Feb. 19, 2009


Coaches Gather in Richmond for Media Day

By Phil Stanton

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder


The first Central Virginia College Baseball Media Day was recently held at the Siegel Center on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Participants included head coaches Paul Keyes from VCU, Mark McQueen from Richmond, Marlin Ikenberry from VMI and Ray Hedrick from Randolph-Macon.


VCU and Richmond enter 2009 looking for redemption from disappointing seasons a year ago. The Rams missed the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament for the first time, posting an overall record of 15-30 and an 8-17 conference mark. That is not expected from a program that has the highest winning percentage in the state over the past 20 years (.596) and the most NCAA Tournament appearances in the state in the past 10 seasons (6). VCU had an unusually high ERA of 6.17, not expected when playing its home games at the pitcher-friendly Diamond.


“We have to pitch.” Keyes (pictured right) said. “Last year, I thought on the field we played OK. When you set up our program, and we’ve always said we’re the [St. Louis] Cardinals of the ‘80s with pitching, defense and speed, I thought we had the speed part last year. I thought offensively we played OK. Defensively if you don’t pitch well you don’t play good defense. I didn’t think we covered the outfield very well last year and that might have been the pitching part. But for us to be better we have to pitch and that’s going to be partly our job to put the guys in the right situation.”


VCU’s top returning starter is senior lefty Ian Thomas, who was 3-3 in 2008 with a 4.45 ERA.


The Rams lost two big bats as Jared Bolden (.355, 12 HR, 44 RBI, 12-16 SB) was drafted by the Texas Rangers and Chris Jackson (.302, 2 HR, 23 RBI, 17-19 SB) was taken by the Houston Astros. Is there one guy to replace them?


“No, that’s the great thing,” Keyes said. “I think that was the problem we had last year. I think we had two pretty decent drafts in Jackson and Bolden and I think our guys looked for that. We relied on those two guys and early on both of them really struggled. They didn’t play that well and I think the guys played like those guys. They pressed a little bit thinking they had to do more. This year I think we’ve got a pretty good nucleus of about 14 to 15 players on the field that can really help us, so it gives us a little bit more depth.”


The top returning hitter is senior outfielder Justin Wright, who batted .311 a season ago with 12 doubles and 23 runs. How will Wright handle the leadership role?


“Leading by example,” Wright said. “I’m pretty vocal, but at times I’m not. So I try to do the right thing and play hard, never quit and hopefully the guys will feed off that.”


Keyes enters his 15th season as head coach at VCU and is seven wins away from 500. The Rams are picked seventh in the CAA preseason poll. The top six advance to the CAA Tournament. VCU opens the season with a four-game set at UCF.


The Spiders were bitten by the injury bug big time in McQueen’s first year as head coach. Before a dozen games were in the books, UR lost its starting shortstop, starting third baseman, two starting pitchers and its closer. The Spiders finished 20-31-2 overall and 10-16-1 in the Atlantic 10. UR struggled on the mound, posting an ERA of 6.57.


“I think we’ve got to have better quality outings out of our starting pitching,” McQueen said. “I thought our ERA was too high last year. I thought our walks were up last year. I thought offensively we did a nice job. I thought Coach [Ryan] Wheeler and Coach [Chad] Oxendine did a great job with the offense. We scored runs, we hit pretty well. They gave us a chance. Once our defense got hurt last year, we put a freshman at shortstop after [Victor] Croglio goes down, and then Cameron Brown goes down at third base. We had to put a backup catcher at third. A lot of ground balls got through that left side of the infield. I’d catch myself getting ready to explode, then I’m saying to myself it’s not their fault. They’re not even supposed to be there now. I had to bite my tongue and grin and bear it. I know it was tough on the pitchers too because there were plays that should have been made that weren’t, but that was the situation we were in. I think with our defense being healthy right now is going to be really good. If we can get some quality outings, quality starts, and quality innings out of our pitching I think we’ve got some other pitchers that can throw some good middle relief for us. I think that’s going to be the key.”


