The conference features 10 pitchers nominated for the Roger Clemens watch list for college baseball's pitcher of the year while 11 players have been named to the preseason All-American team.
GoJackets.com will take a look at the top six teams in the league with weekly previews prior to Georgia Tech's February 10th season opener with Georgia Southern. This week we will preview the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
GEORGIA TECH - The Jackets head into the 2007 season after a successful 2006 campaign that ended with a trip to Omaha. Coach Hall's squad put together another 50 win season. The Jackets finished the year ranked 5th in the nation. Coach Hall and his staff will be looking to find replacements for the loss of five position starters and their top three pitchers. This group of players helped Tech win the 2003 ACC tournament, the 2004 regular season title, the 2005 regular season and tournament championship and led them to the 2006 College World Series. The Jackets open the season with a two game series in Statesboro on the 10th and 11th of February.
Infield - Three of the mainstays in the infield for the past three years have moved on to pro ball. Luke Murton will open at first base and will be called upon to hit behind Matt Wieters in the order this year. Luke closed the season with a rush when regular first basebman Whit Robbins was moved to third due to injuries. Murton finished the year with a .339 average and 6 home runs. Look for Murton's power numbers to go up this year and improved play in the field. Luke will be backed up by freshman Tony Plagman. Plagman impressed in the fall with his bat and glove. Look for him to DH and get some starts in the outfield. He has been compared to a Clifton Remole with more power. Freshman Jeff Ussery will have the task of replacing the departed Mike Trapani. Ussery has made the switch from short to second and may also see some action at short if needed. His backup will be walk-on Jason Garofalo. Jason impressed the staff with the way he played the game in fall practices. Like our previous second baseman, Jason played his high school ball at Marist. Michael Fisher returns at short this year. This time last year, Coach Hall wasn't sure who would be the starter at short but Michael stepped up and did a great job. He will be called upon to move into the number two spot in the lineup. Look for him to also improve his power numbers this year. The third base job has been closely contested in the fall and the winter practices. It appears that freshman Patrick Long will beat out Brad Feltes. Long adds another lefty with good power to the lineup. Feltes will also be called upon to DH.
Outfield - In spite of losing two veteran outfielders, don't look for much of a dropoff in this year's group of outfielders. Co-captain Wally Crancer will start the year in right field. Wally closed last season as the starter with Jeff Kindel's move to left due to injuries. Crancer hit .321 and led the outfielders in assists. A healthy Danny Payne returns to center field. Payne is a preseason 2nd team All-American. Danny missed the last quarter of the season due to injury. He was having a great season prior to a collision with left fielder Steven Blackwood. Danny led the squad with a .356 average and 20 stolen bases. He also led the team with a .628 slugging percentage. Look for Danny to hit double figures in home runs this year. Jacket fans will be seeing a new left fielder for the first time in four years. Chris House has come on strong to beat out freshman Curtis Dupart for the left field job. Chris saw most of his action last year as a defensive replacement and pinch hitter. He has been one of the leading hitters in the preseason practices. Dupart, the 17th-ranked college freshman, will be hard to keep off the field. He has all the tools to be a top draft choice before he leaves Tech. Jay Dantzler will add some much needed depth to the outfield. Transfer Michael Klindt has shown great power but might be reshirted due to the depth in the outfield. Freshman Matt Harper may also fall into that category. Matt was a two sport star at Lowndes County and will now concentrate on baseball.
Battery - The Jackets return one of the top players in the country to the catching position. First team preseason All-American and co-captain Matt Wieters will once again serve a dual role for Coach Danny Hall. Wieters will most likely start two of the games of our three game weekend series. He'll continue in his role as our closer and DH on the days that he's not catching. Wieters hit .355 with 15 home runs and a team leading 71 RBIs. Matt was voted the top player in the Cape Cod League by major league scouts. Look for Nick Scherer to be the defensive replacement when Matt pitches. Sophomore Jason Haniger will be the primary backup and will catch one game of the weekend series. Jason continues to work hard to improve his defensive skills.
