think we have a solid schedule again this year," said Sottolano. "The key for us is to get out and play. Society and people in general gauge success based on wins and losses, and I believe that winning is absolutely important in what we're all striving for, but it's a battle as opposed to a war. We have to understand that we might lose some battles here and there, but we have to keep the bigger picture in mind. This club needs to be resilient, and that's something we have always taken great pride in."
Army will have to replace two starters on the infield following the graduation of All-Patriot League performers Steve May (3B) and Clint Moore (SS). May and Moore both earned all-conference accolades last spring, and their graduation creates two large holes on the left side of the infield.
Moore graduated as Army's all-time leader in home runs (35), RBI (185), doubles (51), runs scored (174), total bases (413) and slugging percentage (.589). The four-time All-Patriot League selection was also an ultra-talented defensive shortstop, who saved several runs with his incredible plays.
May, who had the knack for coming up with big hits for the Black Knights last season, will also be sorely missed. The All-Patriot League selection, who batted .305 with 21 RBI in 2011, also played a steady third base.
Senior Zach Price, who has been entrenched as the Black Knights' starting second baseman since arriving at the Academy three years ago, figures to anchor Army's infield this season.
Price, who was one of just two Army players to start all 48 games for the Black Knights in 2011, produced his best offensive season since his rookie campaign of 2009. The Cantonment, Fla., native led Army last season in batting average (.331), base hits (56), runs scored (39), on-base percentage (.472), walks (34) and stolen bases (13).
Price held down the leadoff spot in the Black Knights' batting order throughout the year, serving as one of the catalysts for the Black Knights' offense. In addition to his offensive exploits, Price recorded a fielding percentage of .987. He made only three errors in 228 defensive chances.
"Zach has really developed throughout his time at West Point," said Army head coach Joe Sottolano. "He came in as a very strong offensive player, but just an average defensive player. He has evolved into an exceptional second baseman and an all-conference player."
Sottolano envisions Price returning to his familiar spot at the top of Army's batting order once again this spring. His ability to work counts, see a lot of pitches and find a way on base will make him a vital cog to Army's offensive plans in 2012.
Senior Kevin McKague, who was injured just 12 games into last season, returns to the Army program for a fifth season after being granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA.
McKague, who already lists among Army's all-time leaders in several offensive categories, has the ability to play either of the corner infield spots. McKague held down the first base position over the first four years of his career, but boasts the athleticism and arm strength required to excel at third base.
"Having Kevin back gives us a lot of experience, leadership and knowledge," explained Sottolano. "Those characteristics will be invaluable and helpful in bringing along some of our younger infielders. He is an outstanding first baseman, and versatile enough that he may even spend some time at third base."
A prodigious power threat, who also hits for a high average, McKague figures to bat near the middle of Army's lineup. The Fayetteville, N.C., product batted cleanup nine times and hit out of the five-hole on three occasions last season before an injury derailed his 2011 campaign.
Junior Sean McIlroy, who was Army's most productive pinch-hitter last season, will vie for more at-bats at DH this spring. McIlroy boasts a powerful swing from the left side of the plate.
Sophomore Connor Love, who exploded offensively during Army's fall season, has emerged as the favorite to play first base when McKague moves over to third. Love, a catcher by trade, has impressed the coaching staff with his ability to pick up the nuances of playing first base. A native of Beaverton, Ore., Love appeared in just three contests as a freshman last season. The time he put in developing his skills during his plebe campaign should pay off this year. Sottolano will look for Love to occupy a spot somewhere near the middle of Army's batting order.
"Connor had a breakthrough fall and has evolved into one of our better hitters," said Sottolano. "He possesses a lot of confidence and a great deal of swagger. He's an outstanding leader and ultimate team player, who has developed into the player we hoped he would become. He's a person we feel has to be in our lineup, and will see time at first base, catcher and designated hitter."
Fellow sophomore Patrick Mescher will push for time at first base this spring as well. The Versailles, Ohio, native is a strong athlete with a great deal of power. His ability to develop in the field and find consistency at the plate will go a long way toward dictating his playing time.
