There’s a dark, gloomy cloud hanging over the baseball team, Ryan Wheeler said.
The fourth-year coach called it the most challenging season, by far, during his tenure at Temple. But the players are doing their best to avoid thinking about that cloud.
One of seven programs cut by the university on Dec. 6, the baseball team is embarking on what is slated to be its final journey.
“We’ve all really bonded because of this,” senior pitcher Matt Hockenberry said. “Our team slogan this year is: ‘Band of Brothers.’”
The “Band of Brothers” reference alludes to the 1992 book written by Stephen E. Ambrose, and later portrayed in an HBO miniseries. The series dramatized and followed closely, “Easy” Company, through its journey in World War II.
“You’re a family,” Hockenberry said. “When somebody tells you that you can’t be a family anymore and everyone has to leave at the end of the year, we really pull together.”
When pulling together, though, they’ll do so with some new faces and new roles.
After graduating seven seniors from last year’s team that went 18-28 (6-17 Atlantic 10 Conference), the Owls lost six players as result of the cuts – many who were considered instrumental to this year’s roster.
Two top-of-the-rotation starters, junior twins Eric and Patrick Peterson, bolted for North Carolina State University. Also gone from the pitching staff is junior reliever Adam Dian, who posted a team second-best 2.33 ERA in 19.1 innings pitched out of the bullpen last year. Junior infielder Nick Lustrino, one of two Owls to start all 46 games last year, also left the program.
Given the timing of the cuts – just weeks before practice began – there wasn’t much time to fill those voids.
“We didn’t have many options with regard to bringing more players on board,” Wheeler said. “It’s not professional baseball where you can call the minor leagues and bring them up. We really had to look internally.”
That’s generally what’s been going on since practice began; an internal search for players to see who is capable of doing what. The only problem has been the weather. With the harsh winter conditions that have characterized the beginning of the semester, the Owls have been forced indoors to the Student Pavilion for practice.
“In previous years we’ve had better weather,” Hockenberry said. “We’d be able to get up to Ambler, actually practice on the field, get legitimate ground ball reads, throw off of dirt mounds. We’re limited in here.”
As if they needed more adversity this year, the baseball team is entering its inaugural, and now last, season in the new American Athletic Conference.
No longer will the Owls be playing Atlantic 10 Conference foes like Massachusetts, St. Joesph’s, Rhode Island and George Washington. They’ve been replaced with teams like Louisville – ranked No. 13 by the USA Today Coaches’ Poll – Memphis and South Florida.
Temple was picked to finish last in the conference by coaches in The American.
The team will travel to Wilson, N.C. this weekend to take on Rider University in a three-game series beginning on Friday.
“I think the biggest challenge is the step up in level of competition,” Wheeler said. “It was something that I was concerned about initially. Now with losing players, I’m not so much worried about the talent that’s left – it’s the depth.”
Despite losing a combined 13 players to graduation and transfers, there is still plenty of talent on the 2014 squad.
Hockenberry, a 6-foot-3-inch right-handed pitcher, has started in the past and will now be relied on again as a top-of-the-rotation starter. He posted a 5.04 ERA and a 1-2 record in 50 innings last year, starting in six games.
Senior Derek Peterson is arguably the Owls’ top returning player. The 6-foot-3-inch infielder was second on the team in hitting with a .314 batting average and notched a team-high 82 total bases. Peterson was named to the All-Philadelphia Big 5 team last season and was recently named to the Second Team of the 2014 American Preseason All-Conference Team by College Sports Madness.
“It’s great,” Peterson said of the recognition. “It’s always nice to be noticed for putting a lot into the process of working hard and getting better.”
With all the negativity that has surrounded the Owls, there’s one new feature to this season that has most everyone excited.
It was announced on Nov. 7 that Temple would be playing its American Conference matchups at Campbell’s Field in Camden, N.J., a 6,425-capacity stadium that is home to the Camden Riversharks – a minor league team.
“I think the atmosphere is a huge aspect to winning ballgames,” Hockenberry said. “Playing at Ambler when you have your parents sitting up in lawn chairs behind home plate, you don’t get that sense of urgency, you don’t get that rush from the crowd. When you feel like you’re a top-competitor team, you tend to play like it.”
For seniors like Hockenberry and Peterson, being able to play on what looks to be the final season at Temple is a reality they’re not focusing on.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Peterson said. “It’s almost like that senior experience, but I don’t think it’s really set in for me yet. I think we’re just having so much fun playing baseball and our passion for the game every day, we don’t really think about that gloomy forecast.”
Anxious to get underway, the Owls have to wait one extra weekend for the season to kick off. Temple was scheduled to play a three-game series in Raleigh, N.C. last weekend, but the series got canceled due to the Nor’easter that rocked the East Coast.
Jeff Neiburg can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jeff_neiburg.