The USF baseball team may have exceeded expectations last season by winning the West Coast Conference title, but that hasn’t stopped it from eyeing a repeat.
Despite a strong stretch run and a trip to the NCAA tournament, the preseason coaches’ poll has the Dons projected to finish third in 2012.
“I thought last year we probably were one year ahead with the team that we had, we overachieved with that 16-5 in conference record,” coach Nino Giarratano said. “We had good players and we had a good team, but it just kind of all came together and we really played well down the stretch. I was surprised we didn’t win more games out of conference.”
Part of the reason for the drop in expectations has been a rise in the level of competition within the conference.
“I think all the teams got better, including us, so it’s going to come down to whoever’s toughest,” senior pitcher Jordan Remer said. “It’s just a will to win. Not letting the other team score when they’ve got men on base.”
The team struggled out of the gate last year, going 0-5 in a tough nonconference schedule before rebounding late in the year. It’s a problem Remer said had more to do with chemistry than talent.
“Early in the season, we didn’t quite know who we were,” he said. “I think it’s tough to win games if you’re still trying to figure yourself out.”
Another tough early schedule won’t help, either. The Dons open with games Friday and Saturday at San Jose State, then host the Spartans for one more at home. Missouri also comes to town to provide another tough test.
Leading the rotation will be preseason second-team All-American Kyle Zimmer, who led the team in strikeouts last season and made the all-conference team by posting a 4-1 record in the WCC, highlighted by a 14-strikeout performance against St. Mary’s.
Zimmer said repeating is the team’s main goal, but he is careful not to get ahead of himself.
“Obviously, that’s the main goal and you look at that and wake up every morning with the hope of going to bed as a conference champion,” he said. “But obviously you have to get up and get better each day and really focus on taking it one day at a time.”
While Giarratano said the team will win behind its pitching and defense, the Dons will look to first baseman Nick Balog on the offensive end, who made the all-conference team last year by hitting .274 with 34 RBIs, 17 extra-base hits and 16 walks. Balog was at his best when the lights were brightest in 2011, going 4-for-4 with two RBIs to lead the Dons to a 3-0 win against UCLA in the NCAA tournament.
COACH: Nino Giarratano (14th year)
LAST SEASON: 32-25 overall, 16-5 West Coast Conference (won WCC championship)
SEASON OPENER: Friday at San Jose State, 6 p.m.
HOME OPENER: Sunday vs. San Jose State, 1 p.m.
WCC OPENER: March 30 vs. San Diego, 3 p.m.