Ten Baseball Seniors Prepare For Final Season

As Santa Clara prepares for the first pitch of the 2014 regular season, the team’s performance will reflect a culmination of an equally long offseason. From individual workouts in the fall to the first official team practice on Jan. 24, the team has worked for the last five months to prepare for its next five months.

The Broncos like where they stand at as they wrap up preseason. Head Coach Dan O’Brien said he felt the team had an unbelievable fall and an even better start to the spring.

“The general idea is to focus on the individuals when they first get back — to make sure their mechanics and mentality are squared away and make sure they really learn how to hold themselves accountable,” O’Brien said. “It’s a grind, it’s long, but at the end of the day I love the amount of time we get to prepare our team for a season.”

For senior catcher Zach Looney, the productive offseason is due in part to the group of freshmen that arrived on campus hungry and ready to compete. 

“The biggest thing for the fall was the competitiveness within our intrasquad scrimmages,” Looney said. “They felt ‘game-like’ because guys were really competing and getting after it. When we do get to games, we’ll be that much more comfortable because it was competitive in the fall.”

After winning 14 games in 2013, O’Brien says this coaching staff has worked to improve aspects of the program, including clear expectations and immediate, honest communication.

“Everything we have done this year has involved the team,” O’Brien said. “We have worked very hard to not be a coaching staff that tells them what they are going to do.”

One such decision involves players choosing and assessing the drills they run during practice. 

“The type of practice routine that we have in the cage and on the field, the players had a lot to do with developing that — seeing what drills worked and what drills didn’t for us,” Looney said. “You’re able to put more into a drill that you helped develop because that’s something you know works for you. You understand the point of the drill and give it all you can.”

  Offensively and in the field, Santa Clara returns senior outfielder Casey Munoz, who led the Broncos in a .308 batting average, 64 hits, 10 doubles  and 31 RBIs last season and was one of two players to start all 53 games. Senior utility-man Greg Harisis finished second on the team with a .293 batting average and 25 RBIs along with a team-best .399 on-base percentage and a 13-for-15 mark in stolen base attempts. 

Catcher Stevie Berman, infielder Kyle Czaplak, second baseman Rory Graf-Brennen and outfielder Tyler Meditz highlight what O’Brien calls a talented and very mature freshman class with a chance to make significant contributions in their first collegiate seasons. 

“I’m hoping to make the whole experience great for the younger guys, and be a source for questions and anything they may need,” Looney said. “The college season is a lot different than the high school season, regardless of where you’re from. I want to be a guy that they can come to for advice on how to get through a season like this, how to get through conference, and use my experience to help them thrive.”

In the bullpen, the Broncos will look for a talented bunch of pitchers to step up in place of graduated seniors Mike Couch and Chris Mendoza, two of the three most-used hurlers from last season. The remainder of the pitching squad accounted for 18 of 53 starts, 12 of which came from the then-freshman Reece Karalus. Colo. native Steven Wilson is in the mix for a consistent starting pitcher role as a redshirt-freshman.

The Broncos host Nevada in their season opener Feb. 14, which begins a stretch of five home games in five days, including a doubleheader Feb. 16. 

Following opening weekend, Santa Clara takes to the road for two four-game tournaments: The Irish Baseball Classic in San Antonio, Texas, and the Spring Training Classic in Surprise, Ariz. Santa Clara will face three multi-game winners from last year’s Road to the College World Series, No. 22 Arizona State, No. 32 Oklahoma and No. 18 Oklahoma State.

“You can’t ask for anything more as a competitive athlete,” Looney said. “We’re excited to play that type of competition in uncomfortable environments for us and get away from our home stadium, which will help us be more comfortable with the uncomfortable situations later in the year.”

The Sun Devils, Sooners  and Cowboys are all ranked in the preseason Collegiate Baseball top 40, alongside fellow non-conference opponents No. 26 Stanford and No. 27 Cal Poly.

“I don’t believe our preseason schedule over the last two years has really prepared us for conference,” O’Brien said. “To be great in baseball, you must be consistent and our conference plays some of the most consistent baseball in the country.”

In addition to non-conference opponents, the Broncos get an early look at West Coast Conference foes in tournament play, including Gonzaga on Feb. 22 and Pacific on March 8. The first conference series at home against Pepperdine,will begin on March 21. 

With Santa Clara’s primary focus in the fall and early spring being on “us” rather than “them” on gameday, the Broncos are ready for a big year.

“Baseball is hard enough as it is without the added pressure of trying to beat a certain opponent,” Looney said. “The biggest thing for us is to not let who we are playing factor into our game and to go out and play against the game itself.”