Bringin’ The Heat

Michael Casagrande

Old Man Winter may still have a few more weeks of arctic air left in his bag, but that won’t keep the boys of summer from lacing up the spikes and hitting the diamond.

The season gets underway tomorrow and the Western baseball team has no time to concern itself with the weather outside.

For the second preseason, the Hilltoppers have had the advantage of practicing at the indoor bating facility at Nick Denes Field. It allows pitchers to throw from a regulation mound and batters to hit from a live pitcher.

However, infielders have trouble fielding ground balls off the artificial surface and game situations are not easily replicated indoors.

It’s not all climate controlled fun for the Hilltoppers. As the sleet, snow and rain fell last Thursday night, coach Joel Murrie had his team running sprints outside at Smith Stadium.

“I think it’s important that we go out and play good competition,” Murrie said. “We’ve tried to set up our schedule so that we play challenging opponents early in the season. I think it’s a good barometer to measure where you are at this point.”

The good news for Western is they will get a break from the harsh weather. The Hilltoppers will open their season at 5 p.m. tomorrow in Orlando, with a three-game series at Central Florida.

The Golden Knights (1-1), ranked 26th by the Collegiate Baseball Association, are coming off a loss to nationally-ranked Florida International.

The Golden Panthers, of the Sun Belt Conference, nipped UCF 7-6 Saturday to improve to 6-1.

Weather in Orlando is expected to be Sunny, with temperatures in the 70s. But the warm weather wasn’t kind to the Toppers last season.

Western was swept in three games at San Diego State in early February by a combined score of 27-7.

But despite last season1s road trip debacle, Murrie looks forward to playing a ranked opponent early in the season, even if he has to endure a 12-hour, overnight bus trip.

Western returns 14 lettermen from last season1s 28-20 team that started strong, but struggled to a 14-9 record against Sun Belt competition.

The Toppers were 10-3 following a 7-6 victory over Dayton in early March, but hit hard times when the spring thaw took full effect.

“We’ve had outstanding years where we came out and played better baseball in February than we did in May,” Murrie said. “We can’t control the weather, if we have good enough talent and play the game the way it is supposed to be played, I think we will have success.”

Following this weekend’s trip to Florida, the Hilltoppers return to a wintry central Kentucky.

Western will play their next nine games at Denes Field, not venturing out of the Bluegrass state until the end of March

Western will open the nine-game home stand Feb. 21 when Illinois State visits for a three-game weekend set.

The Toppers will play 33 of their 55 regular season games in the friendly confines of Denes Field, a figure senior pitcher Matt Wilhite sees as an advantage.

“You have to win on the road to be good, but a lot of home games will help out, especially if its going to be cold,” Wilhite said.

After entertaining Wright State and Northern Iowa for three-game series on consecutive weekends, the Toppers will travel to take on interstate rival Louisville.

Western was 7-1 last season when facing in state foes, sweeping both Kentucky and Eastern and splitting the two games against Louisville.

The Toppers will be wary on the “Ides of March” when Michigan State of the Big Ten pays a visit to Denes Field for three games that includes a double-header March 15.

Murrie had been working for years to lure high-profile programs like Michigan and Ohio State to the Hill, but all balked at the opportunity.

“I think it’s a compliment to Michigan State’s head coach that they are willing to come in and play three games at our place, knowing that we have a good program,” Murrie said. “I hope it is something we can continue to do in the years to come, and hopefully bring in more teams of a national caliber.”

Murrie is entering his 24th season at the helm of the Hilltoppers and has 725 career wins.

The graduation of 2002 Sun Belt Player of the Year and All-American Ryan Bicondoa leaves a definite hole in the Toppers’ pitching staff.

Bicondoa, who was drafted by the New York Yankees organization, compiled a 6-4 record while allowing a meager 1.90 ERA for the Staten Island Yankees last summer.

The former Topper is listed among the top two Yankee prospects and will compete for a position in the New York starting rotation in spring training.

Sophomore J.C. FairclothCQ hopes to help fill the gap after a rookie season that ended with a 5-5 record and a selection to the Honorable Mention Freshman All-American team.

Wilhite will return as a closer after leading the conference with seven saves last season. Murrie will look to the senior as a leader on a team over flowing with youth.

Offensively, the Toppers will welcome back the pop Sophomore Antone Towns provided to the lineup as a freshman last season. Town’s .338 batting average was the highest of returning players with 100 or more at-bats and was also selected as an Honorable Mention Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball.

Towns had been a member of the football Hilltoppers before leaving the team early last season to focus on baseball.

Senior infielder Travis Brown will bring balance both in the field and at the plate. Brown led the team with 130 assists to go along with a .913 fielding percentage. The infielder compiled a nine-game hitting streak in the month of April and hit .238 for the season.

If Western hopes to make an impact in the Sun Belt Conference this season, it will come much to the surprise of the league’s coaches. In their preseason poll, the Sun Belt skippers picked the Toppers to finish in a sixth place tie with New Mexico State.

South Alabama looks to be the front-runner in the conference after being selected as the preseason favorite to take the conference title.

The Jaguars were ranked 23rd by Baseball America and 22nd in the ESPN/Sports Weekly preseason poll.

While South Alabama is seen as the preseason favorite, Faircloth is not over-looking any Sun Belt foes.

“Pretty much every team in the Sun Belt is dangerous,” Faircloth said. “I’ll tell you, we have a really good team this year, both the offensive and defensive team, and we will be able to compete just as we do every year.

“Baseball is kind of unpredictable.”

Almost as unpredictable as the weather.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]