Sports

Bad weather sends baseball team down South

Columnist John Kopp chats with coach Rob Valli about Temple’s exhibition play.

The baseball team began its annual battle against Mother Nature last weekend.

Temple took a weekend trip to Florida, opening its season with a trio of games in the Florida Golf Coast University Invitational. The Owls returned with two wins, one loss and maybe a little sunburn.

It could be awhile before they soak up any more rays.

The Owls will play three more warm-weather games against High Point in North Carolina this weekend. Then, they’ll return to the Northeast for the rest of their non-conference schedule, hoping March acts more like a lamb than a lion.

Baseball, like many sports, relies heavily on rhythm. A hitter needs to consistently face live pitching to maintain his swing. A pitcher needs consistent work to build arm speed and develop pinpoint location.
The Northeast’s weather patterns make obtaining this necessary work difficult for collegiate baseball teams. That’s why many of the sport’s best players flock to warm-weather schools, where the climate isn’t an issue.

While Atlantic Ten Conference favorite Charlotte began its first full week of practices in early February by opening its ballpark to fans for a series of scrimmages, Philadelphia was covered in several inches of snow.

Unless one of Temple’s pitchers wanted to add a snowball to his repertoire, there was no need for any of the Owls to show up at Skip Wilson Field.

Because Pennsylvania’s weather has kept Temple off the diamond – the Owls’ opener was the first time the squad had played on a field since last fall – coach Rob Valli had his pitchers and hitters simulate at-bats in the indoor batting cages, even bringing in an umpire on one occasion.

It’s not necessarily the ideal situation, but it’s the reality of collegiate baseball in the Northeast. Always has been, always will be.

So, despite not practicing on a ball field, Valli said, “we felt prepared” for last weekend’s games, at least in regard to hitting and pitching.

In other aspects, like fielding and baserunning, the coach said the lack of practicing on a diamond showed.

“We were sporadically consistent,” Valli said, meaning the Owls performed extremely well in some areas – they had timely hitting but were dreadful in others – they walked 21 batters and committed an astounding 13 errors.

In some sports, that might be a scary statement.

But in college baseball, few northern teams have enough talent to earn an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. (In its preseason rankings, Baseball America had just one northern school – No. 18 Kent State – listed among its Top 25.)

These northern teams focus on winning their conferences to gain their awards and automatic berths. The teams’ overall records aren’t quite as important as their performances in their conferences.
So for teams like Temple, the non-conference schedule offers an opportunity to gain that all-around consistency. It allows Valli to tweak his lineup and rotation to find the combination that gives the Owls the best shot to capture the A-10.

“It’s not an exhibition game by any means,” Valli said. “Every game counts. [But] the season always evolves. Things change constantly. We hope to gain some momentum heading into the conference.”
The Owls have gained momentum in the A-10 since Valli took over four years ago. A proven winner at Gloucester Community College, Valli has slowly transformed the Owls.

Last year, they made their first appearance in the A-10 Tournament since 2002 and now have their sights on winning it for the first time since 2001.

The Owls have started with a 2-1 record for just the second time since 1997. But as Valli said, they were “sporadically inconsistent.” That’s not going to be good enough to beat out a highly regarded Charlotte team for the A-10 title.

Luckily for the Owls, they’ve got nearly a month before the A-10 schedule kicks off. And it won’t be long before they’ll be on a diamond regularly.

John Kopp can be reached at john.kopp@temple.edu.

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