REDLANDS - Last May University of Redlands baseball players walked off the field at Orange County's Hart Park a disappointed group. They headed into the West Region tournament seeded first but were the first team eliminated following two straight losses.
This year the team expects better results. The Bulldogs return three starting pitchers, their top two relievers and six position starters from a team that went 30-11 in 2006. Nothing less than a Division III World Series appearance will be considerable acceptable.
"Last year none of us had been there so we didn't know what to expect," said senior catcher Ryan Garcia, a graduate of Redlands East Valley High School. "That's not an excuse any more. We have no doubts that we're capable of getting there (to the World Series)."
The Bulldogs will play an alumni team in an exhibition at noon Saturday. The real season starts in Arizona with four games, the most notable foe being George Fox University (Ore.) which beat the Bulldogs 10-3 in that West Region Tournament.
Senior Kyle Gardner heads the large group of returning veterans.
The reigning SCIAC player of the year started in center field, hitting .380 (46-for-121) with 29 runs and 17 RBI. He also was on the mound once a week, going 6-4 with a 3.36 ERA.
Gardner is joined in the starting rotation by fellow right-handers Rob Walker (8-3, 2.66) and Patrick Whelan (3-1, 4.89), both seniors. Sophomores Nolan Nicholson (5-2, 1.74, 4 saves) and Kevin Bissell (2-0, 1.35, 4 saves) head the bullpen with Nicholson also able to fill in as a hitter (.346).
Garcia (.336, 31 runs, 27 RBI) starts behind the plate and anchors an infield that will include senior first baseman Brian Schumaker, junior newcomer Billy Lavelle at second base and junior shortstop Chase Beatty (.289, 21 runs, 23 RBI) with either senior Bryan Ducey (.395) or newcomer Will Wetmore at third.
Schumaker is coming off an injury plagued season that started with a broken hand sustained when he was hit by a pitch and ended with back surgery in April. His return should help the lack of power missing from the lineup.
Lavelle was coach Scott Laverty's top recruit and looks to step in for four-year starter and leadoff hitter Jason Sobieski, who led the team in several offensive categories.
The outfield boasts the most depth, with six players contending for the three starting spots. Gardner will be the mainstay in center, but the other spots will be shared with sophomores Jordan Snider (.252), Kyle Rizzo (.294, 24 runs, 11 RBI), Matt Goldstein (.324, 11 runs) and Corey Vane (.351, 12 runs) and junior Neil Muller (.379, 10 runs) all in the mix.
"My toughest job is going to be finding all those guys playing time. Some of that will be at DH," Laverty said. "But we have great kids and they understand the situation. That competition makes for great teams though because guys know they have to work hard every day or there is someone else there willing to take that position."
Among the newcomers Laverty expects to contribute are sophomore pitcher-infielder Evan Dunn, freshman pitcher-infielder Michael Lessig, freshman catcher Jefre Johnson and freshman pitcher Mike McCarthy.
Last year the Bulldogs cruised through SCIAC play with a 15-3 record. This year Laverty expects better competition. Claremont-Mudd (18-17, 10-8) was runner-up and traditionally tough La Verne (17-20, 6-17) should bounce back from a subpar season and Whittier (20-19, 10-8) was much improved. Pomona-Pitzer (15-23, 8-10) fielded a young team and has its core players back.
One of Bulldogs biggest problems in the postseason proved to be a three-week layoff before the start of the region tournament. The calendar helped this season so it will be only two weeks if the Bulldogs advance.
"That was definitely tough," Gardner said. "Baseball is a game you're used to playing every day. Sometimes its hard to keep sharp when you have that long of a break."