As the grass and dirt of Earl Lorden Field becomes visible, the crack of metal bats and leather mitts can be heard as the Massachusetts baseball team prepares for their season in search of a second Atlantic 10 appearance in the past three seasons.
UMass features a variety of familiar veterans and young talent as the 2011 season gets underway. UMass coach Mike Stone is at the helm of the squad in his 24th season, sporting a career record of 580-496-2 with the Minutemen.
Last season, the Minutemen finished eighth in the A-10 with a 19-27 overall record and a 13-14 conference record. With the loss of the 11 lettermen and five pitchers to graduation, 16 freshmen have joined the team to accompany the eight veteran pitchers and 17 returning lettermen.
Senior second baseman Eric Fredette of Glastonbury, Conn. and senior outfielder Kyle Multner of Peabody, Mass. will honor the positions of co-captains this season.
Last season, Fredette was the recipient of the team’s E. Joseph Thompson Most Valuable Player Award and was an A-10 All-Conference second team selection. The transfer from Vermont led UMass with a .384 batting average, with 31 RBIs, four homeruns, 32 runs scored and a team-best 19 walks, in his first season with the Minutemen.
Multner enters his senior season as the school’s active leader in career hits with 119 and homeruns with 20. He appeared in 30 games in 2010, starting 28 and batted .262 with 19 runs scored and 18 RBIs.
“Both [Fredette and Multner] were voted to be captains by all of the players as they are both seniors that show good leadership and are popular among the other players,” said Stone
On the rubber, UMass will be relying on a younger pitching staff in 2011. Of the 13 pitchers, there is just one senior in left-hander Charlie Benson, five juniors, three sophomores and four freshmen. Freshman Aaron Plunkett of Essex Junction, Vt, is the only other southpaw on the squad.
“I think we definitely have a different look on the mound and these guys are going to have to earn their chance to start, but as of right now pitching roles are to be determined,” said Stone.
Benson played in 12 games last season, going 2-1 with 16 strikeouts and a 6.65 ERA in 21.2 innings pitched. Other key returners are juniors Leif Sorenson, Joe Popielarczyk and Ben Hart. As the team’s closer, Sorenson appeared in 18 games, while starting one game and posting a 2-1 record. He also recorded five saves, ranking fifth in the A-10 and led the team with a 3.94 ERA in 29.2 innings pitched, while ringing up 14 batters.
Popielarczyk, who attended Northampton High School, made 10 appearances out of the bullpen, finishing the season with a 1-1 record in 19 innings pitched. The right-hander was a strikeout machine, recording 26 in 2010 and finishing the season with a 6.16 ERA. Likewise, Hart made his living out of the bullpen, making nine appearances for 21.1 innings pitched. As a sophomore he had a 6.33 ERA and recorded nine strikeouts.
Behind the plate, UMass has five players on the active roster. Junior Tom Conley carried the workload in 2010, starting 39 games behind the plate. As a sophomore he batted 0.277 with 18 runs scored and 28 RBIs. He predominantly batted in the back of the order, totaling four doubles and five round-trippers. He also gunned down 18 base runners and picked off two on defense.
Redshirt junior Corey Volpicelli saw action in 10 games, making five starts behind the plate. Volpicelli batted well with a .333 batting average, including a double, two RBIs, two runs scored and one steal. Freshmen include Brian Fracasso of West Hartford, Conn., Alex Tuneski of Waterford, Conn., and Justin Sencabaugh of Medford, Mass.
“Volpicelli has improved a lot and I think there will be some good healthy competition between him and Conley,” said Stone. “In my opinion depth only makes you stronger.”
The infield is the strongest area of the 2011 Minutemen team, with probable starting seniors at second base, third base and shortstop.
Captain Fredette will resume his role at second, as he finished last season with 71 hits, tied for ninth all-time for hits in a single season at UMass, including 11 doubles. Batting primarily in the second spot of the lineup he had a .384 on base percentage and a .519 slugging percentage.
At third base, senior Peter Copa started all 46 games for the Minutemen last season. As one of the top talents on the roster, he batted .329 with 34 RBIs and 38 runs scored. He boasted a team best .572 slugging percentage and was tied for the team lead in homeruns with eight. He also had 10 doubles, four triples, four stolen bases and was second on the team in total bases with 99. He started 32 times at the hot corner, as well as 13 times at first base and predominantly hit sixth in the batting order.
At shortstop, senior Matt Gedman mainly batted in the heart of the order, ending the season with a .313 batting average and a team-best 14 doubles. Gedman also knocked in 34 runs while scoring 36, including six round-trippers. As a junior he was efficient at the plate, striking out just 13 times in 195 at-bats and registered 17 multi-hit games.
First base seems to be open for grabs as two freshmen are the only players listed at the position. Dylan Begin of Essex Junction and Nik Campero of Wallingford, Conn. may get the rare opportunity to see starting time in their first season.
“I think a lot of different people will get the opportunity to contribute,” said Stone. “We have some good freshmen players who will likely see playing time and it’s nice to have lots of choices.”
Of the six outfielders on the roster, UMass features one senior, one junior and two sophomores and freshmen. Multner, as the team’s captain, will be on the field, most likely in his usual spot in left field. Last season he batted ninth in the order.
Junior Alex Fischer may find a new home as a starter in the outfield. As a sophomore he played 13 games, predominantly in left field. In limited action he batted .267 with four doubles, seven RBIs and eight runs scored, including two stolen bases.
Sophomores Rich Graef and Anthony Serino will hope to see more action in their second year on the squad. As freshmen, Graef played in 13 games while Serino saw playing time in five. Freshmen Adam Picard and Kyle Adie may also compete for valuable playing time, as the outfield is fairly young across the board this season.
“So far I would say Serino and Graef have really emerged as good players but positions are still up for grabs because we haven’t really gotten the chance to play for real yet,” said Stone.
Michael Counos can be reached at email@example.com.