What a difference a few years can make.
In 2006, coach Rob Valli came to Temple and took over a struggling baseball program. The team finished 12-41 overall and 6-19 in the Atlantic Ten Conference. Since that season, the Owls have made progress, making the A-10 Tournament last season, their first since 2002.
This year, they want to take it one step further.
“Winning the Atlantic Ten Championship will be our goal this year,” Valli said. “That can be a realistic goal if we stay focused and stay healthy. It’s something we haven’t done in a while, but we did what we had to do [last year] and that’s get in. Now we’re ready to take the next step and get into that championship game.”
If Valli’s squad is going to do what he said, the Owls will need contributions from every facet of the game.
Senior Matt Mongiardini will be counted on to be the ace for the Owls this season. The All-Big 5 right-hander led the team in every major pitching category and held opponents to a .247 batting average a season ago. Mongiardini will begin the season in the bullpen due to a small shoulder surgery in the fall.
“He’s going to pitch out of the bullpen the first weekend and continue to develop his pitch count,” Valli said. “He’s probably two to three weeks behind in his pitch count. He’s throwing 40 to 50 pitches while the other guys are throwing 100, so he’s just got to increase his count.”
Sophomore Steve Nikorak, who started 30 games at first base and third base last season, will begin the season as the opening day starter. The East Stroudsburg, Pa., native pitched in just eight games a season ago.
Sophomore Ben White and junior Ryan Thomas will round out the rotation. Freshman Dan Moller, who was 7-0 last season for Parkland High School, could possibly get a shot down the line.
The bullpen will be headlined by juniors Matt Blackburn and Kyle Monahan.
Co-captain senior second baseman Carmen Del Mastro, a left-handed batter who hit .266 last year, leads the Owls inside the diamond.
He is the only penciled-in starter for now, as Valli has plenty of options on his hands for the remaining spots.
Junior Tony Jusino can play second base and third base and could be used as the designated hitter.
Meanwhile, senior Lenny DelGrippo and sophomore Ben Flanary will compete for the first base job.
The shortstop battle is between senior Mark Ortega, who started 54 games last year, and sophomore Rafael Cordero, who has added 10 pounds in the offseason. Cordero saw little action in his rookie season with the Owls.
Freshman Foster Dunigan, sophomore Ryan Ferguson and Nikorak will also contribute in the infield.
Senior co-captain Sean Barksdale, who was a first-team All-A-10 pick in 2007, had a great statistical season a year ago, batting .307 with five home runs and 47 RBIs.
Senior Jamie Abercrombie, who will start in left field, is the lone player remaining from James “Skip” Wilson’s final recruiting class. Abercrombie has started 149 games in his collegiate career and needs 38 hits to become the fourth Owl with 200 hits.
Byron McKoy, the reigning Big 5 Rookie of the Year, became the first Temple freshman to earn All-A-10 honors. The sophomore hit a team best .352 with six home runs and 17 stolen bases. Valli described him as “the best fastball hitter I’ve ever coached.” McKoy will play center field and lead off for the Owls.
The Owls have two senior catchers in Kyle Obal and Steve Mury, who provide the team with great experience.
The two are now in competition for the job behind the plate, and Valli has yet to name his starter.
“We now have two very qualified starting catchers, and both really give us a boost offensively and defensively,” he said. “We’re trying to figure that position out.”
The Owls open their season Friday in the Florida Gulf Coast Invitational against Wichita State. While Valli hasn’t announced his opening day lineup, the Owls feel they have the pieces to field a good team each day, starting first and foremost with the seniors.
“It will take the seniors because those guys are going to play a major role,” Valli said. “It will take them to perform with the game on the line. If they can stay focused enough and healthy, I think we’ll have a chance to play on the last day.”
Joe Serpico can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.