Sophomore Slump?

Prognosticators predicated that the meaty senior sluggers in the middle of the lineup would carry the 2006 rendition of the Cincinnati Bearcat baseball team. Players like current minor-league farmhands Logan Parker and Jack Nelson, as well as competent hitter/fielders Mark Muscenti and Jon DeLuca, made for a potent quartet in the heart of the lineup.

However, last season it was the UC's surprising freshmen at the top of the lineup leading things off for the surprising ‘Cats all year.


The combination of speedy middle infielders Adam Yeager and Josh Harrison helped to make a once one-dimensional UC offense into a diverse and well-balanced attack.  Along with speedy centerfielder LaFringe Hayes, the dynamic first-year standouts helped bring in era of "small ball" to the campus at Clifton for the first time in the history of Cincinnati baseball.  Along with regulations regarding hitting equipment, the construction of Marge Schott Stadium, a ballpark noted as much for its massive power gaps and field turf as it is the state-of-the-art nature of its design, left Cincinnati skipper Brian Cleary little choice but to adopt the speed-based style of offense.


"You really need to have speed if you want to be successful at [Marge Schott Field]," said Yeager, who joined Harrison, Cory Hodskins, and pitchers Steve Blevins and Dan Osterbrock as first-year players to make a major impact on last season's Big East-qualifying squad.  "If you hit the ball into the corner in this park it will probably go to the fence because of the size of the park and the quickness of the turf, so with our speed we can turn a double into a triple pretty easily."


Much like those doubles turned triples, Yeager, along with his fellow newcomers, made the adjustment to the college game "pretty easily".  After hitting .440 as a prep standout at Huntington High School (W. Va.), the Bearcat shortstop hit .291 with 12 extra-base hits and six steals in 197 at-bats last season. 


"I had a pretty good season last year but we all did, which really helped me out with my confidence," said Yeager, speaking about the individual accomplishments of the Bearcat squad that helped lead to their surprising overall team successes.  "As a freshman I didn't know what to expect and it took some time to get adjusted so having the rest of the team have the success they did really made me feel a lot more comfortable."


Yeager's level of comfort on the field received noticeable backing from his statistical output during his season-long collegiate coming out party.  While the overall numbers are impressive, a deeper look at his statistical output shows that the 6-foot middle infielder got stronger as the season wore on.  After struggling mightily at times during early-season practice and the first few weeks of the season, the West Virginia native caught fire, hitting well over .300 during the crucial part of the conference season.  In fact, Yeager was one of the hottest hitters on his team down the stretch run of the season, smacking out 34 hits (.337) en route to 21 runs, 13 RBI, and nine of his extra-base hits, including both of his home runs over the course of the final 26 games of the season.


However, despite his overall success, Yeager's immediate arrival to Cincinnati ball field from Huntington, W. Va. met shaky results.  While he thrived in the classroom, earning the finance major numerous accolades for his academic progress, his efforts in the batting cage received far less praise initially. 


Due in par to both the perceived weakness he had at the plate and the rest based on Coach Cleary's concern over shaking the youngster's confidence, Yeager saw limited action early on in the season. This included almost no play for the lefty against southpaws.  Coach Cleary's hesitancy derived from his desire to put his speedy weapon in situations that would provide him the most chances at being successful early on in his career. 


However, while that relatively short duration of calendar time must have felt like one of the longest in Yeager's young baseball career, Yeager took it all on stride, accepting the fact that he was a freshman on a team centered on a core of senior ballplayers.


"Last year  we had three seniors [Parker, DeLuca, and Muscenti] that I looked up to in the infield and wanted to follow their lead," said Yeager, who embodies everything you'd want in a team player, including a "whatever" the team needs attitude that helped keep him humble during both his early struggles last season and achievements later one. 


Last season, Yeager parlayed the guidance and experience-learned lessons he received from his team leaders, some of whom still hang around the batting cages on the UC campus at times, into personal success. This season, Yeager is ready to adopt not only an everyday spot in the lineup but also a role as a mentor on a young Bearcat team - even though it might be more than a little odd at first.


