Last season, the Hurricanes were a young, unranked team who surprised everyone by earning a trip to Omaha. This year, the ‘Canes enter the season with national title aspirations.
The high expectations are due to the fact that the team returns every starter for the first time in Head Coach Jim Morris’s 26 years in college baseball.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, and I’ve never had every starter returning to the lineup. Especially when you have a good club, that is very unusual,” Morris said. “We finished fifth last year but we were so young, so no one expected us to be in Omaha.”
Along with the returning starters, the ‘Canes will introduce a couple of new faces like junior college transfer Brendan Kaitin and freshman Jon Jay.
“Brendan Kaitin, a junior college transfer, is a big strong guy, a right handed hitter that can hit the ball out of the park,” Morris said. “He is a really strong hitter who will be in the lineup as an outfielder or a designated hitter.”
The key to the team’s success this season might lie in simply staying healthy. The squad has had a laundry list of injuries to deal with already.
“Our injured list looks like the football team’s list with all the guys we have banged up,” Morris said.
One of those guys is Danny Figueroa, who was the starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter last year. Figueroa is expected to be out until late April due to a shoulder injury that required surgery in September. His injury leaves a void in centerfield and at the top of the lineup that the Hurricanes will need to fill. One of the possibilities is using his twin brother, Paco Figueroa, in centerfield.
“Saturday night [in the alumni game], my plan is to start Paco in centerfield so that it will look like Danny,” Morris said. “He has played really well; he can run, gets great jumps on the ball, and we have been playing him out there a lot in practice.”
Other injuries include Brian Barton, who has been bothered by an elbow injury, and Ryan Braun, the 2003 Freshman of the Year and leader in all three major hitting categories, who just got cleared to play after having a sore elbow most of January. Braun’s 76 RBIs last season were tied for fifth on the ‘Canes all-time single season RBIs list and a record for a freshman.
An Ace and a Leader Return
One of the injured players that the ‘Canes are thrilled to have back is last season’s ace Dan Touchet. Touchet was 2-0 last season with a 1.93 ERA before undergoing Tommy John surgery in early March. Having a healthy Touchet will add depth to the Hurricanes’ pitching staff.
“Dan Touchet is pitching with no pain, which is huge,” Morris said. “He isn’t back to where he was, but I am confident that he will be back there soon. He could pitch right now, but we want to bring him along slowly.”
In addition to Touchet’s comeback, the return of fifth year senior Jim Burt is huge for the Hurricanes. Burt started every game at first base last season and hit .296 with 11 HR and 40 RBIs. He provides veteran leadership and a work ethic that all of his teammates can follow.
“Burt leads by example,” Morris said. “He got hit in the mouth and didn’t want to come out of practice, but the doctors wouldn’t let him play for a few days, so he was out there in shorts and a t-shirt leading the stretching. Even today, he was here at twelve o’clock.”
An Improved Staff
The ‘Canes’ pitching staff should be one of the best in the nation with Cockroft, Vince Bongiovanni, and Brandon Camardese joining Touchet as starters. George Huguet returns for his senior season as the team’s closer and Cesar Carrillo will be the set-up man.
“No one is really taking charge on who the No. 1 starter is. All three guys are struggling with their consistency right now, but it’s early,” Morris said. “In the bullpen, Huguet will be the closer, and Carillo will be the set-up man.”
Carrillo is a guy the ‘Canes have high expectations for. He throws a fastball consistently in the 90s and has a powerful arm.
“He has the best stuff on the staff so he can do anything we need him to do. He could be a starter or a closer or anywhere in between,” Morris said. “He throws over 90 [mph]with an outstanding breaking ball. If you ask our hitters who the most intimidating pitcher on the staff is, they will tell you Cesar.”
Sean Valdes-Fauli will begin the season suspended indefinitely for violating a team rule. Despite the loss of their long reliever, this year’s pitching staff should be among the nation’s best.
“The expectations on our pitching staff are greater than last year. We have the experience of playing in Omaha, so our goals are a lot higher,” Cockroft said. “We have specialist guys in the bullpen, and everybody has experience. I think there is more confidence on everybody’s part that if they don’t have their best stuff one day, that the other guys will pick them up.”
A Tougher Workload
The Hurricanes will play their usual tough schedule this season, with games against powerhouses Tennessee, Georgia Tech, Long Beach State, Florida, and of course, a home and away series with Florida State.
“We have a really tough schedule with an RPI in the top three, but it is the last time we get to play all those games at home,” Morris said. “I did that on purpose because I knew it would be our last year playing all these games at home due to the move to the ACC. We will have to play 36 home and 20 on the road in the ACC, but I still think the move to the ACC is a great move for the athletic program and UM, even though I am losing my home games.”
One of the keys to this team’s success will be to remain focused and not get overconfident due to their high pre-season rankings. They are ranked Nos. one or two in all of the polls and look to be one of the teams to beat this season.
“This team is confident, maybe too confident, which scares me,” Morris said. “I tell them to remember that we are ranked No. 1 by the same poll that didn’t rank us last year, so the rankings don’t mean anything. We have good players and a chance to be good but you have to work hard and get better everyday.”
Evidence of this team’s depth can be seen by looking at the middle infielders. They have senior Adam Ricks and Braun, but they also have Joey Hooft and Paco Figueroa, and Morris feels that all of them deserve to be in the lineup. However, depth is a good problem to have.
“We have a lot of good players who work as a team and win as a team. It makes filling out the lineup card hard,” Morris said. “We are very solid and our guys work hard on fundamentals and playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played, and that gives us a chance to win.”
Darren Grossman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org