Gators hoping experience will change fortunes

With the temperatures approaching 40 degrees here in Meadville, Pa., it can only mean one thing: Allegheny baseball season is right around the corner.

Following a 14-23 season in 2007, the Gators hope to put the mistakes of last season in their back pocket and engage in a productive 2008.

Coach Mike Ferris is entering his 16th year as a member of the Gator coaching staff and his 11th as the head coach. Ferris was a three-year starter for the Gators before graduating in 1984.

“The advantages of having experience from last year should make us a lot better,” Ferris said. “It’s nice as a coach to go into practice knowing that the guys know what they need to be doing on and off the field.”

The inexperience of last year proved costly to the Gators, with four freshmen inserted in the starting lineup. In addition to the youthfulness, injuries plagued the team from the start, with team captain Matt Young suffering an ACL tear in spring training last season.

“Matt was hurt last year, and that really killed us from the start,” Ferris said. “But it will be nice to have him back at shortstop and have Schmidt back at second.”

Young spent all off-season working in preparation for the 2008 campaign.

“It feels a lot better,” Young said. “I’d say I’m about as ready to go as you can be.”

The returning shortstop won’t be the only one back on the field after a brief injury hiatus.

“It’ll be nice to have Alex [Hernnberger] back at catcher,” Ferris said. “He’s always been our anchor behind home plate and it will be good for our pitchers to see an experienced catcher back there.”

The Gators began last year winless after ten games following a spring break tournament in Port Charlotte, Fla.

“The whole trip was a mess from people getting sick, to us losing our luggage,” Ferris said. “Then, the players had to deal with playing baseball after such a bad start. Hopefully we should be able to get off to a better start this year.”

This season, the Gators will return to the scene of the disaster of last spring. This time, the team is confident things will be different.

“We had a tough trip last year,” said Justin Abbott, a relief pitcher. “But now we’re much more experienced this season in the aspects of both pitching and hitting.”

Abbott is one of the returning pitchers this season for the Gators. Along with Coach Ferris, Abbott is hoping the plethora of fellow returning pitchers will propel the squad to the top of the NCAC.

“We have a lot of depth in the pitching staff,” Ferris said. “It’s nice to have our four starters back as well as three relievers who have seen a lot of innings.”

The team is relying on these returning starters, including Colt Viehdorfer, ’08, who will be the ace of the pitching staff.

“Colt is our starting pitcher, our number one guy, and he’s definitely earned it,” Ferris said. “He’s gotten tougher mentally, controls his emotions and you always know what you’re going to get from him, no matter what.”

Viehdorfer is hoping a strong offseason workout regiment will lead to improved success in 2008.

“All the guys have really worked hard this offseason,” Viehdorfer said. “We’re really committed to this spring and we think this is our year to compete following a somewhat rebuilding year last season.”

The Gators lack a game changing superstar, but believe a combined effort from everyone will produce a better year.

“We have a pretty balanced roster,” Ferris said. “Everybody has to help in some way.  We don’t have one player that can just carry the team.”

Ferris was not ready to proclaim his team as the best in the conference, but is confident about the short term future.

“Hopefully we can believe that we have a chance to win the NCAC,” Ferris said. “We have to prove it every day and learn from what happened last year.”

The confidence has trickled down from the head coach to the players.

“Our expectations are obviously to make the NCAC playoffs and go as far as we can,” Abbott said. “And also it would be a good goal to set to win 25 games.”

The team can sense a different feeling in the cool Meadville air, and the season has not yet even begun.

“This is going to be the year,” Young said. “With the combination of returning players and a renewed confidence following a strong offseason, we’re ready to compete.”

Abbott echoed Young’s statement.

“Coach Ferris has much higher expectations for the team this year,” Abbott said. “He has displayed it in the huddles, during practice and at team meetings. He really believes we can be champions.”

His evaluation of the confidence of the coaching staff seems to be accurate.

“We have enough talent to win the conference championship,” Ferris said. “It’s just a matter of executing on the field.”

With the bar set high for 2008, the Gators hope to rely on new-found experience to launch them to the top.

The NCAC coaches may not be as confident in the Gators, as they voted the Allegheny squad as fifth in the conference preseason poll.

The Gators open their season in Florida with a 10-game road trip over spring break. Their first home game is on Mar. 26 against Grove City at 3 p.m.