Juniors Ian Marshall and Brian Farrell were expected to be workhorses on the mound, but tendonitis limited the pair to a combined 33 innings. Both are back healthy and in the mix for spots in the weekend rotation. Junior lefty Matt Zielinski led the staff a year ago with a 5-2 mark in 61 innings with a 4.72 ERA. Junior Stephen Owens (2-4, 5.59) is also battling for a starting spot. Senior Brian Alas hopes to reclaim his role as closer after making just one appearance in 2008.


The top returning hitters for the Spiders are senior outfielder Ryan Metzroth (.336, 6 HR, 39 RBI, 15 2B) and sophomore DH Billy Barber (.317, 13 HR, 45 RBI, 13 2B). Metzroth doesn’t want his season to end early like it did in 2008.


“Personally, the only goal I’ve set is actually more a team goal,” Metzroth said, “to get to the A-10 playoffs and still be playing in late May, early June. You’ve got to compete. I think last year with all the injuries we had to those key players, getting all those guys back adds another level of confidence. They’re all older guys too so it adds more veteran leadership on the pitching staff, and in offense and defense.”


The Spiders are picked fourth in the A-10 behind Charlotte, Xavier and Rhode Island. UR will not face this trio among its nine conference series. Another scheduling benefit, the Spiders play 20 of their first 22 game at home in the cozy confines of Pitt Field.


“I think the guys are excited about playing at home,” McQueen said. “If the weather cooperates, it should be great for us, to be able to get up and go to the ballpark and not have to travel around early in the year. If the weather’s cold, it’s going to be a little bit more of a battle. But we’re excited about playing at home early on and hopefully we can get off to a good start.”


UR starts the 2009 campaign with a three-game home series against Niagara.


VMI is ready to continue its rise under Ikenberry (pictured left), entering his sixth season as head coach of the Keydets and his 13th with the school. He played four seasons as a starting catcher (1992-95) and was an assistant for three years (2001-03) before becoming head coach. The Keydets have broken the school record for wins in three of the past four seasons, placing the mark at 34 in 2007. VMI was 29-26 a year ago and 14-7 in the Big South, tied with Liberty for second behind Coastal Carolina. The Keydets are fourth in the Big South preseason poll behind Coastal, Liberty and Winthrop. What do the Keydets need to do to get to that top spot?


“The biggest thing for us is to play well in May,” Ikenberry said. “It seems like we get ourselves in a great position. Last year was our first winning season in the Big South ever and it came down to the final weekend where we swept Charleston Southern. We felt like we were playing really well going to the tournament. We just played OK in the tournament. We made some crucial errors in the tournament. I told our guys it comes down to playing well in May. Pitching and defense are going to get us there. I’ve coached a lot of good offensive teams, but I think this is one of the best we’ve ever had.”


Following that sweep of Charleston Southern, VMI fell to Winthrop (7-2) and Coastal (3-1) in the 2008 Big South Tournament. The Keydets will have conference series with Coastal and High Point this May prior to the Big South tourney in Asheville, N.C.


VMI returns seven position starters and nine pitchers, and will combine them with a large freshman class.


“We’ve got 15 newcomers,” Ikenberry said. “We have a lot of two-way players. Our freshmen can really pitch. I think that’s what’s going to surprise a lot of teams is not knowing who they are when they take the mound. They’re not going to have a scouting report on them. Of course with freshmen you never know what’s going to show up each day. But on our field the past month, we’ve seen that they’ve really gelled well.”


The Keydets lost two outstanding starting pitchers in Trey Barham (4-6, 3.84, 86 K) and Michael Bowman (4-6, 3.44, 82 K), who each logged more than 90 innings. Bowman was drafted in the ninth round by Milwaukee and Barham was taken in the 25th round by Oakland. Senior right-hander Chris Henderson (5-4, 3.16) will lead the returning starters, while junior lefty Travis Smink (2-1, 7 saves, 3.48) will anchor the bullpen.


