On May 21 at 4:05 p.m., when parties from both USF, UC and the officiating staff decided to mercifully end the Bearcats suffering after only eight innings of the 18-8 drubbing, the University of Cincinnati officially put to rest their 2005 baseball season.
Going into Tampa needing a three-game sweep of the Bulls in order to prolong their season, the Bearcats failed to make a dent in the armor of the high-powered artillery of South Florida losing all three games of their final Conference USA series of the season and school history.
"Even though we didn't make it as far as we would have liked this season, I was really proud of these guys for getting back into post-season contention after our 0-6 start in conference play," said Brian Cleary who wrapped up his ninth season as Bearcat skipper with the loss to USF.
"This season was a step in the right direction for this program. Even though we failed to swing the bat well in the middle part of the season and struggled to pitch at times, which accentuated our lack of depth at times, these guys played hard every day. And I am positive that after this season our move to the Big East should be a successful one."
Though a UC hurler will not throw another regular season pitch off a mound wearing the red and black of the Bearcat uniform for some eight months, the baseball program is already beginning to prepare for their rebirth as a member of the Big East.
Like the Renaissance ("rebirth") that swept through Europe after the Middle Ages, the Bearcats look to utilize top-level talent to help bring the program out of the darkness that has come over the program in recent years (an 81-138-1 record over the past four seasons). UC has already recruited some of the premier talent in the region to offer their services to the Bearcat cause.
Steve Blevins (Louisa, Ky./Lawrence Country), Keith Kampe (Rochester Hills, Mich./Pontiac Notre Dame), Cory Hodskins (Lexington, Ky./Henry Clay), Kyle Meeker (Cincinnati, Ohio/McNicholas), Jon Niese (Defiance, Ohio/Defiance Senior), Dan Osterbrock (Cincinnati, Ohio/Colerain), Adam Yeager (Huntington, W.Va./Huntington), and most recently Kyle Rapp (Cincinnati, Ohio/Wabash Valley College)have decided to don the Bearcat "C" on their cap with pride next season.
"This is the most talented recruiting class I have had thus far and we are still looking to add talent," said Cleary who is known for his recruiting prowess. During his first three seasons as UC skipper, Cleary's recruiting classes were ranked among the best in the nation by Collegiate Baseball magazine, the only program in Ohio so honored.
Cleary's efforts as a recruiter will be further maximized by the support the University of Cincinnati and the athletic department has toward the baseball program. The new UC recruits will take full advantage of the tools that have been given to them in recent years. Most notable among these new assets is a place the program now calls home. After being relegated to relative homelessness over the previous two seasons, this season brought the state-of-the art new home to the Bearcat baseball program full-time.
With the opening of UC Stadium in late 2004, coach Cleary already notes what the 3,000-plus seat facility has brought and will continue to bring to his program.
"The new facilities put us on par with some of the top programs in the country. High School kids are going to be attracted to UC because it shows the commitment of the school and the program to winning. Though the facility alone will not get us to where we want to go, it can only help."
In addition to the technological advancements recruiting has seen in recent years, by joining the Big East those efforts will be further helped by more meteorological improvements. While the climate has not changed, the weather of UC's new conference foes has (for the most part).
Moving to a conference dominated by teams from the Northeast and Midwest, the Bearcats will be matched against programs facing many of the same limitations caused by temperature, climate and the general location of the school when it comes time to recruiting. These issues play pivotal roles in competitiveness and the monetary allotment by schools, both of which play an affect in how recruiting is conducted and the athletes who are recruited are sought after. The weather-friendly schools in C-USA were too much for an up-and-coming program in the Midwest like UC to withstand on the recruiting trail.
While Cleary's ability to go into the home of teenage boys and sell their parents on all that the University of Cincinnati can offer them has earned him yet another topnotch class, the persuasive powers of professional baseball could ultimately undermine much of the work he has accomplished thus far.
With Major League Baseball's annual Amateur Entry Draft only weeks away, UC will soon find out the damage large signing bonuses and dreams of shagging balls in Wrigley Field will do to the potentially impressionable minds of the 2005 recruiting class.
