UK Baseball: Defending the Crown in '07

'Defending the Crown' is this year's theme for the University of Kentucky baseball program, fresh off its best season in the program's history.

Kentucky finished the 2006 season with a Southeastern Conference Championship, a school-record 44 wins, and the first NCAA Regional in school history.

This year, the Wildcats will face the daunting task of trying to repeat what Cohen's Cats did in 2006, without some of its key components that helped lead the Wildcats to its rare glory.

Fortunately for Kentucky baseball fans, a Coach Cohen coached ballclub generally means reloading, not rebuilding.

Gone are All-American Ryan Strieby, All-SEC second baseman John Shelby, number one starter Craig Snipp, and key role players Matt Robinson and Michael Bertram, but back in 2007 are a host of newcomers that have been waiting in the wings and a handful of strong leaders.

Kentucky returns senior catcher Sean Coughlin and junior outfielders Antone DeJesus and Collin Cowgill to a batting order that will again be extremely strong from top to bottom.

Cowgill, a Lexington native, ripped 16 home runs and 61 RBI while batting second in a potent Wildcat lineup, while Coughlin blasted 17 home runs and drove in 55 runs. DeJesus, arguably the best defensive centerfielder in all of college baseball, will anchor the leadoff spot after a stellar 2006 season batting .323 and reaching base at a .433 clip.

The key to the early portion of the season might fall to the pitching staff, where in comparison to the Wildcats batting order, is littered with upper classman and experience.

The UK pitching staff will be paced by crafty right-handed junior Greg Dombrowski, who terrorized opposing lineups a year ago en route to a school record 10 wins and a 2.83 ERA.

UK Baseball Notebook

Louisville (Ky.) native Scott Green (So., 6-8, 225), who redshirted last year after having elbow surgery in the off-season, had to watch as his teammates accomplished history without him in 2006.

But 2007 is Green's year to shine as the former highly touted prospect from Male HS has come along nicely.

"If he comes off injury the way the staff expects him to come off, he could be one of the best arms in the league," a source within the department said.

The coaching staff is expected to nurse the tall and imposing right hander into action to make sure he is healthy.

Rotation Update: Much has been made of the Wildcats likely choices to replace weekend starters Craig Snipp and Aaron Tennyson.

With Dombrowski set as the likely choice for the Sunday starter position, he reveled in last year, the Wildcats will look to several returnees to set him up.

Junior Andrew Albers, who saved 7 games coming off an injury late last season is a front runner to take over one of the spots. Albers is an excellent left hander who may likely grace the rotation and will be a top 10 pick this year.

Coach John Cohen and pitching coach Gary Henderson have teased the idea of using Albers as both a starter and closer early in the season.

Newcomer Aaron Lovett, a junior college addition to the class of 2007, has emerged as another choice for Cohen. Lovett possesses an excellent curveball and will probably be looked at as a Saturday starter. The coaches really think he can be a very good pitcher.

Several newcomers have been circled as possible contributors to the pitching rotation and could challenge for a starting job.

Freshmen Clint Tilford, a 6-foot-2, 180 pound right hander from West Paducah (Ky.) Heath HS has been considered one of the better pitching prospects the University of Kentucky baseball program has ever brought in.

He, alongside freshmen Colby Brown, another Kentucky native from Mt. Vernon (Ky.) Rockcastle HS, make up a formidable in-state duo that should leave a significant mark on the program before they leave.

Southpaw James Paxton, Tyler Henry and arguably UK's top incoming recruit, Chris Walden, who turned down 5th round money to come to UK are also making some early noise for playing time.

Lost in the shuffle could be one of the better left-handed pitchers in the league according to Coach Cohen in Chris Rusin. Rusin, who was Cohen's prized recruit from Michigan last year, heads into his sophomore campaign having never lost a game in a UK uniform, going 5-0 with a 4.03 ERA a year ago.

The closer role, will probably go to junior Brock Baber, who saved 4 games a year ago in route to going 4-0 with a 3.10 ERA before giving way to Albers at the end of the year. With a year of fine tuning, the Bath County HS standout should be a standout to say the least.

Fall Standouts: Senior Mike Brown is a name that many people have never heard of, partly because Coach Cohen had a difficult time trying to find a place for him in a loaded infield last season, but this year the Davis (Ca.) native has got people talking.

A converted infielder, Brown is expected to see significant playing time in 2007 and the staff is pleased with his progress as a player.

Also coming out of the wood-works is the lone Floridian on the team in Anthony Ottrando. Ottrando redshirted this past year in preparation for a run at the third-base job previously occupied by Lexington (Ky.) native and new Detroit Tiger, Michael Bertram.

After a standout summer that saw him become MVP of his league, Ottrando has carried over his confidence into the new year, showing rare pop and making the coaching staff believe he can push Matt McKinney for a starting spot.

Also generating some head-wave is Jason Kipnis, a freshmen from Northbrook (Ill), who at 5-foot-11, 160 pounds can play infield or outfield for Cohen's group.

Kipnis was considered primed for a redshirt year in 2007, but has shown a tremendous amount of pop and plate discipline. Enough to where the former left handed Glenbrook North star is pushing former All-SEC outfielder Billy Grace for the right field spot.

Next Edition: Who will take over for Ryan Strieby at first? John Shelby at second?

Special thanks to the UKAA and UK Baseball SID Brent Ingram for his help and insight.

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