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Rebuilding Projects Continues Nicely For Baseball Team

Feb. 25, 2003

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- The rebuilding project continues in earnest for head coach Joe Sottolano and the Army baseball team. One glance at the roster will tell you that.

In fact, with 24 underclassmen, only one junior and one senior comprising the Black Knights' squad, Army could very well feature the youngest baseball squad in all of Division I this spring.

When we took over the program a couple of years ago, we knew building our club into a consistent championship contender would take several years; there are no quick-fixes at the Academy in terms of bringing in junior college transfers," Sottolano explains. "We're very pleased with the direction of the program - where we are now and where we are heading in the future. We feel we are laying the foundation necessary for long-term success."

With 12 sophomores and 12 freshmen filling Army's roster, it's easy to see the success Sottolano and his staff have experienced on the recruiting trail since taking control of the program three years ago.

"We have had very good fortune in recruiting the last two years, both in the quantity and quality of players we've been able to attract to the program," Sottolano states. "When you factor in the young men that we're bringing into the Academy next year, it is very evident that we are building a winning program that will compete for a championship consistently.

"It is very difficult to start freshmen and ask them to produce at West Point, but because of the status of the program, that's what we've had to do the last several years. When you look at our record during that span you can see that our team has consistently come on strong as the season has progressed. That's because our freshmen have been significant contributors. As the year goes on, they become more mature and more experienced, and the team has gotten better and better. I expect this year to be no different. There will be a time in the very near future where we won't have to rely so heavily on our young players to make an immediate impact."

Until that time, though, the performance of Army's freshmen and sophomores will be integral to the Black Knights' overall success. On the bright side, many of the young players listed on Army's roster already boast a wealth of game experience. In all, 11 letterwinners return to the club this spring, including four position starters. Most importantly, Army's pitching staff, which performed so admirably a year ago in posting a solid team earned run average of 4.63, returns virtually intact. All but one starter and one reliever from that staff return, a group that accounted for 64 percent of Army's wins, 72 percent of the squad's innings pitched and 76 percent of the club's strikeouts a year ago.

"We have a solid nucleus of pitchers returning," Sottolano mentions. "That's where you want to have experience - on the mound. I would expect the strength of this team to be the pitching staff. Coach (Fritz) Hamburg did a tremendous job with the pitching staff last year. The young men really bought in to our system and believed in the things we were teaching. Those freshmen were main contributors to the program. All of them are back, and we've added a few strong, young arms to the group."

Despite its youthful edge, this could develop into one of the school's deepest and most talented pitching staffs in recent memory. It certainly will provide Sottolano with plenty of options. No fewer than six hurlers enter the spring as legitimate contenders for starting spots in Army's Patriot League rotation. Heading the list are junior Wes Bumgardner, sophomores Josh Birenbaum, Dan Cappello, Wade Greenlee and Justin Kashner, and freshman Dan Pluff, with sophomores Scott Bramble and Jason Mulligan waiting in the wings.

"Any one of our top seven pitchers is capable of pitching an excellent ballgame on any given day," Sottolano adds. "This will probably be one of the most balanced pitching staffs that we've had."

For the first time in several years, Sottolano will cast a watchful eye toward the outfield following the graduation of standout corner men Kyle Kalkwarf (LF) and Josh Rizzo (RF). The duo combined for 207 career outfield starts the past three years before departing as two of the top defensive performers to ever patrol the outer stretches of historic Doubleday Field. First team All-Patriot League selection Josh Holden remains the lone outfield holdover. Following the season-ending injury to sophomore Jason Meloy, Holden ranks as the only outfielder listed on Army's roster with intercollegiate playing experience.

Fortunately, Sottolano and his staff have imported an exciting array of new talent to help fill the void. Plebes Rob Davis, Dug Kasting and Rob Smith will battle for the starting nods in left field and right field. Kasting and Smith displayed great promise this fall, while Davis spent the fall with Army's football program.

