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When the UK baseball team opens its season on Feb. 15 in South Carolina, more than eight months will have passed since the Wildcats saw a school-record 45-win season come to a disappointing end in the Gary, Ind., NCAA Tournament regional.
UK players have not forgotten the taste in their mouth after a loss to Kent State eliminated them from the tournament.
“I was actually thinking about it the other day, how I remembered what it was like seeing Kent State dog-pile there at Gary,” said sophomore outfielder Austin Cousino. “I was something that was kind of hard to believe. I was from Ohio, I played with a dozen of those kids, I was recruited by that staff.”
As Cousino and his teammates worked to move on from first being passed over for as a regional host for the tournament, then being eliminated by the lower seeded Golden Flashes, much changed around the program.
In June, nine Cats were selected in the MLB draft and eight of those players ended up signing professional contracts.
In July, head coach Gary Henderson, just months away from having to answer questions about his job security, signed a new five-year contract.
A month later the returners came back to campus after a variety of impressive summer performances — including a stint with Team USA for Cousino. They were joined by a top-20 recruiting class that included five players who had turned down professional contracts as MLB draft picks out of high school.
Now the Cats are ready to turn the page on the record-setting 2012 season by eclipsing it with an even better performance in the coming year.
“Last year’s group had a pretty good chip on their shoulder, I think we’ll have the same type of approach,” Henderson said at UK’s baseball and softball media day Monday. “You’re losing a couple personalities that really helped, older mature personalities, but there’s growth within the program. We have a lot of guys that are a part of that. I think we have enough personality as a club to carry the expectations.”
Those expectations are high for the Cats.
Both Cousino and junior left-handed pitcher Corey Littrell have been named preseason All-Americans.
Players are doing nothing to shy away from the expectation that they have enough talent to make a run to the College World Series in Omaha.
“We’ve got a pretty good team this year, I know we’re getting a lot of preseason stuff,” Cousino said. “It’s something that seems a long way down the road, but I think we have all the tools.”
“We still have one goal: we want to be better than last year,” Littrell said. “Last year was good for us to build on as a program to show we are successful and to give us confidence knowing we can win this league, but this is a new year and a new team so we have to set new goals.”
The Cats are not without question marks entering the season.
UK will be tasked with replacing 54 percent of its home runs, 47 percent of its RBI and 39 percent of its runs scored. The Cats must also find replacements for left-handed reliever Alex Phillips and right-handed reliever Tim Peterson, who finished the season first and second on the team in appearances.
The five catchers on the roster have combined for one start in their careers. At third base, neither of the primary candidates to replace departed senior Thomas McCarthy have ever started a game at the position in college.
“The obvious things are we need some right-handed hitting production that is gone. We need growth in the bullpen that is not there yet,” Henderson said. “You’re replacing Phillips, you’re replacing Alex and Timmy with young guys. I probably know better than everybody else in here what that means…It’s just inevitably, they’re not going to pitch as well as the two older kids did.”
To replace McCarthy at third base, Henderson will likely turn to junior left-handed hitter Paul McConkey and sophomore right-handed hitter Max Kuhn.
Behind the plate, redshirt junior Micheal Thomas will receive the first shot at playing time, though redshirt freshman Greg Fettes and true freshmen Zach Arnold and Casey Schroeder will have a chance to earn time at the position. Fettes, Arnold and Schroeder were all drafted out of high school.
Sophomore A. J. Reed will see time at first base, designated hitter and as a weekend starter. Junior shortstop Matt Reida and junior second baseman J. T. Riddle will round out the infield.
In the outfield, Cousino will be flanked in center by senior Zac Zellers and junior Lucas Witt.
Henderson listed sophomore outfielder Jeff Boehm, freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett and redshirt sophomore infielder Thomas Bernal as bats that could contribute off the bench or as the designated hitter.
Reed is joined in the weekend rotation by Littrell and senior lefty Jerad Grundy, who decided to return to UK after being drafted in the 26th round by the Minnesota Twins.
Junior closer Trevor Gott will anchor the bullpen, while sophomore right-handed pitcher Chandler Shepherd will be counted on to replace some of the innings lost with Peterson and Phillips. Boehm, junior Walter Wijas and sophomore Taylor Martin also return to the pen. Freshmen lefties Ryne Combs and Dylan Dwyer and righties Kyle Cody, Tyler Cox and Matt Pope will be given the chance to earn innings as well.
Even with the questions to start the season, Henderson is confident this team is up to the task of reaching its goals.
“I think there is as much or more ownership within the group as we had last year, certainly more starting off than we had last year,” he said. “I think this group of kids likes each other as much as any group I have ever been around anywhere, and I don’t think that’s overreaching. I think I’m dead on. I think they like each other, they like to play, they like to practice.”
Topping the 2012 team’s school-record 45 wins will be a difficult challenge. As will reaching the program’s first NCAA Tournament Super Regional, let alone making it all the way to Omaha.
Players say they aren’t letting outside pressure influence them.
Asked if the team might struggle early if it fails to match the 2012 team’s 22-game winning streak to start the season, Cousino was frank in his assessment of the talent on the roster.
“I think that the 45-win season was great. I think we might have a better team this year,” he said. “We might start 23-0, you never know. If you can hold off losing for as long as (possible), that would be great. I think that this team has high expectations for us, and it think that’s awesome that the coaches hold us to a better standard that anyone out there can.”
Check back to KyForward in the coming days for more from the BluGrass Baseball 2013 college baseball preview