"This season, I am going to have to step up and take on the role they leave behind, which will be a little weird," said Yeager, who will be the only full-time player returning to the infield this season (Harrison split time at several positions last season, primarily right field). 


With that being said, Yeager's confidence level is at an all-time high, headed into his second season in Cincinnati  "A lot more confidant, especially in the field," said Yeager, who even seemed more at ease while conducting this interview then he did any of his numerous one-on-ones last year.  "I am a little more used to it and I am a lot more comfortable with pretty much everything that is going on."


Nevertheless, despite the confidence he has in his own abilities, he is unable to echo that sentiment toward those of most of other members of the team.  With a team comprised largely of second-year players, sophomores, transfers or former JUCO standouts, along with a whole host of incoming freshmen and incoming "veterans" from varying collegiate backgrounds, there are few aspects of this squad considered "sure things" heading into the campaign.  


"It is going to be a little bit different from last year because we have those a whole lot of guys that have been here for more than a year so," who will rely heavily upon his classmate and wingman, Harrison, to bring some sense of normalcy to the infield.  "I am pretty comfortable with each of those guys that may play in the infield and I am confidant in their ability to play their position…but having Josh [Harrison] will help me and us out a lot because he'll be in the infield full-time this year and he is a natural leader."


While Yeager is excited about the potential of playing with Harrison for a second go-round, he is equally enthusiastic about the proposition of playing with the countless droves of talented newcomers UC brought in during the off-season.


"We have a lot of really talented guys on this year's team and we all the new guys are capable of doing great things as well," said Yeager, who has paid particular notice to the influx of speed the program has added seemingly over night.   "We have a lot more speed this year with Jamel [Scott] and Tony Campana at the top of the lineup, so we'll have like four or five guys that can really steal a base at any time."


The ‘Cats will not be void of potential power threats in the middle of the lineup by any stretch of the imagination, as they will feature the likes of Neall French, Brian Szarmach and others who can potentially take the ball over the sizeable meshlink fences in the outfield.  However, as the classic adage states, speed never slumps and the proper utilization of the blazing speed UC will have at three or four spots in the lineup will help their offensive cause dramatically, particularly early on as they cope from the loss of their reliable seniors in the lineup.


"I think we'll adopt a small ball mentality to some degree, but mainly because that is something we can be successful doing," said Yeager, who utilized his running ability to finish fourth on the team in steals (6) and five successful infield bunt attempts last season.  "We still have three or four guys in the middle of the lineup so it isn't like we are just going to be a one-dimensional offense. I think our speed at the top of the lineup will help us be that much more explosive offensively but it won't be our entire offense."


However, even though the running ability of the Bearcats may not go into a slump - unless, the team is plagued with a series of unfortunately timed cramps, of course - that will not necessarily prevent them from enduring sizeable 0-fors over the course of the season. 


"Teams may be better prepared for us this year then they were last year but if we work hard on the field and study for them we'll be fine. I know that I need to take a few more pitches to try to get on base more. In order to use my speed on base paths similar to how I did last year but I have to get on base.


As Coach Cleary says, baseball is the one sport where you can count on nothing from one day to the next, let alone a full season.  Luckily, the Bearcat faithful can rest peacefully knowing that this one aspect of the game to which Yeager and Co. have paid full attention.   


Although, don't go asking Yeager about his feelings about the potential for the notorious "sophomore slump" or he is likely to laugh (or at least give you a hardy chuckle) in your face as he did mine - and deservedly so.


"I haven't even heard or thought about to be honest with you, said Yeager sheepishly.  "We just need to do the things that made us successful as freshmen and continue to work hard.  Our goal is a Big East championship and I think as a team that‘s what we expect and what we are striving for. If we work hard and do what we need to do, it won't matter how well they've prepared for us.

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