"Patrick's biggest thing is finding consistency," said Sottolano. "He's a big, strong young man who could have a breakout year for us. He could definitely provide some offensive pop in our lineup."
Freshman Alex Jensen appears to be the odds on favorite to take over for Moore at shortstop in 2012. A talented infield prospect who hails from Charlotte, N.C., Jensen enters West Point with an abundance of tools.
"Alex is very consistent and hard-nosed," said Sottolano. "He's a fierce competitor, who loves playing the game. I think he plays his best when the lights are on, and he's someone that will shine throughout the season. He's a guy that you need to kick out of the gym every day because he just continually wants to improve."
Fellow freshman Harold Earls figures to see time at the "hot corner" when McKague plays first base. The Cumming, Ga., native features a strong throwing arm and soft hands. Earls loves playing the game, and brings a great deal of tenacity to the ballpark every day.
"Harold is a very good infielder who is still maturing and coming into his own," said Sottolano. "He's still fighting to understand the position a little bit better, and he needs to slow the game down some. He has a passion for the game and I believe he has a bright future in an Army uniform."
Sottolano feels that the Black Knights' infield will feature an athletic group of performers this season. Price, Jensen and Earls could play three positions, and McKague is certainly capable of playing two spots. This versatility figures to serve Army well early in the season as the young Black Knights find their way.
Army will need to replace two of its three starting outfielders this season after losing Ben Koenigsfeld and David Darnell to graduation. Koenigsfeld, who earned a total of five All-Patriot League certificates during his standout career, batted .301 with six home runs and 32 RBI last season out of the two-hole. Koenigsfeld also excelled defensively in 2011, handling 73 defensive chances flawlessly. Darnell, meanwhile, smashed eight doubles and committed just two errors in 80 defensive chances as Army's regular center fielder.
Despite those key losses, Sottolano is confident that the players currently on the roster will be up to the challenge.
"We like the talent that we have in our outfield, both the young talent, and the talent that has come through our program and matured" said Sottolano. "We have several outfielders who have the opportunity to play this year and contribute."
Senior Cody Murtle, who drew 32 starts in right field last season, is Army's lone returning outfield starter. Murtle batted .271 with three doubles, two home runs, nine RBI and 19 runs scored in his first season as an every day starter. The native of Huntersville, N.C., is also a solid defender with a strong throwing arm.
Junior Michael Sands will compete with Murtle for the starting position in right field. Sands has continued to evolve offensively and defensively since entering the program, and he is poised to make an impact this season.
"Michael is a strong, athletic player who runs and throws well," said Sottolano. "The most consistent player is going to win that position, and I am looking forward to watching Cody and Michael battle it out."
There are several promising candidates to replace Darnell in center field this spring. Junior Clayton Mosley, sophomore Tyler Williams and freshman Dakari Cooke headline the list of prospects capable of stepping into that role.
Mosley appeared in 29 games last season, mostly as a defensive replacement. The rangy athlete boasts tremendous speed, and is capable of tracking down balls hit into the deepest reaches of the power alleys. The Keystone Heights, Fla., native batted .267 in 15 at-bats. He was also 3-for-3 in stolen base attempts.
"Clayton is an outstanding defensive player who is really maturing as a hitter," said Sottolano. "We are looking for increased production from him this season."
Williams, who also hails from the talent-rich state of Florida, made just one game appearance as a freshman last year.
"Tyler is another player who is really maturing," added Sottolano. "He's strong and athletic, and gives us a lot of versatility."
Cooke is an athletic specimen who brings a myriad of offensive and defensive skills to the Army program.
"Dakari is a very athletic player who runs well and will have a very bright future in our program," commented Sottolano.
Freshman Daniel Cortes has emerged as the favorite to win the starting position in left field after a productive fall season.
"Daniel is a hard-nosed competitor who reminds me a lot of Shaun Salmon as a freshman," said Sottolano. "He's a real tough player who competes and runs well. He understands the game, and thrives in big spots."
