Feb. 14, 2012

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Navy’s Florida duo has Midshipmen thinking Patriot repeat

By Tom Gresham



When Navy coach Paul Kostacopoulos decided to juggle his lineup on the verge of the postseason last spring, shifting cleanup hitter Greg Dupell (left) across the diamond from first base to third base, he did not hold a sit-down conference with Dupell. Nor did he worry about how his player would manage the change emotionally so late into the season.


“All I had to do was say, ‘Get over there,’” Kostacopoulos said.


Teaching sacrifice and the supremacy of the team does not worry Kostacopoulos nor does his players’ mental toughness. The Naval Academy takes care of that for him.


“At Navy, everything that we do is a team concept,” Kostacopoulos said. “We’re just a piece of the puzzle and we learn right away that we can do far more as a group than as individuals. It is instilled from the first day of the plebe summer. They’re taught, ‘We’re going to do this thing together.’”


The lineup shift was one of a number of moves that went right in 2011 as Navy enjoyed its most successful season in nearly a decade. The Midshipmen swept the Patriot League regular-season and conference titles and played in an NCAA regional for the first time since 2002.


Among the keys to the team’s success were Dupell, who hit .327 with a team-high seven home runs and .531 slugging percentage, and Alex Azor, a savvy centerfielder, who hit .329 with a team-high 15 doubles and a conference-high 77 hits. The duo tied for the most runs in the conference with 49. Dupell and Azor, who are both Florida natives, return this year, spearheading the Midshipmen’s bid to repeat as conference champions.


“They are huge catalysts for us,” Kostacopoulos said.


Azor (left), a senior captain, will take on a new role in his final season. Kostacopoulos has shifted the 5’11, 190-pounder, from the No. 3 spot to the leadoff position in the Midshipmen lineup. Azor does not provide blazing speed setting the table, but he does have a heady approach – “he’s one of the smartest players I’ve coached in 23 years,” Kostacopoulos said – that fits the job.


Azor said he read “Moneyball” in the offseason and digested the value the Oakland A’s front office found in walks and on-base percentage. A focus of Azor’s workouts in the interim has been on improving his patience and pitch selection at the plate as he looks to find more ways of getting on base for his teammates.


Azor is approaching his senior season with keen focus, knowing that this will mark the end of his career.


“It’s been poking at me,” he said.


Navy’s offensive approach emphasizes various aspects of small ball. Last spring, it worked. Kostacopoulos noted that the team’s national ranking in runs scored (84th at 6.1 runs per game) far outpaced its ranking in batting average (209th at .272). Azor said the team’s rigorous attention to such aspects of the game as bunting, baserunning and hitting behind runners emerged as particularly critical when the postseason arrived and every development on the field was magnified.


“You don’t realize why you do those things in practice until you’ve reached that point,” Azor (left) said.


The small ball approach is sufficient for the Midshipmen because bats such as Dupell and junior catcher/designated hitter Dave Milanes (.295, team-high 48 RBI) wait in the middle of the lineup, ready to clear the bases.


Dupell, who had just two starts as a freshman, said his strong sophomore season stemmed partially from the simple learning process of settling into a starting role and the rhythm of regular playing time. In particular, he improved as the season progressed at making adjustments at the plate during the course of at-bats.


He also made swift adjustments in the field. Kostacopoulos raves about the strides Dupell has made at third base since it became his full-time position. For his part, Dupell shrugs off any suggestion that switching positions shortly before the playoffs last year might have created any awkwardness for him.


“It happened during our most important games of the year, so I knew that I couldn’t let something like that affect my play,” said Dupell, who was a second-team All-Patriot League selection. “I was just focused on winning games.”


Neither Azor nor Dupell initially considered attending Navy when they were playing high school ball in Florida. Dupell was more focused on other college prospects, and Azor was familiar with the school only from the Army-Navy football games.


However, Dupell (right) knew the Navy experience was for him after an eye-opening visit to campus, and Azor warmed to the idea soon after the program’s coaches first showed interest in him. Azor, whose family emigrated from Cuba, felt a call to duty when he was recruited.


“This country has provided this great opportunity for my family and I felt like I should repay it,” said Azor, who will join the U.S. Marine Corps following graduation.


Azor and Dupell said last season’s experience inspires this year’s roster. In addition to its returning bats, Navy brings back several of its top pitchers, including starters Johnny Schoberl and Ben Nelson and relievers Joel Rinehart and Preston Gainey. The team did not lack confidence in the past, but its recent accomplishments have sharpened its vision for this spring.


“We know what we’re capable of doing,” Azor said.


Dupell said, “We want to repeat what we did last year. We know we’re going to have to play hard every day to do that.”


(photos courtesy of Navy Sports Information)