"Josh is going to have to assume a greater leadership role than he has in the past," Sottolano offers. "When you look at the outfield as a whole, we are returning just one player. It will be imperative that Josh steps up to become the vocal leader of that group. The new players in our program will make major contributions this year, but Josh is going to have to help them along."

Army's infield will also sport a revamped look this spring with only Nate Stone returning to a starting position. Stone, who handled third base duties a year ago, shifts to shortstop this season and will team with Bumgardner to form the Black Knights' new-look double-play combination. A mainstay in Army's starting pitching rotation since arriving at the Academy two years ago, Bumgardner was originally recruited as both a pitcher and an infielder with the idea that he could assume a position in the field if needed. That need has surfaced following the graduation of all- league second baseman Miguel Gastellum.

"Nate was a pleasant surprise for us at shortstop this fall and we've always felt that Wes could handle another position," Sottolano says. "We expect those two to continue to develop chemistry as the year progresses. They should get better every game."

Freshman Jeremy Stache is slated to open at third base, while sophomores Walker Gorham and Scott Komaromy will battle for the starting nod at first base. Komaromy, Bumgardner and freshman John Hill could see action at any of the four infield positions, providing Sottolano great flexibility. Behind the plate, sophomore Schuyler Williamson is rapidly developing into one of the Patriot League's premier catchers, both offensively and defensively.

"This could be a very rewarding year in a lot of ways," Sottolano explains. "When you have young players, you really see them develop from the beginning of the year to the end. A lot of our success will depend on the rate at which our freshmen and sophomores mature. I like this group as a whole. I think they are tough and hard-nosed. They will come out and compete every day. I think these young men will represent the ideals of the Academy very well.

"I don't think you're ever too young to win. I think we have a lot of talented players in our program, but we are going to have to remain healthy in order to make a run at the championship. Our young players will have to possess the ability to rebound from adversity. They are going to have to be resilient and bounce back from the trials and tribulations that young teams commonly experience. The sooner they realize they can compete and succeed at this level, the sooner we can contend for a championship."

Considering the foundation Sottolano and his staff continue to pour, the wait shouldn't be long now.

INFIELD

Army will sport a revamped look in the infield, with just one starter from last year's club set to return to the lead cast. And that lone holdover, sophomore Nate Stone (.234, 17 R, 1 HR, 15 RBI), will find himself in new surroundings following his shift from third base to shortstop in the fall.

Stone enjoyed a productive freshman campaign, grabbing a starting role early in the season and holding it the rest of the way. An outstanding athlete, Stone features excellent range and boasts the arm strength necessary to make plays deep in the hole. More importantly, he possesses good field presence and appears ready to shoulder the added responsibilities required by the shortstop position. His transition is expected to be smooth.

"Nate had an excellent fall season," Sottolano explains. "We will expect an awful lot out of him this spring in terms of leadership and running the defense. That will only improve with additional innings at the position."

For the second straight season, Army will rely on a freshman to handle the starting role at third base as plebe Jeremy Stache slides into the vacancy created by Stone's move. A member of Army's skilled freshman class, Stache is a versatile performer capable of handling all four infield positions. He is an above-average talent at the plate, but will be counted on to lend solid defense, first and foremost.

"We believe Jeremy is in line to win the starting job at third base," Sottolano offers. "He possesses a very quick first step and plays the game with a great deal of passion. We feel he can develop into a very good hitter, but our main concern is that he provides excellent defense. The main thing we want from our third baseman this year is solid defense."

The Black Knights feature a new face at second base, but it will be one familiar to Army followers as junior Wes Bumgardner adds a second position to his resum.

While Bumgardner established himself as one of the Patriot League's top starting pitchers during his first two years at the Academy, he was initially recruited to fill two roles. One of the top athletes on the squad, he should produce sound defense and added force in Sottolano's lineup.

