Thursday, March 6, 2003
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Nick Ponomarenko pitched for Hawaii last week against Hawaii Pacific. UH is 11-3 heading into tomorrow's WAC opener.
The Western Athletic Conference baseball coaches had no trouble selecting a conference champion in their preseason poll.
Rainbows WAC foes
include No. 1 Rice
By Al Chase
Rice was voted the honor for the seventh consecutive season, the same number of years the Owls have been in the league. The coaches then emphasized the validity of that choice by naming nine Owls to the 17-member preseason All-WAC team.
Rice, No. 1 in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers poll for the second consecutive week, has defeated No. 10 Baylor, No. 19 Texas A&M, No. 20 Houston and No. 25 Mississippi in nonconference games.
Owls coach Wayne Graham continues to reload his arsenal every year with amazing efficiency, leaving little doubt that the road to the WAC championship goes through Houston.
Hawaii (11-3), picked to finish in a tie for fourth with Nevada, is coming off a 5-25 WAC season a year ago. The Rainbows begin their climb back to respectability tomorrow in the opener of a three-game series at Fresno State.
In the only other conference series, Rice travels to Louisiana Tech.
"I want to see how we react in a hostile environment," said UH coach Mike Trapasso. "Going on the road has plusses and minuses. There can be some distractions (a number of the players will have family and friends in the stands), but you can eliminate some of those.
"Sometimes a team comes together on the road because there isn't much to do except think baseball. The main objective is to play well and win baseball games."
The Rainbows pitching staff has the best earned run average among the six league schools at 2.62, the team batting average of .307 is second best and the .968 fielding average is fourth best.
Fresno State won five of the six meetings a year ago and ended the visiting 'Bows' season with a series sweep to hold a 47-30 lead in the all-time series.
Trapasso will be matching wits with FSU coach Mike Batesole, a former Alaska League teammate, for the first time.
"Mike is a very good coach. He's a tough coach, no nonsense and his team will be very sound fundamentally. He's going to do a great job there," said Trapasso. "We definitely will have our hands full and will have to play mistake-free baseball to compete."
Here is a capsule look at the conference teams in the order they play Hawaii in the first round with the overall 2003 record in parentheses.
FRESNO STATE (4-11)
Coach: Mike Batesole, 8th season (260-169-1, .606).
2002 WAC record: 19-11 (third).
Players to watch: SS Chris Patrick, 2B Ryan Haag, 3B Casey McGehee.
Outlook: FSU and San Jose State tied for second place in the WAC coaches preseason poll, but the Bulldogs have struggled offensively early in the season, hitting just .212. The pitching staff hasn't done much better, posting a 5.39 ERA. However, the Bulldogs have played a very tough schedule, being swept in three-game series by in-state powers Cal State Fullerton, Stanford and Pepperdine. Three of their four wins have come at home.
Coach: Wayne Graham, 11th season (490-213, .697).
2002 WAC record: 28-2 (first).
Players to watch: 1B Vincent Sinisi, 2B Enrique Cruz, RHP Steven Herce, RHP Philip Humber.
Outlook: Start with Sinisi being the preseason WAC Player of the Year and Herce the preseason WAC Pitcher of the Year. However, Herce has a sore shoulder, has not pitched this year and is not expected to be ready before April 1. But the Owls just roll on. Humber is 3-0, as is right-hander Jeff Niemann, named the WAC Pitcher of the Week the past two weeks. Niemann has a 1.99 ERA and averages better than one strikeout per inning. Sinisi is hitting .415 and has plenty of offensive help from Chris Kolkhurst (.404), Paul Janish (.379) and Cruz (.341).
Coach: Gary Powers, 21st season (619-471-4. 568).
2002 WAC record: 10-20 (fourth)
Players to watch: DH Tony Cappuccilli, RHP Eddie Bonnie, INF Erick Streelman, RHP Justin Sherman.
Outlook: The Wolf Pack, picked to finish in a tie for fourth with UH, played their first 13 games on the road and went 4-9 before taking two of three from UNLV in their home-opening series last weekend. Catcher Brett Hayes earned WAC Player of the Week honors after a 7-for-14, nine-RBI performance at the plate. Streelman is hitting .410. Hayes .321 and Kevin Kouzmanhoff has four homers. Right-hander Mateo Miramontes, expected to be the ace of the staff, is off to a slow start, giving up a lot of hits and saddled with a 5.91 ERA.
LOUISIANA TECH (5-8-1)
Coach: Wade Simoneaux, first season (5-8-1, .393).
2002 WAC record: 7-23 (fifth).
Players to watch: SS Wade Robinson, OF Fairon Allen, OF John Brandon.
Outlook: The Bulldogs, picked to finish last, are adjusting to Simoneaux, known as a disciplinarian, who is charged with revitalizing the program. His hitters have been doing a decent job, posting a .293 team batting average, led by Robinson at .400, Allen at .382 and Brandon, who has five homers and 16 RBIs, at .349. The pitching staff has struggled with a 6.69 ERA. John Kirkendall and Jon Lockwood have decent ERAs of 4.03 and 4.05, and excellent strikeout-to-walk ratios. Allen tops the WAC in stolen bases with nine in nine attempts.
SAN JOSE STATE (6-8)
Coach: Sam Piraro, 17th season (542-392-4, 580).
2002 WAC record: 21-9 (second).
Players to watch: RHP Matt Durkin, 3B Kevin Frandsen, OF Jon Heuerman, C Aaron Bates.
Outlook: The Spartans lost six players to the pros, but Piraro signed seven pitchers and eight position players to help retool. Durkin is a Collegiate Baseball preseason All-America selection and is off to a 3-1 start with a 3.12 ERA. Frandsen leads the WAC with 28 hits and is batting .467. Newcomers Heuerman (.429), Bates (.419) and Nick Guerra (.414) have made an immediate impact at the plate.
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