After seeing some time as a defensive replacement last season, senior Matt Carter will compete with Cortes for playing time this season as well. Carter, who hails from El Paso, Texas, played in nine games in 2011, drawing a pair of starts.
"We're hoping that Matt can become the player we always thought he could be," added Sottolano. "He has good athletic ability; he just has to put it all together."
Freshman Mark McCants could also vie for playing time in one of the corner outfield spots this season.
"Mark is solid player out of Texas, who has seen a lot of big games throughout high school," said Sottolano. "He could provide some quality at-bats in certain situations."
Senior J.T. Watkins, who started behind the plate in each of Army's 48 contests in 2011, returns as the Black Knights' backstop once again this spring. Watkins, who earned All-Patriot League honors for the first time in his career last season with his inclusion on the second unit, will serve as one of Army's two co-captains this year along with classmate Zach Price.
One of the finest defensive catchers to ever come through the Army program, Watkins broke his own school record for percentage of base runners thrown out last season. The Tuscaloosa, Ala., native gunned down 52.4 percent (22 of 42) of would-be base stealers in 2011, eclipsing the mark he established during his sophomore campaign. Watkins enters this season as Army's career leader in that statistic (39.6 percent).
Watkins also achieved a fielding percentage of .990 last year, committing just three errors in over 300 chances. It marked the second time in his career that he achieved a fielding percentage of .990 or better. He carries a career fielding percentage of .988 into the 2012 season, having made just 12 errors in 950 career chances.
The well-rounded prospect also performed at a high level offensively last season, batting .298 with 27 RBI and 20 runs scored. Watkins, who is a career .291 hitter with five home runs and 73 RBI, will be called up to be even more productive at the plate as a senior this season.
Watkins also does a tremendous job working with Army's pitchers, and he takes a great deal of pride in helping them achieve success on the mound.
"J.T. is one of the better leaders that we've ever had come through the program," said Sottolano. "He's a relentless worker; I don't think there's been a day where J.T. has ever sold us short. He brings an unparalleled passion to the field every day. He controls the pitching staff extremely well. He also has the ability to control the running game."
"J.T. prides himself on being in great shape, and working hard every single day, and he reaps the benefits of that through his consistency in his play and his ability to stay healthy. It's not by chance that he has many accolades; it is due to his hard work and preparation."
Junior Andrew Johnson, who has improved dramatically in all areas since arriving at West Point, will serve as a capable reserve to Watkins. Johnson will also continue in his role as one of Army's primary bullpen catchers, getting the Black Knights' relievers ready to enter games.
"Andrew has a very strong arm, and he provides a strong defensive backup to J.T.," added Sottolano.
Sophomore Connor Love has shown marked improvement both offensively and defensively. While he may struggle to crack the lineup at catcher, Sottolano believes it is imperative that Love's bat be in the lineup either at catcher, first base or designated hitter.
The Army pitching staff, which led the Patriot League with a 4.30 earned run average in conference games last season, returns all four weekend starters from a year ago. The Black Knights also bring back several key arms in the bullpen, while adding a plethora of talented freshmen.
Having so many veterans back in the fold puts the Army pitching staff in a much better position heading into this season than the Black Knights were in prior to last year.
Senior Logan Lee, who stepped up as the ace of Army's pitching staff last season, looks to recapture that form again this spring. The southpaw from Laguna Niguel, Calif., ranked among the Patriot League leaders in earned run average (3.99), strikeouts (55), complete games (four) and innings pitched (79.0) as a junior in 2011. Lee pitched Army past Lafayette in the first game of the Patriot League semifinals last season, and he figures to headline the Black Knights' rotation again this year.
"I don't think Logan needs to throw any harder or do anything greater," said Sottolano. "The thing with Logan is maintaining consistency. He understands the type of pitcher he is, and what he needs to do to be successful. The knowledge he's gained through his three years of experience will help give him even more confidence this season."
Junior Chris Rowley emerged as one of Army's frontline starters last season as well, ranking among the conference leaders in wins (five), earned run average (4.68), strikeouts (54), innings pitched (73.0) and complete games (three). The Duluth, Ga., native tossed Army's only complete game shutout last season, pitching the Black Knights to an 8-0 win at Lafayette during the regular season.