"Wes has really stepped up and taken the position," Sottolano states. "We recruited him as a dual-position player, but we felt we needed to allow him to concentrate on pitching the past two years. We think he can make a large contribution in the field at this time. He handles the bat very well and is a line-drive hitter with the ability to drive in runs. The only question with Wes will be his experience at second base. If he struggles early, it's going to be because of a lack of experience at the position."

When Bumgardner takes to the mound, versatile freshman John Hill is expected to man the second base spot. Recruited to play either middle infield position, Hill may also see field duty at third base. His greatest value could be in his role of utility specialist, helping to lengthen Army's improving bench. Another freshman, David Talbott, provides added support at second base.

Sophomores Walker Gorham (.191, 4 R, 5 RBI) and Scott Komaromy (.159, 10 R, 7 RBI) will battle for playing time at first base. Gorham enters the season as the likely starter after serving as Komaromy's backup much of last spring. An improving defensive performer, Gorham could blossom into a force offensively after making great strides at the plate a year ago. His sweet- swinging lefty stroke will fit nicely in the middle of Army's batting order. Komaromy, meanwhile, remains a vital piece to Army's overall puzzle, lending tremendous defensive stability as well as valuable flexibility. He is capable of playing either of the infield corner slots and could fill in at second base if needed.

"We think Walker Gorham is ready to develop into an offensive power this spring," Sottolano offers. "He was recruited to hit in the middle of our batting order and we believe he is ready to take on that responsibility this year. Komaromy is another of our young players who saw a lot of playing time last season and is capable of playing several different positions. He is a very heady baseball player and will do a good job for us in any role we ask him to fill.

"Our infield will be inexperienced, but we are going to play excellent athletes at every position. It will take some time for the group to get comfortable playing as a cohesive unit, but we feel that will occur over time. Hopefully, this group will get stronger as the year progresses."

OUTFIELD

Following the graduation loss of four-year stalwarts Kyle Kalkwarf and Josh Rizzo, head coach Joe Sottolano and his staff will be forced to replace two of the finest defensive corner outfielders ever to pass through the Academy. The pair teamed with Josh Holden to comprise one of the top defensive outfields in the East last spring, and will be sorely missed, both on and off the playing field. In addition to the departures of Kalkwarf and Rizzo, Army will also be without the services of multi-talented sophomore Jason Meloy (.320, 7 R, 4 RBI) this spring due to a shoulder injury. A sound fundamental performer and an excellent situational hitter, Meloy boasts the ability to fill all three outfield spots, when healthy. He also provides the Black Knights with a dangerous base- stealing threat.

Holden returns following a "breakout" junior campaign that saw him capture a Patriot League batting title (.398, 22 R, 1 HR, 10 RBI, 20-21 SBA) and first team all-conference accolades. A speedy runner and one of the team's offensive catalysts, Holden wreaks havoc on the basepaths and carries a .354 career batting average into his final season. He will be counted on to fill either the first or second spot atop the Black Knights' batting order, with an eye toward igniting Army's offense. One of the premier defensive center fielders in the East, Holden will be asked to provide vital senior leadership and stability in his role as team captain this spring.

"You cannot overestimate the loss of Kyle Kalkwarf and Josh Rizzo in the outfield," Sottolano contends. "Defensively, we took an awful lot for granted with those two out there because of their physical ability, game experience and maturity. We are going to expect Josh to take on a much greater leadership role this year in their absence.

"Josh is a tremendous athlete and gets to a lot of balls most other players cannot. He has proven to be a dangerous offensive weapon for us with the ability to score any time he reaches base."

Freshmen Rob Davis, Dug Kasting and Rob Smith appear to be the leading candidates for playing time beside Holden.

Davis is an outstanding defensive talent with a prototypical right fielder's throwing arm. A hard- nosed competitor with terrific baseball instincts, Davis spent the fall season as a backup outside linebacker with Army's football program. He could make a large impact immediately and appears headed for a starting berth in right field. Both Kasting and Smith opened eyes with impressive fall showings after arriving as part of Sottolano's latest group of highly regarded freshman imports. Both are plus offensive performers hailing from well respected baseball programs.