Sophomore outfielder Sam Roberts will lead the Keydet offense. He batted .348 a season ago with 14 doubles and 26 RBI. He was 12-14 on stolen base attempts. Other key returnees include junior first baseman Jordan Ballard (.302, 12 HR, 39 RBI), junior third baseman Tanner Biagini (.343, 10 HR, 46 RBI) and junior outfielder Brian Dandridge (.320, 7 HR, 39 RBI).


VMI will play its third season in Gray-Minor Stadium, the beautiful on-campus facility.


“Our facility is outstanding” Ikenberry said. “The environment that our kids play in is by far one of the best in the state, if not the best on the East Coast.”


VMI will open its season with a three-game series at North Carolina, which will debut its new facility, Bryson Field at Boshamer Stadium.


The Division III Randolph-Macon Yellow Jackets are coming off a championship campaign in 2008. RMC captured the Old Dominion Athletic Conference title, its first conference championship since 1987 and its first NCAA appearance since 1977. The Yellow Jackets were 25-17 a year ago and 12-6 in the ODAC. How does fifth-year head coach and alum Hedrick keep the Jackets hungry?


“I think the first thing that we did,” Hedrick said, “we were happy to be ranked preseason No. 1 by the fellow coaches. I told them that in the eight years that I believe they have done a poll, the preseason No. 1 has never won the league. So there was motivation right away to do something that hasn’t been done before. Since I’ve been in the league there hasn’t been a repeat champion. Now granted this is only my fifth year. Winning the conference championship was nice last year but we have to remember we were a 3-seed. I’d be the first one to tell you that we probably weren’t the most talented team last year. There were teams in the league in the top six that were more talented but we got hot at the right time. We weren’t the No. 1 seed last year. Let’s be the No. 1 seed this year. Let be a clean, clear-cut champion this year. Let’s be the 1-seed, let’s win the tournament and next year we’ll figure out other ways to motivate them.”


RMC has several key returning players, including a dozen seniors.


“They were part of the first recruiting class in 2005 for me,” Hedrick said. “Six of them are Richmond-area kids. Charlie Hartt and Jeff Beck are two middle lineup 1B/DH kind of guys, one from Douglas Freeman, one from Deep Run. We’re going to count on a lot of productivity from them. Greg Meleski is not on the roster from Richmond, although his parents both are Tucker grads. His dad is a Randolph-Macon grad and his uncle is a hitting instructor in the area. Bruno Gora from Mills Godwin, Dann Woods and David Jayne are utility outfielders for us. They see limited playing time but are kids that took a chance on our program four or five years ago. We’ve got a good mix of guys.”


Meleski hit .394 as a junior with 14 doubles, 41 runs and 40 RBI. He is a two-time all-conference performer and was named Most Outstanding Player of the 2008 ODAC Tournament. Gora batted .354 with 26 runs and 15 RBI. Hartt hit .328 with nine homers, 35 RBI and 41 runs as a First Team All-ODAC selection.


Junior Mike Wallace will also be a major contributor on offense. He batted .438 in 2008, tops in the conference, with five homers, 43 RBI, 17 doubles and 36 runs. His on-base percentage was .489 and he was a perfect 11-11 on stolen base attempts. Wallace was First Team All-ODAC and First Team All-South Region.


Sophomore Byron Mendenhall will anchor the pitching staff. He was co-rookie and co-pitcher of the year in the ODAC, going 7-0 with a 1.68 ERA. He fanned 68 in 64.1 innings with 17 walks.


The Jackets have won four of their first six games in 2009 and return to action at home this weekend with a pair against Messiah on Saturday and a Sunday date with Mary Washington.


Special thanks to VCU baseball SID Scott Day (pictured left) for his work in planning and hosting the first Central Virginia College Baseball Media Day.

(photos courtesy of VCU Media Relations Office)