UTSA captured its first-ever Southland Conference Regular Season Championship in 2007 after posting a league-record 24-6 mark in SLC play (36-22 overall).
Coming off one of the best seasons in school history and with 20 letterwinners, eight pitchers and seven position starters returning, expectations will be at an all-time high for the 2008 Roadrunners baseball team.
UTSA posted a 36-22 overall mark, including a league-record 24-6 ledger in conference play a year ago, and the Roadrunners are the consensus choice to defend their regular season title in 2008.
The program also received votes in the Collegiate Baseball and NCBWA preseason polls for the first time in school history and a league-best five players — senior catcher Zach Etheredge, senior first baseman Trent Lockwood, junior second baseman James Keithley, junior outfielder Michael Rockett and sophomore designated hitter Tim Palincsar — were named to the SLC’s preseason first team. Two others, senior Marshal Davis and junior Lance Brown, earned honorable mention accolades.
However, it is a role that eighth-year head coach Sherman Corbett believes his team is ready to handle.
“A lot of expectations have been put on this year’s team, but it is consistent of the expectations we will have every time we take the field this season,” Corbett said. “With where we finished a year ago and what we have coming back, we knew we probably were going to be one of the preseason favorites.
“However, it really doesn’t mean a whole lot because it’s what you do on the field that determines success in this conference. Our goal every year is to win the league and qualify for an NCAA Regional and I believe this team has the ability to accomplish whatever it sets its mind to.
“When I think about this group of guys, the word that keeps coming to my mind is ‘versatile.’ There is a lot of depth on this team and five or six guys in our lineup can play multiple positions or bat in different spots in the order. It’s a matter of us of putting them in the right spots to be successful.”
UTSA will see its staff tested like never before, as opening day has been pushed back two weeks this year (Feb. 22) as part of new legislation passed by the NCAA. Because of that, the Roadrunners will have several five-game weeks this season.
Fortunately, starting pitching is one area where the team not only is experienced, but it also is very deep.
Senior right-hander Steven Vasquez returns from a medical redshirt year in 2007 and Corbett expects him to return to his role as Friday night starter this season. Vasquez enters his final year with 35 career starts (t-No. 7 on UTSA’s career list) and 171 strikeouts (No. 9). He also is on the cusp of the top 10 in innings pitched (208/11th) and ERA (4.72/11th).
Senior righty Bradley Chovanec (3-4, 5.17 ERA, 63 K in 94 IP in 2007) and sophomore right-hander Ryan Proudfoot (4-2, 3.30 ERA, 51 K, 62.2 IP) are slated to round out the staff’s weekend rotation.
That trio brings a combined five years of starting experience and a total of 61 career starts and 364.2 innings pitched.
Other pitchers expected to contribute in starting roles this season are junior newcomers southpaw Kris Ruepke and righty J.P. Holton.
“Pitching depth is going to be very important this year,” Corbett said. “That is one area where the new schedule challenges everyone in the NCAA and we knew that when we hit the recruiting trail last year. We are 11 strong on our staff this season and are going to count on each and every one of the newcomers. This is not only going to be a learning experience for the players, but it also will be for us as coaches in how we get them prepared each week.”
Sophomore right-hander Zach Calhoon stepped right into the vacated closer’s role in his inaugural campaign and produced one of the most-productive freshman relief seasons in school annals.
Calhoon posted a 4-4 record with a UTSA freshman-record six saves in 24 appearances last year. He also recorded a 3.03 ERA and held opponents to a .171 batting average, while striking out 48 in 32.2 innings of work.
“Zach is a prototypical closer in that he has an outstanding out pitch,” Corbett said. “When we need a strikeout, he has the stuff to get it done. He also has a great mental approach to the game and is always working hard at getting better.”
Holton, when not starting, is expected to fill the long relief role that was handled by second-team All-SLC performer Josh Blakley (8-0, 2.60 ERA in 69.1 IP) last year.
Rounding out the remainder of the bullpen are senior righty Mark Ruffin, who brings 49 games of experience and 91 career innings to the mound, and freshmen right-handers Chris Griffin and Jason Walls.
Etheredge, a team captain for the second year in a row, returns for his final season behind the plate.
The senior from Boerne had a career year last season, ranking second on the squad with 17 doubles, nine home runs and 13 multi-RBI performances. He also stood third with 40 RBIs and a .515 slugging percentage in addition to posting a .313 batting average and .359 on-base percentage. Etheredge threw out 30 percent of would-be base stealers and was a true iron man, catching all but one inning for the Roadrunners.
“Zach is such a big part of our team,” Corbett said. “He’s a team captain, does a great job of controlling our pitching staff and solidifies the middle part of our batting order. We expect another great year out of him this season.”
Freshman Tyler Carpenter will serve as Etheredge’s primary backup and freshman Derek Saltzgaber will provide depth behind that pair.