Competition for those starting berths should be heated throughout the spring. While Davis could play all three outfield positions, Kasting could factor into either corner slot. Smith appears best-suited for left field.

"We are very fortunate to bring some very talented young outfielders into the program this year," Sottolano states. "These young men have a lot of ability and will make significant contributions.

"Rob Davis has great speed and has shown the potential to be an outstanding defensive outfielder. He is a nice addition to the program. Rob Smith is more of a power-hitting offensive threat, who could see playing time in left field or at designated hitter. Dug Kasting is a line-drive hitter with gap power who could play either corner outfield position. We'll be very young in the outfield, but this group has the potential to be very good."

CATCHER

Bolstered by the return of fast-rising sophomore Schuyler Williamson (.247, 15 R, 6 2B, 1 HR, 12 RBI), Army appears solid in the catching department. Williamson made an immediate impact on the Black Knight program during an impressive rookie showing, snatching the starting job behind the plate instantly.

An impressive physical specimen, Williamson features a "lightening-quick" release to complement a "cannon-like" throwing arm. He possesses the ability to neutralize an opponent's running game and provides a stabilizing force behind the plate.

One of the team's emerging leaders on and off the playing field, Williamson will be counted on to shoulder an increased role offensively. He could blossom into a major force in the middle of head coach Joe Sottolano's batting order and boasts the ability to deliver runs in bunches.

"We expect Schuyler Williamson to develop into one of the Patriot League's top catchers this season," Sottolano says. "He has already become one of the team's primary leaders and continues to improve his ability to control a pitching staff. That comes with confidence and experience.

"He has worked very hard to become an offensive threat and he runs very well for a catcher. If Schuyler continues to mature, we could have a very unique player at the position this year."

Spelling Williamson in the lineup on occasion will be freshman Josh Hughes and sophomore Stan Swaintek. Hughes is a strong defensive backstop with soft hands and an accurate throwing arm, while Swaintek lends added depth.

"I think we will be very strong behind the plate," Sottolano mentions. "Williamson could be a very special player for us, both offensively and defensively. We thought he had the ability to develop into an all-league player when we recruited him, and he appears to be living up to those expectations. We need to continue developing depth in reserve."

PITCHERS

The top priority of head coach Joe Sottolano's rebuilding plan has been to infuse quality young pitching arms into Army's program. The Black Knights are beginning to reap the rewards of that strategy with no fewer than 11 sophomore and freshman hurlers landing spots on Army's roster this spring. In fact, not a single senior pitcher is included on the Cadets' staff.

Army returns seven pitchers from a group that forged a respectable team earned run average of 4.63 last year. The staff equaled a single season school record by firing six shutouts and came on particularly strong as the year progressed. During one late-season stretch, the Black Knights established another school mark by tossing three consecutive shutouts. Additionally, Army's pitchers allowed more than three runs in just one of the season's final 14 contests. Black Knight hurlers limited opponents to one run or less six times during the span.

"I was very pleased with how our pitching staff performed last season," Sottolano states. "I like the way our young players competed every time out. That is very encouraging as we continue to build the program. If our pitchers come along like we think they can, we will find ourselves in an advantageous position at year's end.

"Our pitching staff will have to be a strength this year if we are going to be successful as a team. We've added some quality arms to go along with the talented players that return to the program. This can be a very interesting group."

Junior right-hander Wes Bumgardner (2-4, 4.35 ERA) heads the promising contingent. Following a strong debut campaign, Bumgardner broke from the gate slowly last spring. By year's end, though, he had regained the form that made him one of the Patriot League's premier starting pitchers as a freshman. He was particularly effective down the stretch, posting a microscopic 0.90 earned run average during his last three starts.

