by Patrick Gustavson
Last season, the Central Connecticut baseball team reached the pinnacle of college baseball: the NCAA tournament. Following a regular season that saw them finish with a 36-22 overall record and an impressive 21-7 record in the Northeast Conference, the Blue Devils won the Northeast Conference tournament.
“The success that we achieved by winning, it’s a tremendous feeling,” said head coach Charlie Hickey. “Having the opportunity to go out to TCU, one of the top five schools in college baseball right now, and perform very well at that level, it gave a lot of confidence to our team and program.”
Though there are several mainstays from the team that reached the NCAA tournament, four starting position players from that team have moved on, leaving major holes in the lineup that need to be filled.
The Blue Devils lost two starting outfielders to graduation this offseason: center fielder Tyler Coleman and right fielder Franklin Jennings.
Hickey stated that the plan is to have sophomore Chris Kanios be the team’s primary center fielder.
As for right field, there are many possibilities. Mitch Guilmette, their primary designated hitter, has seen time in the grass, as well as sophomore Ken Wright and junior utility-man Chandler DeBrosse.
The team also loses shortstop Nick Landell, whose defense made him a staple in the starting lineup. Hickey has tabbed redshirt-freshman Jeremy Sagun as his replacement.
Perhaps the most important piece that the team will be without is third baseman Ryan Costello, who was drafted by the Seattle Mariners. Costello appeared at third base in every contest, and was the most consistent hitter on the team. There appears to be no clear-cut replacement to fill the gaping hole left at third base.
However, there are plenty of hitters that will fill the void Costello leaves in the middle line-up. Sophomores TT Bowens and Buddy Dewaine are coming off exceptional freshmen seasons.
“The luxury of being a young player is that if you’re struggling, you don’t have to be out there. When you become a sophomore or junior, you have to play through that. And that’s what we’re looking to see if they can do that on a consistent basis,” Hickey said.
Second baseman Dean Lockery and catcher Nick Garland (both seniors) also return, providing both performance and leadership to a deep line-up.
Despite last year’s success, the team had an interesting situation with their pitching staff. Andrew Hinckley, who was set to be the team’s ace, went down with a back injury after just five appearances. Brett Susi did not pitch at all due to a shoulder injury. These two absences left the Blue Devils with a young, inexperienced pitching staff.
Senior Brendan Smith picked up some of the slack, going from throwing just four innings as a junior to 88 in his senior season. The team also received strong performances from Mike Appel, as well as freshmen Ron Grant and Michael DeLease.
Though Smith graduated, the return of Hinckley, Susi and Brandon Fox, as well as the development of the aforementioned underclassmen, Hickey feels confident in the ability of his staff, but says the key is staying healthy.
“If we can stay healthy and continue to develop, I feel comfortable that we’re going to be able to go out there every time and compete,” Hickey said.
Hickey is not worried that his team will be overconfident following their appearance in the NCAA tournament, and says the coaching staff will ensure that does not happen.
“It’s something you drive in every day. There’s nothing wrong with having confidence, but there’s also a reality in this game, it can be humbling quickly. You can take it for granted,” Hickey said.
The Blue Devils start their season with a three-game set against North Dakota State in Florida on Friday, Feb. 23.
“Going into this year, the coaching staff has toyed with about six different lineups,” Hickey said. “We’ll put people out there in positions to see where we can be the best team.”
The team will also try to manage their staff, but will rely heavily on Hinckley and Appel, who Hickey calls their “guys.”
The Blue Devils were picked to finish second in the NEC preseason poll. While Hickey agrees his team will be towards the top, he said he doesn’t “need a poll to tell [him] how good we are.”
Hickey’s main goal for his team is to reach the NEC tournament in Greenwich, which would entail finishing in the top four in the conference. Not only does he want to get there, but he wants his team to be prepared to win.