The baseball team just missed the Atlantic Ten Conference playoffs last year. Temple will have to make up for the loss of three senior starters this season.
The Temple baseball team returns to the diamond this Friday against Florida Gulf Coast, as newcomers join a squad that has high energy and expectations despite being picked to finish eighth in the Atlantic Ten Conference preseason poll.
“I really like our team, and I’m optimistic and excited for the season,” said coach Rob Valli, who will begin his fifth year. “As coaches, we don’t put a lot of stock in [the preseason poll].”
The Owls posted an 11-15 conference record (17-33 overall) last season and just missed the playoffs.
“I feel it’s a very underrated conference in terms of the teams that are in it and hitting and pitching overall,” said senior pitcher Ryan Thomas, an All-Philadelphia Big 5 selection last year. “That’s why we work as hard as we can [to] build on each year so we can succeed.”
The team has trained throughout the offseason to improve in time for the season opener.
“We did a lot of strength workouts to get bigger, faster, stronger,” said senior second baseman Tony Jusino, who started all but two of last season’s 50 games. “Now that the team practice is going on, we’re just doing a lot of defensive stuff to get fundamentally sound for the season.”
The pitchers focused on their strength by using the weight room, conditioning and completing a throwing program.
“For me as a pitcher, strength is a big part,” Thomas said. “We have our work cut out for us this year, and we’re just trying to stay strong and healthy for a pretty big season.”
The 11-member veteran pitch ing staff returns co-captains redshirt senior pitcher Matt Mongiardini and redshirt sophomore infielder and pitcher Steve Nikorak, who both sustained season-ending injuries last year.
“Having those two starters come back and fill those roles at the top of the order really helps us to put pitchers in the best position they can be in to be successful,” Valli said.
The Owls lost part of last year’s team core due to the graduations of outfielder Jamie Abercrombie, second baseman Carmen Del Mastro and outfielder Sean Barksdale, who was selected in the 38th round of the 2009 Major League Baseball draft by the Houston Astros.
“We’re not going to be as experienced in our offensive lineup as I would like to be,” Valli said. “But I think the talent of some of our hitters, especially when we get to the second half of the season, will be a plus for us.”
Jusino and junior outfielder Byron McKoy proved to be mainstays last season and will be expected to step in for Abercrombie, Del Mastro and Barksdale.
Jusino posted a career-best batting average of .363 last season with 19 doubles, while McKoy hit .278 with 28 RBIs and eight home runs last year.
This season’s roster also features several new players, including junior transfer utility player Jean Carlos Diaz and freshmen outfielders David Hall and Dan Dragos.
“[Diaz] is an explosive right-hand hitter who can really change the game,” Valli said. “He can hit for power and really help us.”
Valli said the Owls will also gain “a huge boost” on their pitching staff from transfer junior Brian Sustersic.
“He has the ability to either be a conference starter for us or definitely be a weapon out of the bullpen.”
The team is committed to getting off to a good start this season and has been preparing to face Florida Gulf Coast, a Top 40 team according to preseason polls.
“We’re real anxious to get out there because of the weather,” Jusino said. “The way it is [here] we haven’t been outside playing, and we’re ready to go down to the warmth and get it going.”
Temple will face one of the top left-handed pitchers in the nation, as junior Chris Sale, a Baseball America First Team Preseason All-American, will test the Owls’ offense in the first game of the three-game series.
“We’re preparing hard, and we feel confident that we’ll be ready and look forward to the season,” Valli said.
“There’s more togetherness this year on the field and off the field,” Thomas said. “Everyone gets along real well. [I] can’t wait. [It’s] senior year, got to do it big this year!”
Connor Showalter can be reached at email@example.com.