Feb. 11, 2008
The 2008 Air Force baseball team will be learning on the fly. Featuring one of the youngest squads in all of collegiate baseball comprised predominantly of freshmen and sophomores, head coach Mike Hutcheon expects his fledgling Falcons to start slow but become much improved as the season moves along. Sixteen freshmen and 11 sophomores make up 77 percent of the team, which also includes four juniors and seniors.
Despite such a young team, Air Force still has upperclass leadership. Team co-captains, senior outfielder Chay Derbigny and junior right-hander Jake Petro provide a solid core that will show the way through their play and commitment to success.
"We have a young team, but they have seen a lot of action already," Hutcheon said. "We've added some depth in the infield, catching and pitching-wise with this freshman class. Our team comes into this year with a good idea of what they want to accomplish. For the first time in awhile we have a pitching staff with significant experience and that will help our younger newcomers as they adjust to college ball."
Often starting five, and sometimes six freshmen last season, Hutcheon has an experienced sophomore class, led by freshman All-American shortstop K.J. Randhawa, who batted .405 in Mountain West Conference play. In addition, sophomore hurlers Alex Truesdale, David Miller and Michael Ruvolo saw significant time on the mound as rookies and will plays big roles in this their second season.
"We had to throw a lot of young players into the fire last year and that experience should help as we progress into conference play this year," Hutcheon remarked. "The key for us this year is to win early on. We need our guys to learn how to win at the start of the season so we are playing our best ball as we enter Mountain West play."
Despite such a young team, the Falcons are poised to make this year the best yet in the Mike Hutcheon era of Falcon baseball. Here is a quick breakdown of the 2008 Air Force Falcon baseball team.
The Falcon infield will be a mix of veteran and incoming talent. Up the middle will showcase Randhawa at short and freshman Nathan Carter at second. On the corners, either sophomore Matt Alexander or Addison Gentry will get the call at first and sophomore Ben Ausbun is slated to start at third.
Randhawa started 44 games at shortstop a season ago and will be the leader of the infield. Carter comes to the Academy with an accomplished high school resume as a 23rd round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers after a standout prep career at De La Salle high school in Concord, Calif.
Alexander and Gentry were both steady presences in the middle of the Falcon lineup as freshmen. Both swinging the bat from the left side, Alexander batted .270 as a freshman finishing second on the team in RBI and doubles. Gentry came on strong late in the season and finished third on the team in doubles. Both players will play first and designated hitter.
Ausbun started 38 games at third last year and appears poised for a breakout season. Ausbun was regarded as the most improved player this offseason by Hutcheon.
Junior Jason Griggs, a versatile player who started at six different positions last year, and freshmen Jon McMahon and Vai Schierholtz have looked good in practices and will push for playing time. In addition freshman Kyle Miller comes to Academy with strong offensive credentials and will see time behind Gentry and Alexander at first and DH.
"With K.J. providing leadership and the addition of a versatile player in Nathan Carter, we are pretty strong up the middle," Hutcheon said. `Along with our two lefty hitters at first and the improvement of Ben at third, our infield should be much improved."
In the catching position, senior Josh Meents and freshman Parker Mayo will battle it out for starting rights. Meents is a two-year starter behind the plate, but will also be utilized more on the mound. Mayo has looked impressive in fall and winter practices and could be the opening day starter. In addition, senior Erol Kelter provides the Falcons with another proven game-caller behind the plate. Freshmen Andrew Wagner and Alex Hillman also provide support.
Although few in numbers, the Falcons have an emerging and talented out field corps. Led by Derbigny, who makes the move over from center to right field, the Falcons have several options in the outfield.
Sophomore Daniel Walker has the early nod to start in center. A speedy athlete, who improved leaps and bounds in just one year, Walker looks to improve upon his seven stolen bases in 30 games from a season ago. Derbigny is Air Force's top returning hitter from a season ago, batting .301 and leading the team with 12 stolen bases.
Another sophomore, Tyler McBride gets the early season nod to start in left. Hutcheon calls McBride, "one of those guys that always seems to be in the middle of winning and provides the team with a good example how to play the game right day in and day out."
Senior Jake Allen and freshmen Tytus Moss and Tyler Wagner will provide added depth and will see some opportunities to get into the lineup. Carter and Griggs both have the ability to play in the outfield and could see some time out there as well.
The pitching staff is also young and loaded with freshmen and sophomores. Petro is the elder-statesman of the staff as a junior. A two-year starter, Petro will be called upon in a hybrid closer/starter role, where we may close games on Friday and start on Sundays. As a sophomore, Petro led the Falcons with three wins and has the lowest earned run average amongst the returners, posting a 6.28 mark last year.
Sophomores Miller and Truesdale have the early nod as starters. Truesdale led the Falcons with 79 innings pitched and made 12 starts last year and Miller was second on the team with 18 relief appearances as the team's closer.
Ruvolo, who tied the school record with 33 pitching appearances last year, will again resume the role of middle-relief and could close out some games. Teach, a junior, will be called upon as a lefty specialist like last year.
In addition to the solid returning cast, Hutcheon has several newcomers to the mound, that could be immediate impact players. Jeff Abt has a high ceiling with his lanky, 6-foot-5 frame and could assume the closers role. A quarterback on the junior varsity football team, Abt may be the Falcons' hardest thrower. Freshmen Matt Barattino and lefty Brad Pingel have impressed in practices and will get several chances to crack the starting rotation, possibly in the mid-week games. The Falcons also boast two 6-foot-4 rookies in sophomore Colin Shepherd and freshman Chad Sheiner. Freshmen Clay Bradford will also get his chances in relief.
"Pitching staff wise, this is the most talent and depth we've had in our last five years," Hutcheon said. "It's just a matter of getting our freshmen's feet wet and our juniors and sophomore to keep improving."
The Falcons play another tough schedule in 2008, highlighted by a trip to a College World Series participant and an always-demanding Mountain West Conference slate.
Air Force opens up with a two-game set against Navy and one game vs. Memphis at the Service Academies Spring Classic in Millington, Tenn. Then after a mid-week game with Northern Colorado, head to Starkville, Miss., for a three-game set at 2007 CWS participant Mississippi State, where Hutcheon served as a graduate assistant under legendary coach Ron Polk.
The Falcons then head to Palm Beach, Fla., to take on the likes of Maine, Lehigh, Ohio State, UConn and Penn. Air Force follows the Florida trip with a three-game set at home against South Dakota State and later in the week against Colorado Christian.
The Falcons head into Spring Break with nine games in 10 days. After opening conference play at BYU, the Falcons play a game at Charleston Souther and two more at Savannah State. The trip ends with a three-game set at Utah.
After a two-game set hosting Doane College, the Falcons get back into MWC play, with road trips to TCU and New Mexico in April. The Falcons host Colorado Christian again then play their final non-conference game of the season against Utah Valley and Northern Colorado in Greeley.
Air Force closes out the season with home series against BYU, San Diego State, Utah and UNLV in consecutive weekends.
The Mountain West Conference Tournament takes place May 20-24 in Forth Worth, Texas, with TCU as the host institute.