Jan. 25, 2007
The youth movement is in full swing for the Air Force baseball program. With 20 newcomers to the team and the anticipation of starting as many as four or five freshmen, head coach Mike Hutcheon can foresee some early growing pains which he hopes will help speed the maturation process of his young squad.
"It's hard to know what to expect with five of our possible starters being freshman," Hutcheon said. But if the Fall practices were of any indication of things to come, these guys are winners with big hearts. I know one thing for sure is that these guys are ready to win and will certainly compete every pitch."
Despite having just 14 letterwinners back from the 2006 team, that went 10-38 on the season and 1-21 in Mountain West Conference play, the Falcons return five starters, including four-year starting seniors in Mitch Brown, Karl Bolt and Geno Salazar.
"Although we are a very young group we are anchored by solid upper classman with ample experience," Hutcheon said. "I know the expectations are high for a turn around year and if things fall into place like we expect, we should be in a position to succeed in all of our goals."
Hutcheon will lean on his three seasoned senior veterans to lead the way as the youngsters learn on the fly. Bolt, a career .326 hitter with 25 home runs, will anchor the offense for the fourth-consecutive year. Salazar, who led the MWC shortstops in fielding percentage (.970) as a sophomore, will anchor the infield as a second baseman. Brown, who lowered his earned run average over six runs a game to 5.65 as a junior, looks to lead the pitching staff. In addition to the seniors, Hutcheon has several returners he can count on to provide leadership.
"We started a core group of leadership this year made up of our juniors and seniors," Hutcheon remarked. "These guys have set the tone for what is expected and really have made it a personal thing with everything we do, either on or off the field. They have taken ownership in this program and I am pleased with the challenge we have put in front of them."
Another key factor in the Falcons' success may hinge on their offseason workout program, which Hutcheon says has never been better.
"I have never had a team that has put forth as much effort in the off season as these guys. Weight training, vision training and specific skill work has been the bulk of our off season and I expect these guys to reap the benefits come Spring time." "This is the most fun I have had coaching a group of young men in a long time," Hutcheon said. "It is nice to have each player buy in to our system hungry for wins."
Here is a quick breakdown of the 2007 Falcons.
The Infield: The Falcons will be young but talented in the infield. All three years of the Hutcheon era has seen the teams' fielding percentage rise (from .938 in `04, .947 in `05 and .949 in `06) and the 2007 team should be no different. Salazar is slated to start the season at second and has two years of starting experience at short. Freshman K.J. Randhawa proved to be a natural defensively during fall ball and will get the early nod at shortstop. Third baseman Ben Ausbun could not be kept off the bases during fall ball and has the inside track to start the season at the hot corner. At first base, a pair of 6-foot-4 freshmen in David Miller and lefty Spencer Tate are battling it out for the job. Both Miller and Tate will also see time at designated hitter and on the mound.
Sophomore Jason Griggs, who started 15 of the last 17 games at second last year will also see time at second, third and short. Freshman Brent Whiteman is a gritty defender and will most likely back up Salazar at second. Freshman Jon Falgout, a linebacker on the Falcon football team, will provide some offensive pop and will see time at first and possibly third.
Junior Josh Meents returns to catcher after spending most of 2006 as a pitcher/designated hitter. The Falcons are counting on Meents to have a big year offensively. He also returns to switch-hitting after batting from just the left side as a junior, finishing second on the team with seven home runs. Junior Erol Kelter has shown steady improvement each of his three years and will see time when Meents is on the mound. Freshman Brian Nelson will also be in the mix as a catcher and outfielder.
"We are relatively young in the infield, but these guys are very advanced defensively for their age," Hutcheon said.
The outfield will be strong defensively with a new wrinkle added in. Junior Chay Derbigny will start in centerfield after a strong sophomore campaign in which he led the team with 12 stolen bases and 14 hit-by-pitches. Derbigny set several team records in the weight room this offseason and set the Academy vertical leap record, jumping 42.5 inches during physical fitness testing.
The new wrinkle in the Falcon outfield will be senior Karl Bolt. After spending his freshman year at third and the following two years at first base, Bolt made the transition of the outfield and will start the season in right field. Bolt is the leading returning hitter in nearly every Falcon offensive category including hits (164), runs (97) and RBI (101).
The leftfield spot is a three-way battle between freshmen Matt Alexander, Shea Hall and Addison Gentry. Alexander is a standout outfielder from California and Hall, an Oklahoma native, had a solid Fall campaign. Gentry was a left-handed quarterback on the Falcon football team and looks to join the fray as well. Freshmen speedsters Stephen Bintz, Tyler McBride and Daniel Walker are also in the mix in the outfield and will get some looks.
The pitching staff will be anchored by several returners, but a strong crop of newcomers have come in and shown that they can throw at the Div. I level.
Senior Mitch Brown is the veteran of the bunch, leading the Falcon pitching staff in nearly every category including composure and determination. As a junior, the Semmes, Ala., product led the team in wins (3), innings pitched (71.2) and strikeouts (51).
A trio of sophomores and a junior round out the Falcon pitching staff in terms of Div. I experience. Jake Petro, who had a solid freshman year, going 2-5 in 10 starts, will be one of the Falcons' starting pitchers. Casey Allen came on strong late last year, finishing up second on the team with 54.1 innings pitched. Juan Perez led the team with 20 relief appearances a year ago and is a candidate to earn a starting slot this year. In addition to catching duties, Meents will be another contributor on the mound, where he made 14 appearances and seven starts in 2006.
The Falcons have a slew of young arms, including a few lefties, to toss into the mix. Gary Whiteman, a 10-game winner at Scottsdale Community College (sophomore in eligibility) and brother of teammate, Brent, has impressed during Fall ball and is contending for a starting slot. In addition to firstbase/DH duties, Miller has shown some stellar velocity on his fastball and is slated to be the closer for the Falcons after being named MVP with three saves in the Falcon Fall Ball Championships.
Freshmen Michael Ruvolo and Tom Bowen also had stellar fall ball outings and will see time in relief. The Falcons also have three lefties out of the bullpen for the first time in several years. Tate, Daniel Richardson and Adam Teach all throw from the left side providing Hutcheon with some situational options when called upon. Freshmen Alex Truesdale and 6-foot-5 Nick Batey will also be called upon to provide relief.
Also returning to the team is senior reliever Joe Peterson. Peterson, who last played for the Falcons in 2003 before leaving for a religious mission, was previously a catcher before making the transition to the mound.
The Falcons have a strong and challenging schedule as usual for 2007. Air Force plays in the 2007 Service Academies Spring Classic which will see the Falcons play Navy twice. In March, the Falcons travel to Lewiston, Idaho to take part in the Banana Belt Tournament, featuring Gonzaga, Lewis & Clark State, Utah Valley State and Washington State. The Falcons also have non-conference games against Colorado Christian, York College, Kansas Wesleyan, Northern Colorado and Wright State. In addition, the Falcons travel to Hawai'i over Spring Break, where they will take on Hawai'i-Hilo for a five game series.
The Mountain West Conference schedule will feature 24 games with home-and-home series against defending conference champion TCU and San Diego State, led by recent MLB Hall of Fame inductee Tony Gwynn. The Falcons face TCU, SDSU, New Mexico and Utah at home, while hitting the road at TCU, SDSU, BYU and UNLV.
With a format change to the 2007 MWC Baseball Championships, the Falcons will be looking to qualify for the tourney for the first time ever. Six of the top seven teams make the tournament, held May 22-26 in Las Vegas, Nev.