Owls adjust to loss of leader

The baseball season begins without Steve Nikorak.

The baseball season begins without Steve NikorakEntering its final season in the Atlantic 10 Conference, Temple will take a different approach to the 2013 season with the absence of one true captain.

After leading the Owls in nearly every offensive category in 2012, former infielder Steve Nikorak became the 25th player in Temple baseball history to be drafted. In the 32nd round (981st pick overall) of the 2012 Major League Baseball Draft, the Chicago White Sox selected Nikorak, the first Owl selected since outfielder Sean Barksdale was selected in the 38th round by the Houston Astros in 2009.

“[Nikorak] was a very well-rounded player,” coach Ryan Wheeler said. “We relied on him to play good defense and he was a catalyst for us on offense.”

The Owls will begin the 2013 season without last year’s leader in hits, doubles, RBI, at bats, runs, slugging percentage, walks, on base percentage, total bases and home runs.

The absence of Nikorak has created an open competition between three veteran Owls at third base. Senior infielders Henry Knabe and Elijah Yarborough as well as junior infielder Derek Peterson will be fighting to replace Nikorak at third base in 2013, Wheeler said.

“It has been really exciting,” Yarborough said about the open infield position. “The competition has made us compete each and every day and has made us work a lot harder in practice.”

Yarborough finished the 2012 campaign second on the team behind Nikorak with 12 doubles accompanied by a .265 average and 22 RBI in 132 at bats. Fellow senior infielder Knabe recorded his second career home run in 2012, adding to a .226 average in 84 at bats.

The third candidate for the third base job is Peterson, a junior college transfer in his first season with the Owls.

While Wheeler said he will miss the offensive production along with the leadership that Nikorak provided Temple, Knabe said the departure of Nikorak may have a positive effect on the Owls.

“[Nikorak] brought a lot of offensive impact to our team last year,” Knabe said. “He was a leader both on and off of the field, but I think [Nikorak’s] departure may actually be a positive thing for this team. In the past, guys were looking up to him and depending on him to lead the team. Now, guys are fighting harder to fill in his role and the competition is a good thing for us.”

The Owls are taking a new approach to the 2013 season, as Temple is not entering the season with one true captain.

“I sat down with our staff earlier on in the year and decided that we did not have that one guy that has emerged as our captain,” Wheeler said. “As a group collectively, our seniors have done a great job leading this team. My seniors are really my captains and each one brings something different to the table.”

Without a true captain, sophomore infielder Nick Lustrino may break out as a leader of the Owls in 2013 along with the senior class, Wheeler said.

As a freshman in 2012, infielder Nick Lustrino had a quick impact for Wheeler’s Owls. Lustrino finished fourth on the team with a .291 batting average, recording 53 hits and a .380 on base percentage. Lustrino is expected to start at shortstop this season and become a potential leader for Temple, Wheeler said.

“I want Nick to go out there and be Nick Lustrino,” Wheeler said. “I want him to go out there and play and not to try to do too much. He is like the quarterback of our infield. He can bat second in the lineup or last, basically like a second leadoff hitter, but he always does his job.”

With the addition of seven freshmen in 2013, the Owls will look to find playing time for the future leaders of the team as well, Wheeler said.

“It is definitely a good freshman class,” Knabe said. “They still have a long way to go but they definitely have a lot of potential to help this team.

The Owls will begin the season with the attitude that they are the conference underdog, Wheeler said. Finishing the 2012 season with a 19-34 record (7-17 A-10), the Owls finished 12th in the A-10.

“I think a lot of people out there aren’t giving us the credit yet, so I am certainly playing the underdog card,” Wheeler said. “We need to go out there and earn that respect. We need to let our actions speak louder than words. We can’t talk about being good, but we need to prove it. We haven’t won anything yet.”

After dropping 17 of 34 games last season by three runs or less, the Owls hope to exit the A-10 with a bang, Yarborough said.

“I would say that this was the best fall that we have had in my four years here,” Yarborough said. “The guys are excited to start the season and we are all a little anxious to prove what we can do.”

The Owls will open their 2013 season on Friday, Feb. 15, in Cary, N.C., against Wright State at noon in the USA Baseball Complex Classic tournament.

“This season, we need to get over that last hurdle and believe that we can win,” Wheeler said.

John Murrow can be reached at john.murrow@temple.edu or on Twitter @JohnMurrow12.

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