"Chris made a huge jump from his freshman year to his sophomore season," said Sottolano. "I expect him to continue to mature and get better this year as a junior."
Sophomore Nick Dignacco, who started the third and decisive game of last season's Patriot League Championship Series at Navy, figures to return to his spot in Army's rotation this year as well. The second-year lefty from Sharon, Conn., is brimming with confidence following a freshman showing that saw him post a 4.95 earned run average with 21 strikeouts in 36.1 innings of work.
"Nick really developed during the fall," said Sottolano. "I am particularly impressed with the improvement of his change-up. He was very good as a freshman last season, and I anticipate even greater things from him this year."
Senior Scott Lucado returns for his final season at West Point after serving as the Black Knights' fourth weekend starter in 2011. The Austin, Texas, product was one of the biggest surprises of Army's season last year as the Black Knights went 5-0 in Patriot League games that he started. He finished with a 1-0 mark and a 4.12 earned run average.
Lucado will be challenged by sophomore Gunnar Carroll and freshman Alex Robinett for that fourth starter position this spring. Carroll served as one of Army's most consistent relief pitchers last season, appearing in a team-high 20 games and posting a 4.50 earned run average. Robinett, meanwhile, enters the Academy with a great deal of potential.
"Alex throws hard, and he has a very good breaking ball," said Sottolano. "He is also very strong mentally, which is something that I love. He brings a lot of intangibles to the team."
Sophomore Colin Briant, who stepped up as one of Army's best midweek starters last season, will play a significant role once again this spring. Briant posted a 1-2 record with 15 strikeouts in 21.1 innings as a freshman in 2011.
Senior Kevin McKague figures to return to his familiar spot at the back end of the Army bullpen. The lights-out closer missed most of last season due to an injury, but is back for a fifth year of eligibility after the NCAA granted him a medical redshirt. McKague, who set the Army single-season record with 13 saves as a junior in 2010, looks to regain the form that made him a two-time Stopper of the Year Watch List honoree. McKague showed flashes of brilliance in limited work last season, striking out four batters in 3.2 innings and recording one save. The Fayetteville, N.C., native needs just six more saves to surpass Milan Dinga (USMA '07) and become the Black Knights' all-time saves leader.
"I think the bullpen has a lot of length to it, and we will be capable of presenting opponents with a lot of different looks this spring," said Sottolano. "There are several very talented pitchers in our bullpen."
Senior Manny Fernandez, who served as Army's set-up man two years ago, also returns after missing the entire 2011 campaign due to injury. Fernandez appears to be at 100 percent, and should help strengthen an already talented bullpen.
"Manny has the ability to close, but I anticipate him returning to his role as one of our top set-up men," added Sottolano.
Junior John Buckley is coming off the best year of his career last season. The sidearm specialist went 2-0 with the third-best earned run average on the team (3.81) in 2011.
Fellow junior Ken Jackson is also in the mix for relief work following a steady sophomore campaign that saw him tie for the team lead with five victories.
"Ken had a solid season for us last year," said Sottolano. "He is knowledgeable and athletic. He helped us win a big ball game down at Lafayette last year, and that big-game experience will help him moving forward. We are looking for Ken to become a little more consistent, and I think you'll see more success from him as his velocity increases."
Sophomore Eric Washburn, who was hurt coming out of high school, is a hard-nosed competitor who will add a lot of intangibles to the pitching staff.
"Eric could be a midweek starter or a relief guy," said Sottolano. "It will be interesting to watch him develop, because I believe he has a place in our program."
In addition to the accomplished veterans, Sottolano and his staff have also recruited several talented pitching prospects to West Point.
Freshman Taylor Goucher is a side-arm specialist with a good breaking ball. Fellow classmate Andrew Flaherty is a tall right-hander with a good arm, who could see time as a midweek starter or long reliever. Freshman Brian Hapeman boasts a high -quality arm, who could act as a starter or reliever when healthy.