A regular member of Sottolano's weekend rotation since entering the Academy two years ago, Bumgardner adds second base to his cach this spring. Sottolano will monitor the situation closely during the early portion of the season to ensure those extra duties do not affect his performance on the mound.

"Wes is a winner," Sottolano lauds. "We don't think playing in the field will have a negative impact on his pitching performance. We think he will be in a position to compete for a victory every time he steps on the mound."

Sophomore right-handers Justin Kashner (5-2, 4.60 ERA) and Dan Cappello (3-3, 4.83 ERA) put Army in position to compete for wins nearly every time they took the mound last season. The duo wasted little time making an impact as each claimed a spot in Army's weekend pitching rotation almost immediately. Both ranked among Patriot League earned run average leaders much of the year.

Kashner closed the year on quite a roll, failing to allow a single run across his final 13.0 innings of work. He finished 3-1 with a 4.25 ERA in conference action, leading the league with 25 strikeouts in Patriot play. He figures to hold a regular turn in Army's Patriot League rotation once again this spring. The same might be said of Cappello, whose "stuff" ranks among the league's best. But while Cappello could settle comfortably in a starting role, the Upper Darby, Pa., native's hard-biting slider and groundball-inducing sinker make him a viable candidate for Army's closer job as well.

Sophomore Josh Birenbaum (2-1, 2 SV, 3.71 ERA) filled that role last spring, emerging as a dominant force out of the Black Knights' bullpen. Birenbaum improved steadily as the year progressed and finished his plebe season with a vengeance. He allowed runs in just three of his final 10 appearances, rounding into a valuable late-game weapon in Army's throwing arsenal. He will be granted every opportunity to win a regular turn in the Cadets' starting rotation this time around.

"Kashner, Cappello and Birenbaum were really thrown into difficult situations last season," Sottolano admits. "Kashner showed maturity beyond his years. He carries a 'bulldog' menatlity to the mound and possesses the ability to make those around him better. Cappello can be as 'nasty' as anyone on our staff. His 'stuff' is that good. The true test for Dan will be his consistency.

"We need Birenbaum to have a strong season, whether we use him in the starting rotation or in the bullpen. He has developed three very good pitches and should be extremely effective in any role we use him."

Freshman Dan Pluff and sophomore Wade Greenlee (2-3, 6.82 ERA) rank as the other top contenders to fill weekend slots in Army's starting rotation. A highly regarded right-hander, Pluff could rate as the most talented member of Sottolano's gifted freshman class following a standout high school career that saw him earn all-state honors as a senior. Greenlee displayed flashes of brilliance during an uneven rookie campaign. After firing a two-hit shutout in his collegiate debut, the native of Bourbonnais, Ill., struggled during the season's middle stages. He seemed to regain focus down the stretch, allowing just two earned runs across his final 14.0 innings of work.

Sophomore southpaw Scott Bramble (0-2, 5.57 ERA) and converted outfielder Jason Mulligan (0.00 ERA, 4 APP) head Army's cast of relievers. Both logged quality innings out of the Black Knights' bullpen a year ago. Bramble provides the lone left-handed option among Army's returnees and rates as one of only two lefties on the Black Knights' pitching staff. Mulligan was impressive in limited action last season following his shift from the outfield.

In addition to Pluff, Sottolano has added four other freshmen to the Black Knights' pitching mix. Right-handers Kevin Kalkwarf, Monte Jones and Andrew Fortune, along with left-hander John Dorost promise to scuffle for innings behind the lead group. Fortune might have the best chance at pushing the veterans for a regular turn in the starting rotation.

"This is probably the most balanced staff that we've had since I've been at the Academy," Sottolano says. "We are still looking for a couple of guys to separate themselves and develop into legitimate top-end performers. Hopefully, some of our young pitchers can grow to that level.

"Our pitching is definitely getting stronger. It is an area that we have focused on during recruiting. When this pitching staff develops one or two dominant starters, I think we will be in position to make a run at the championship on a consistent basis."

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