Ranked 25th in Baseball America to open the season, VCU is no stranger to Auburn. The two teams have faced each other for five straight seasons and the Tigers hold a 15-1 advantage against the Rams all-time. Last season the Tigers outscored VCU 28-9 in a three-game sweep at Plainsman Park but the Rams still made their fourth trip to an NCAA Regional in the last five seasons after finishing 38-27 overall and winning the 2002 Colonial Athletic Association tournament title.
Returning five position starters and five of its top seven pitchers from last season, the Rams enter the opening weekend as the preseason favorite to win the CAA in 2003. Leading the way at the plate will be junior second baseman Nick Jones. A second-team All-CAA performer last season after hitting .340 with 51 runs batted in, he should be the catalyst for the Rams at the plate. Also back are senior first baseman Danny Lopaze, who led the team with eight home runs in 2002, and catcher Jeff Parrish, who is a preseason All-CAA selection. A player to watch is junior college transfer Anthony Granato. The shortstop hit .519 last season at Skyline (Ca.) and will be one of the top transfers in the country this season.
While the Rams have several capable sticks at the plate, on the mound is where they are capable of contending with anyone. Friday afternoon they will send junior left-hander Sean Marshall to the mound to face senior right-hander Levale Speigner for the Tigers. The CAA Rookie of the Year two seasons ago, Marshall was 3-4 last season with a 4.45 ERA. Speigner is the most experienced of the Auburn pitchers with three seasons of action under his belt. Last season he finished a disappointing 7-6 overall with a 4.92 ERA in 17 starts. Speigner was scheduled to be a reliever this season with sophomore Arnold Hughey getting the starting nod but the left-hander didn't have the type of preseason the coaches were looking for and they decided to insert Speigner back into the rotation to open the season.
Saturday the Tigers will face one of the best pitchers in the country in sophomore Justin Orenduff, a transfer from George Washington. Last season he was 10-2 with a 1.68 ERA in 28 appearances but started just one game. He will face junior right-hander Eric Brandon for the Tigers. Brandon was 3-3 last season with a 5.27 ERA as he bounced back-and-forth from the bullpen to the starting rotation. Sunday senior Michael Leishman (3-3, 4.17 ERA) takes the mound against Auburn's Colby Paxton. Hot and cold last season, Paxton was 8-6 with an earned run average of 5.25 in 17 starts.
Offensively, several new faces will be mixed in with a group of strong veterans for the Tigers to give them what has the potential to be the best offensive team in years. The likely lineup to begin the season will have senior catcher Bobby Huddleston behind the plate and hitting in the middle of the order. Last season he hit .355 with 11 home runs and 50 runs batted in. In front of him will likely be leading hitter Javon Moran. After a sophomore season in which he hit .365 with three home runs, three triples, 11 doubles and 41 runs batted in, the center fielder is bigger and stronger as he returns for his third season as a starter for the Tigers. Leading things off will be sophomore left fielder Sean Gamble. A .276 hitter last season as a true freshman, Gamble has worked on putting the ball in play more and that should allow his speed to be more beneficial this season.
Sophomore second baseman Tug Hulett is a player that is also scheduled to be near the top of the order. A .308 hitter last season with 16 doubles, Hulett is a threat to hit the ball to either side of the field from the left side of the plate and puts pressure on the defense when he's in the box. Back for his junior season is first baseman Scott Schade. A .296 hitter last year with seven home runs and 48 runs batted in, the versatile Schade could also see some action at third base this season along with true freshman Josh Bell. A strong offensive player who was recruited by the Tigers as a catcher, he has shown a quick bat in practice and could be a major weapon for Auburn in the middle of the order.
Two more newcomers should provide some offensive pop as well in the Auburn order. True freshman right fielder Clete Thomas has been a tough out for the Tiger pitching staff since he arrived on the Auburn campus last fall. Showing why he was one of the top players in the South last season out of Lynn Haven, Fla., the fleet-footed Thomas can run out hits but has surprising power for someone 5-11, 185. The power is not surprising for junior college transfer first baseman/designated hitter Karl Ammonite. A 6-5, 225 left-hander from Conner State in Oklahoma, he hit .420 last season with 18 home runs and 25 doubles and has shown that it wasn't a fluke in practices at Auburn. His addition into the lineup gives the Tigers a legitimate home run threat, something they've been missing since the days of a healthy Todd Faulker.
Rounding out the order is stellar defensive shortstop Chuck Jeroloman. An improved offensive player after adding nearly 15 pounds to his 6-1 frame, his forte is still going to be on defense where he had one of the best seasons ever for an Auburn shortstop last fall. An Honorable Mention Freshman All-American last season, he hit .246 but went 96 consecutive chances in the field without an error and had just three errors in his last 34 games.
Game times for the weekend series are 3 p.m. on Friday, 1 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 on Sunday. All of the games can be followed live on the web at www.auburntigers.com.