Hurricanes Aiming For Omaha

Getting back to Omaha last year was a nice reward for a University of Miami baseball team that endured the resignation of it's longtime pitching coach, struggled to find any consistency on offense early on and played through numerous injuries to the pitching staff.

So instead of feeling dejected after being ousted from the College World Series by Texas most of the Hurricanes' players agreed it was a step in the right direction for such a young squad.

"I think - although we didn't win it - that a lot of the guys on the team were like, ‘We really accomplished something by just getting this far. We went through a lot as a team and I just think we weren't expecting to get to play in the CWS.'"

But just getting back to Omaha this season probably won't cut it this time around.

The Hurricanes, who began spring practice last week in preparation for the 2004 season, share the No. 1 preseason ranking with Rice in the Collegiate Baseball poll and are No. 3 in Baseball America thanks in part to a roster that returns 21 players from a year ago, including 2003 Freshman Player of the Year Ryan Braun, sophomore third baseman Gaby Sanchez and left-handed pitching ace J. D. Cockroft.

As it stands right now UM will start the season with seven position players that took the field on opening night last year. And Hurricanes coach Jim Morris can hardly wait to get started.

"I don't know what I did to deserve this, but I'll take it," said Morris, who is 472-165-2 (.740) in 10 seasons at Miami and 24 victories shy of 1,000 as a Div. I coach. "We have speed, we have plenty of depth on our pitching staff, our entire starting lineup is back and these guys are just fundamentally sound. I can't remember when I had so many guys coming back on one team."

Coming off a fifth-place finish in last year's CWS the Hurricanes are already being touted as a contender for the national championship - and it's not difficult to see why. Miami's starting pitching staff remains intact from a year ago and will get an additional boost with the return of senior right-hander Dan Touchet, who had reconstructive right-elbow surgery several weeks into the 2003 season. Cockroft (11-3, 2.71 ERA), who replaced Touchet at the top of the rotation last year, had a team-high 94 strikeouts in 119 innings pitched and added three complete games, including a 1-0 victory over Florida Atlantic in the Coral Gables Regional. Vince Bongiovanni (8-4, 4.00) and Brandon Camardese (9-2, 5.01) will follow Cockroft in the starting rotation. There will be plenty of arms to choose from in UM's bullpen as well starting with right-handers Shawn Valdes-Fauli (3-2, 3-02, five saves) and George Huguet (3-2, 2.36). Morris said that sophomores Cesar Carillo and Chiqui Chirino will also have important roles.

"Cesar had a whale of a fall. He looks like he's in for a great season," said Morris.

Braun, who led the Hurricanes last season in batting average (.364), homeruns (17), RBIs (74), slugging precentage (.665) and hits (88), should once again provide stability in the middle of Miami's order, while Sanchez (328, 7, 56) has added 15 pounds in the off-season and is looking to add more power to the line-up. Erick San Pedro (.317, 4, 43) returns behind the plate, senior Jim Burt (11 homeruns) will play first base and Adam Ricks (.328, 4. 55) will start at second base. Junior Brian Barton (.325, 7, 53) is penciled in right field, while Richard Giannotti is the frontrunner to open in left field. Utility man Joey Hooft (. 373, 4, 43) and freshman Jon Jay are still competing for the nod in center field. The Hurricanes will play six teams (No. 4 Georgia Tech, No. 12 Long Beach State, No. 15 Florida, No. 21 North Carolina, No. 24 Florida State and No. 25 Minnesota) ranked in Collegiate Baseball preseason top-25.

"Everybody expects us to win in Omaha, and I like that," said Morris.

Miami opens the season on Feb. 13 against Florida at Mark Light Field.

AROUND THE HORN

Sanchez played first base with the second-team during situational drills at practice on Friday. Sanchez said he has been playing the position since the fall in order to give the Hurricanes a back-up at first base. "Coach (Morris) likes to have at least two guys at every position so we can some flexibility. If he needs me to play there during the regular season I'll do it."...Center fielder Danny Figueroa, who had Tommy John elbow surgery after hurting his right arm in the fall, threw on the side on Friday for the first time since the surgery. Morris said Figueroa was a 'little' sore...Freshman pitcher Scott Maine, a left-hander out of Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer High, will have Tommy John elbow surgery on Jan. 25...Junior catcher Brandan Katin hit two long home runs over the left-field wall on consecutive swings, drawing loud cheers from the rest of the players behind the batting cage...

SUPPORTING ROSE

Despite drawing plenty of criticism lately because of his admission in a televised interview and book that he gambled on baseball, Sanchez said that Pete Rose should be elected into the Hall of Fame and reinstated by baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

"I'm one of those guys that think you should get a second chance in life," said Sanchez. "Its not like he killed anybody or anything like that. You're talking about one of the best hitters ever and a guy that always promoted the game. He deserves another shot."

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