Fresh start for the Hurricanes

University of Miami baseball coach Jim Morris made a conscious effort to relish the past off-season like no other.

"I really wanted to enjoy the whole championship thing because before you know it we're going at it again," said Morris, during media day at Mark Light Stadium un Coral Gables last week.

Morris, who is entering his ninth season at Miami and has guided the team to national championships in two of the last three seasons, wanted to make sure he savored being a champion to the last drop. But he also might have needed the extra leisure time after taking a peek at the 2002 Hurricanes roster.

With 13 players from last year's team signing professional contacts that will leave the Hurricanes with possibly five new starters, Morris is ready to take on the challenge of molding a strong crop of newcomers with several returning veterans in an attempt to defend the national title.

The Hurricanes are likely to take the field with at least two freshmen players in their starting line-up on opening-night against Tennessee Feb. 1 and Morris is preparing to deal with the growing pains that accompany the tutoring of a young ballclub. The Hurricanes freshmen class, ranked fourth in the nation by Baseball America, twins Paco Figueroa, a possible starter at second base and Danny Figueroa, the front-runner for the center field job.

Both were standouts at Gulliver Prep.

Paco Figueroa is considered to be slightly ahead of fellow freshman Joey Hooft to replace Kris Clute, and Danny Figueroa probably replace Mike Rodriguez in the Hurricanes outfield. Only three players have sewed up starting positions: Javy Rodriguez (shortstop), Kevin Howard (third base) and Kevin Mannix (right field). The loss of four junior pichers will leave the Hurricanes with two new pitchers in their starting rotation.

"We're going to be young and no question its going to be a battle everyday," said Morris. "We can be expected to make some mistakes early and it's going to be a tremendous challenge. But we have the potential of being very strong."

"Last year obviously we earned an A+, back If we don't get back to Omaha it's a grade F around here. I think it's the toughest year for me because we're so young and the players we lost. We have to bring them along quick, but it's a privilege to be at a place with such high standards and goals."

Miami is ranked No. 2 in the Baseball Weekly/ESPN Top 25 pre-season poll after defeating Stanford 12-1 in the championship game and finishing the season on a 17-game winning streak.

But Miami hasn't rested on their accomplishments.

Morris praised the poise and patience that the freshmen have shown through the fall and pre-season preparations and has been encouraged with the business-like approach the Hurricanes have taken as defending national champions. The Hurricanes are attempting to become the first team ever to win consecutive national championships in baseball. Another UM title would give Rodriguez a third championship ring.

"This team is really working their tails off and has really taken the right approach," Morris said. "I really think the 99' team lacked a little bit after winning the championship."

Morris may like the focus of his team, but with their leading home run hitter and two of their top stolen base threats of a year ago no longer around he admits the Hurricanes may have to find a different way of winning games.

"I don't think we'll hit as many home runs as we did last year and I don't think we'll have the same kind of speed we had last year," said Morris. "It's going to be a while to see what kind of team is going to develop."

Junior Danny Matienzo credits Morris with keeping the team on their heels despite winning two national titles in the last three years and has used Morris' tactics to get ready for the upcoming season.

"He's just made the point that the position won't be handed to me," said Matienzo, who made the All-College World Series Team last season. "The only real advantage I have is that I'm a veteran."

Matienzo finished the 2001 season second on the Hurricanes with 13 home runs and is being counted on as the team's main source of power. Although he hasn't officially been named, Matienzo is likely to get the nod for the season-opener. And Matienzo is ready to accept the responsibility as the top returning long-ball specialist and a team leader.

"I feel a little pressure, but I've always hit," said Matienzo. "I'm going to stay focused and not get big-headed. All I have to do is take 100 percent concentration to the plate and make things happen. I've done it before."

Morris likes the idea that Matienzo has shouldered some of the duties of hitting the ball over the fence and whoever can carry out the same philosophy will end up playing in left field. Morris said sophomore outfielder Jim Burt, Jr. (.260, 2 HR, 13 RBI) is the leading candidate as of now, although he is being pushed by several others including freshmen Matt Barket (Miami Columbus). Barket impressed the coaching staff with his bat during the fall and continues to make strides.

"The guy who hits the best will be out in left field," said Morris.

Despite being stripped of 2/3 of the starting rotation, Morris believes pitching will again be the strength of the team. The rotation hasn't been finalized, although the top three pitchers are expected to be sophomores Kiki Bengochea and T.J. Prunty and junior-redshirt Troy Roberson. Roberson has missed the past two seasons with arm problems, while Prunty recorded 16 strikeouts in 24 innings pitched a year ago.

Freshman lefthander Brandon Camardese, drafted professionally out of high school, could land a role as the team's spot starter. Camardese has displayed great command of his pitches which includes a high 80-s fastball, breaking ball and change-up.

Morris is also looking forward to having Roberson back in the rotation and is confident that he is healthy enough to make an immediate contribution. Roberson has been clocked in the low 90's this off-season.

"If he stays healthy, we have a guy who can dominate," said Morris. "Remember this is a guy who was expected to go real high in the draft. Troy can beat anybody on our schedule."

The UM bullpen also returns intact with closer George Huguet (14 saves, 2.03 ERA) and set-up man Luke DeBold (67 strikeouts, 1.74 ERA) leading the way. Junior Vince Vasquez is also expected to contribute out of the pen.

"We're outstanding there," Morris said. Sophomore Haas Pratt Jr. and Matt Dryer are vying for the starting first base job after the early departure of Kevin Brown, who had a team-leading 15 home runs last season for the Hurricanes. Pratt, who started 22 games last season, hit .258 with two homers and 17 runs batted in, while Dryer posted a .233 batting average in limited duties.

Nobody knows when it will happen, but the Hurricanes have a little friendly wager on which player will be the first to hit the new scoreboard clock out in leftfield. Just like the development of the team, Morris hopes it doesn't take too long.

"We'll get to see who some of our big boys are," Morris said.

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