Lockwood, who enters his final year as a member of the Wallace Award (nation’s top player) preseason watch list, came into the 2007 campaign as a relative unknown, but by the time the calendar hit the end of May, his name was etched throughout the UTSA single-season record book.
The SLC Newcomer of the Year and third-team first baseman had one of the most productive seasons in school history. He led the team in nearly every offensive category a year ago: batting average (.378/No. 3 on UTSA single-season list), hits (87/No. 3 on UTSA single season chart), multi-hit games (30), doubles (UTSA-record and SLC-leading 23), home runs (14/No. 4 on UTSA single-season ledger), RBIs (57/No. 4 on UTSA single-season list), multi-RBI performances (14), total bases (158), slugging percentage (.687) and on-base percentage (.434).
The Groesbeck native reached base by hit or walk in all but five contests and tied UTSA’s single-game and single-inning marks for hits.
Senior Josh Wilson and freshman Brett Aguilar could see time at the position when Lockwood needs a breather.
Keithley, a second-team all-conference honoree last season, started 49 games at second base and nine in left field in 2007. The San Antonio native ranked second on the club with 52 runs, three triples and nine stolen bases. He also posted a .316 batting average with 12 doubles, eight home runs and 36 RBIs. Keithley tied UTSA’s single-game record for hits against Lamar in the SLC Tournament and also had a career-best 19-game hitting streak from March 4-April 6.
The Roadrunners were 32-13 (.711) after he moved into leadoff spot on March 9 against the College of Charleston and he scored a run in 28 of the final 40 games of the year, including the SLC Championship clincher against Texas State.
Freshman Ryan Hutson is slated to be Keithley’s primary backup this year.
The position will have a new look in 2008, as three-time All-SLC performer Ryan Saltzgaber has moved on to the student coaching ranks.
Getting the first crack at replacing Saltzgaber is Brown, who hit .393 with a .449 on-base percentage last season at Temple College. He brings great range and a solid glove to the position.
“Lance brings a lot to the table,” Corbett said. “He can really play defense and we’re expecting a lot of good things out of him.”
Sophomore Ryan Rummel, who started 11 games in his first season (including two at third during the SLC Tournament), and Hutson will serve as Brown’s backups.Shortstop
A two-year incumbent starter, Davis is back for his fourth and final year as a Roadrunner. A veteran of 126 career games, including 117 starts, the Conroe native reached base by hit, walk or hit by pitch in 50 games last season. He also led the squad with 36 walks and finished second with three triples.
Brown can slide over to short if needed.
Palincsar and junior Jose Hernandez, who sat out 2007 as a redshirt, will compete for playing time at one of the corner outfield spots this season.
A Freshman All-American, the Southland Conference Freshman of the Year and the league’s third-team designated hitter last season, Palincsar hit .304 primarily from the second spot in the lineup with a team-leading and UTSA freshman-record 56 runs scored (No. 4 UTSA single-season list). The College Station native added 13 doubles, three triples, six home runs, 37 RBIs, 30 walks, a .406 on-base percentage and a team-best 13 stolen bases (in 13 attempts).
Meanwhile, Hernandez comes to UTSA after playing 72 games at Long Beach State from 2005-06.
Corbett said several players would serve as backups at that spot this year.
Rockett, the starter for 101 straight games, earned second-team All-SLC accolades for the second year in a row last season.
He finished second on the club with 80 hits and 52 RBIs and also stood third with a .325 batting average, 24 multi-hit games, 15 doubles, 121 total bases and 12 multi-RBI efforts. The Sugar Land native added a triple, eight home runs, 45 runs, seven stolen bases to go along with a team-best seven outfield assists.Right field
The position could see any combination of Palincsar, Hernandez, Carpenter or Aguilar, the latter two of which bring impressive credentials from the high school ranks.Designated hitter
Corbett said Palincsar or Hernandez will serve as DH when not playing the field, but, as always, he will ride a hot bat if necessary.Schedule
The Roadrunners will be tested early and often this season, as five preseason ranked teams (Baylor, Louisiana-Lafayette, Oral Roberts, Texas and Texas A&M) and perennial powers College of Charleston, Lamar and Houston decorate the non-conference slate. In all, seven teams that qualified for the 2007 NCAA Tournament are on this year’s ledger.
UTSA is scheduled to play 34 of its 56 games in the Alamo City, including 12 at Wolff Stadium. In fact, 18 of the Roadrunners’ first 21 contests will be played in San Antonio, giving them an opportunity to start the season on a strong note before SLC play begins in mid-March.
As always, the 30-game league schedule will be a challenge with Lamar, Southeastern Louisiana, Sam Houston State and Texas State expected to compete with the Roadrunners for the league title.
“We always want to play a competitive schedule and, with the location we’re in, it’s difficult not to,” Corbett said. “However, there needs to be a balance, but our philosophy always has been to play teams that enhance our RPI and prepare us for our conference schedule.”