In only its third year under a new coaching staff, Temple’s baseball program is a work in major progress.
The Owls may be rough around the edges, and there are some details that aren’t exactly in place yet, but the artist, coach Rob Valli, sees a potential masterpiece in the making.
Despite losing two of three from Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference Champions Bethune-Cookman last week and two of three from Old Dominion this weekend, the Owls (2-6 overall) were picked to finish sixth in the Atlantic Ten Conference by Baseball America. Temple hasn’t had a winning conference record since 2001, when they went 15-7 on their way to an A-10 Championship.
This season, the Owls bring back 19 letterwinners after playing 13 recruits last season. With more veteran leadership, Valli said he’s confident the team will quickly find its way out of the conference cellar in 2008.
“I’m glad to see some people are giving us recognition,” Valli said. “Are we good enough to win the A-10 yet? No. But we’re getting there.”
Eleven pitchers return from last season’s rotation, including all-Philadelphia Big 5 honoree and staff ace Tom Dolan. The senior southpaw went 6-5 with a 3.96 ERA over 86.1 innings last season.
Valli looks to use Dolan (0-1) as his Friday starter followed by junior Matt Mongiardini on Saturdays. Mongiardini, 0-0 in two starts, has perhaps the best repertoire of pitches on the staff and Valli sees him as a potential 10-game winner. After transferring from Yale, Matt’s brother, Mike (1-0), will throw Sundays.
Arshwin Asjes will move from the starting rotation to closer. The Curacao-native has a fastball with zip, giving Valli a solid arm coming out of the bullpen. The Owls will use sophomores Matt Blackburn and Kyle Monahan, who combined for three saves and a program record 26 appearances each last season. Senior Eric Fritz and junior John Coyle will also eat up innings out of the pen.
The team will develop the rest of its pitchers during their middle-of-the-week games.
Offensively, the Owls will be a major threat for conference pitching. In 2007, the Owls batted .302, guided by first team All-Atlantic selection and Big 5 Co-Player of the Year junior Sean Barksdale and all-Philadelphia Big 5 centerfielder senior Stan Orzechowski.
The two players transferred to Temple from Glouchester County College after the 2006 season.
“All the nerves and jitters are out, ‘Can I handle Division 1 baseball? Am I good enough?’” Orzechowski said. “That’s all gone because we’ve already seen a season and we accomplished a lot offensively.”
Left-fielder Jamie Abercrombie will round out the outfield and provide speed at the top of the order. Sophomore Zack Zelingski is another option for the outfield platoon.
“We’re excited about our outfield,” Valli said. “I’d put our outfield against any in the conference as well as the region.”
Freshman Byron McCoy entered the program with a bang on a three-run homer last weekend to give the Owls their first win of the young season. McCoy will see time in the outfield and at designated hitter along with lefty Carmen Del Mastro, who hit .365 during his last 17 games of the season.
Mike Kelch, another all-Philadelphia Big 5 selection, will start at second base, while junior Mark Ortega, a Boston College transfer and Baseball America’s A-10 Newcomer of the Year, earned the starting shortstop position after impressing coaches during fall practices. Sophomore Mike Hertz is penciled in at third base while junior Lenny DelGrippo will man first.
Freshmen Steve Nikorak, Rafael Cordero and Ben Flanary will also factor into the infield arsenal.
Junior Kyle Obal, who has been impressive with the bat so far this season, and junior former starter Steve Mury will duke it out at catcher along with injured junior Mike Xifaras.
The Owls play a tough non-conference schedule that Valli feels will prepare his team for its conference opener against Rhode Island March 21. By May, the Owls will look to return to the Philadelphia area to compete for the conference championships across the Delaware River at Campbell’s Field in Camden, N.J.
The Owls had another rough series this weekend losing two of three from previously ranked No. 25 Old Dominion. Dolan had another long outing in the opener falling 12-3. Mongiardini came out firing and surrendered three hits and no runs in seven innings Saturday. Orzechowski tracked a long fly ball down in the seventh to save three runs and Temple held on for a 5-3 win. The Owls couldn’t take the next game, however, losing, 12-3, Sunday.
Matthew Nadu can be reached at email@example.com.