The Jackets enter this season with a lot of question marks about their starting rotation. The primary concern is finding the third starter for the weekend rotation. Senior Ryan Turner will lead the rotation having looked the best in the fall and preseason workouts. Turner started 2006 season slow but finished the year as one of the Jackets more consistent pitchers. The second spot in the rotation goes to David Duncan. The lanky left hander is being called upon to build on last year's starts and become a force in the weekend rotation. Duncan got some valuable starts last year but didn't see any work in the super regionals or College World Series. Due to injuries, the third starter is still a question mark. Coach Moranda would like to use Chris Hicks as the third starter but he's been slowed by a sore arm. Hicks was 4-1 as a freshman last season. If Hicks is unable to go, look for veteran Tim Ladd to be the third starter. Ladd has experience as a starter but has been primarily used as a releiver. Tim compiled a 5-3 record out of the bullpen and has been used as our long releiver. Two freshman look to be possible mid-week starters for the Jackets. Zach Von Tersch, player of the year in Iowa, looks to be the leading candidate. Look for Andrew Robinson, from Starr's Mill, to also get some starts. The staff thinks highly of both their arms.
One of the strengths of this year's squad is the depth of the bullpen. The bullpen is led by veterans Jared Hyatt and Brad Rulon. Hyatt will be used as a set up man or possible spot starter. He finished the 2006 season with a 3-0 record. Rulon continues to impress out of the bullpen and will be counted on to get the ball into Wieters' hands as the closer or possibly close games when Matt isn't available. Brad had a 5-0 record with a 2.20 era last year. Freshman walk-on Elliott Ogawa has impressed the staff with his ability get batters out and could be used to get out batters in certain situations. Michael Hutts appeared out of nowhere at the end of last year to log significant innings out of the bullpen. He'll continue in that role this year. Freshman Will Hirsch will be groomed to assume the role now held by Brad Rulon. Hirsch was the Virginia Player of the Year. The Jackets also have three pitchers that are coming off of injuries. All three arrived at Tech with great credentials. John Goodman arrived at Tech as a highly touted pitcher but has been plagued with elbow problems and is now rehabbing from knee surgery. John looks to return by March 1st. When healthy, he has one of the livest arms on the staff. Eddie Burns has gone through two years of rehab and is gradually getting back to where he was as a highly rated high school pitcher. The third member of this group is transfer Charlie Blackmon. Charlie was a former high school teammate of Blake Wood. If Charlie is healthy, he could be a spot starter.
Newcomers - A good number of the incoming class will be counted on to make significant contributions this season. Look for Ussery, Long, Plagman, and Duhart to make major contributions with their bats. The pitching staff will be counting on Von Tersch, Robinson, Hirsch, Ogawa, and Blackmon. The success of these freshman will play a major role in the success of this year's team.
Losses - The Jackets arguably suffered more losses than any ACC team. This group of players helped to contribute to one of the greastest four years stretches in Tech baseball history. The infield loses first baseman Whit Robbins who finished the year with 13 home runs and a .352 average. Whit is now playing pro ball. At second, the Jackets lose their leader Mike Trapani. Trap will once again be playing minor league ball this year. At third, the Jackets must replace Wes Hodges. Hodges, although slowed by injuries, was the Jackets top hitter over his three years at Tech. Hodges hit .329 with 11 home runs in spite of leg problems most of the year. Wes is currently playing for the Indians' organization. The outfield loses two of their mainstays. Leftfielder Steven Blackwood stepped into the position as a freshman and remained the starter for four years. Despite an early season slump, Blackie ended his career as a .300 plus hitter. Jeff Kindel came to Tech as a pitcher but finished the final two years of his career as one of Danny Hall's leading hitters. Jeff finished 2006 with a .337 average and 14 home runs. Jeff will be playing minor league ball this year. The pitching staff loses three of their top players over the past three years. Lee Hyde, Blake Wood, and Tim Gustafson all left after their junior year to sign pro contracts. Hyde finished 2006 with a 6-0 record with a 3.12 ERA. He was one of the stars of the late season drive to the college world series. Blake assumed the role of our Friday starter last year and finished with an 11-4 record. Gus was plagued by shoulder problems and wasn't able to pitch as many innings as he would have liked. He's now in the Braves' organization along with Lee.
Outlook - Coach Danny Hall's squad had been picked to finish outside the top five by the ACC experts this year. On the national scene they have been ranked 11th by the preseason polls. This shows the strength of the ACC this year. The Jackets lost most of the key players from last year's team. Matt Wieters and Danny Payne will be called upon to lead the team this year. The staff feels good about the freshman and if they perform as expected the Jackets could surprise some teams this year. Question marks in the starting rotation are one of the reasons for Tech not being picked any higher in the preseason ACC polls. The Jackets will look to get these freshman experience in the easier early season portion of the schedule. The team faces the dubious task of facing UNC, Miami, Virginia, and Clemson on the road the latter half of the season. These games will determine how the Jackets finish in the ACC race.