"Without a doubt the draft is the biggest challenge we face in the off-season. The uncertainty it brings with it can drastically impact how good a program will be from year-to-year. You can only go out and recruit guys who have it in their mind that education is important and hope for the best" said Cleary who has seen players such as Kevin Youkilis (Boston Red Sox) who was recently named to the ten-member Conference USA All-Decade Team.
While high school is a prominent feeding ground for the draft, this year's Bearcat roster could be hurt as much by early defections by the junior class. Most likely to be tempted by the lure of pro ball will be center fielder LaFringe Hayes. Serving as a reserve during his first two collegiate seasons at Oklahoma, Hayes blistering speed and ability to cover ground in the outfield could make him a prospect to play at the next level.
"This situation is a real catch-22 in a lot of ways. Having guys drafted means you are recruiting the right guys and have a good shot at building your program. However, having those guys drafted early can really hurt a program. It really becomes an issue when you are trying to build a program like we are at UC" said Cleary whose staff will look to fill holes on his roster into July. "While the guys left unsigned after the draft will not necessarily be of the top-tier, though there are some, you can usually find players that can come in and fill holes in your ball club."
Most of the holes made in the UC depth chart will come from those who fulfilled their four-year commitment to the University. This season's departing seniors were crucial parts of the success the Bearcats were able to muster this season. Nearly one-third of this year's 30-man roster (nine) were seniors (Mark Haske, Erik Eitel, Tony Maynard, Josh Kay, Jim Olds, Pat LeMasters, Justin Minges, Kyle Markle and Mike Foley).
"Overall, I was really happy with our seniors this season, especially with the leadership they managed to show the young guys. This is the first time I have been able to say that in several years," said Cleary.
Not only serving as mentors for the underclassmen, the senior class also provided for an overwhelming percentage of the team's production (especially in the bullpen). Most notable among the losses the program will face on this list will be that of Maynard (number one starter), Kay (closer) and Mark Haske (short stop). Coach Cleary made sure to note that Maynard filled every role the ace of a staff should fill, while noting that he doubts the program will "see anyone as good as him" for some time.
Cleary also noted that he felt that Haske, who joined the program this season after spending two years at Junior College and then a season at Alabama, is the best at the position in a UC uniform since Brad Schutz.
While focusing on those who have either yet to or may never play for the Bearcats is a topic that must be discussed, the most important issue for building toward next season will be the development of the talent that will be a member of the squad next season. For those players the ability to perform in Summer will be a crucial aspect of keeping players sharp for next season.
"Even though we do not get to have our hands on the players during that time of year, I really feel that Summer Ball is a crucial part of building a young player," said Cleary. "There is not a lot of hands-on instruction that is going on, but the ability to be around other good players can do nothing but help. The kids learn how to play the game from any coaching they may receive and just getting the chance to play and stay sharp."
Though the majority of players will participate in various Summer Leagues across the county, certain players will not take part in the action for various reasons. Issues such as injuries suffered during the season (Brian Szarmach) and a wear-and-tear accumulated over the season lead to a players inability to participate during the Summer months. Cleary notes that his young pitching staff needs time to recover from excessive innings their young arms have had to pitch over the years.
"Players such as Sean Munninghoff and Matt Heber will not play because the most important thing for them is to simply rest. Coming from high school, where they probably played during the Summer and Fall in addition to their schools for a few years, they built up a lot of fatigue on their arms. Resting their arms is the best solution in that case.
For other ballplayers it will be academic restraints, such as classes, internships or jobs during the Summer that may limit an athletes availability to play. In these cases the coaching staff is supportive and works with players in order to accommodate their needs to the best of their ability.
"I know that these kids have lives outside of baseball," noted Cleary. "Whether it be with family or at school, sometimes baseball has to take a backseat to those other needs. We try and work with those kids and help them in any way we kind during the off-season, either with baseball or school, to make sure they develop on and off the field"
While most fans have already put away their Bearcat baseball regalia for this season and are looking forward to flying their UC flags high above the ground during the readily approaching football season, behind the scenes the University of Cincinnati baseball program and coach Brian Cleary and staff are already hard at work and a week or so into their 2006 season.