New faces, same goals

Despite a slew of freshmen players, the defending national champion Hurricanes haven't redirected their future plans and are thinking about something that has become a ritual in Coral Gables- a trip to Omaha. University of Miami baseball coach Jim Morris gives everybody a slight smile, but doesn't deliver the message with total satisfaction as he stares into the camera.

"We had 13 of our players sign professional contracts so I guess you can say that is the good news," said Morris, entering his ninth season at Miami . "On the other hand of that is that those players aren't here anymore so were going to have to fill a lot of holes."

But spare him the sympathy. Morris isn't about to take his ball and run home just because most of the players that helped put another ring on his finger now reside in the minor leagues.

Neither does Morris expect any leniency considering he will be tending to many new faces, fresh off the Hurricanes 2001 national championship and second in three seasons. The Hurricanes finished 53-12 and ran off 17 straight wins on their way to the national title.

Still, the man with the soft southern growl who was questioned upon arrival in Coral Gables in 1994 after replacing a legend will just handle things the same way he did back then. Morris will not shy away from the expectations. He will just put his hat on and go to work.

"Obviously, it's a challenge," said Morris. "But that is one of the special things about my job-the expectations and challenges that come with it. Without them, I don't think I would have taken this job."

One of those expectations includes being in Omaha in June for the College World Series. One that could be the toughest for Morris and the Hurricanes to fulfill since he took over the dugout reigns under a decade ago.

With 13 players from last year's team gone, including five starters and the top two starting pitchers, the Hurricanes will sport a different look when the bell rings for the 2002 season-opener Friday night, Feb. 1, against the University of Tennessee at Mark Light Stadium.

That new appearance will consist of five new starters, including two that have never played an inning of collegiate baseball with freshmen second basemen Joey Hooft and Danny Figueroa taking the field with the rest of the Hurricanes. Although familiar, there will be three additional new faces to the starting line-up.

Despite a talented bunch, Morris expects mistakes early on as the Hurricanes young players gel with the rest of the veterans. And even with the return of top base stealer Javy Rodriguez (66) and second-leading home run hitter Danny Matienzo (13), Morris doesn't what will happen when the season begins.

"We're young and there's no question its going to be a battle everyday," said Morris. "We're can be expected to make some mistakes early and we're going to have to battle everyday out here. But potentially we're going to be very good."

"I think its going to be the toughest year for me because we're so young and the players we lost. But we have to bring them along quickly. No matter what our goal is to get to Omaha. That's the one thing about coaching at the University of Miami."

Morris talks about the Hurricanes being stripped of their speed and power with the defections of Kevin Brown (15 home runs, 53 RBI), Charlton Jimerson (10 home runs, 31 stolen bases) and Mike Rodriguez (53 stolen bases, .329 batting average).

But he is hoping those taking their positions are capable in going so. Those responsibilities will be shouldered from the start by Matt Dryer, Jim Burt Jr., Figueroa and Hooft.

Dryer, who hit .233 in limited time a year ago, will replace Brown at first base and has the potential of boosting the Hurricanes power production. Dryer hit one home run in 24 games last season. With Kris Clute signing with the Florida Marllins, Hooft, from Reno, Nevada, sewed up the opening at second base. Hooft has adequate range and was productive offensively in the fall to beat out freshman Paco Figueroa for the staring nod. Paco's twin brother Danny will start in centerfield and sophomore Jim Burt Jr. will open up in left field.

Definitely plenty of work ahead for the defending champions.

Which is exactly what some of the key returning players off last year's title team are planning on. Rodriguez, Howard and Matienzo are just some of the players that are willing to show their leadership by assisting in the maturation process of the youngsters-only on one condition.

"I now my rule is a little different this year because I have the responsibility of teaching the young guys" said Rodriguez, who hit .382 and led the nation in stolen bases. "But our expectations are always to get to Omaha and winning Omaha. The young players understand that and they've come in with the right attitudes. They might be young, but these guys can play."

So can Rodriguez, who last season became the first player ever in school history to join the 60-60 club with 64 run batted in to with all the stolen bases. Rodriguez led the Hurricanes with a .382 batting average in addition to hits (92) and triples (4) while playing a steady shortstop all year. Rodriguez hit .400 in the Coral Gables Regionals (6-of-13) with six RBI and three runs scored as the Hurricanes swept through Bucknell, Florida and Stetson.

And although, he says seeing 13 of his teammates sign professional contracts didn't affect him, many believe Rodriguez will enter the upcoming season with a little extra to prove.

Rodriguez, bypassed in the Major League Draft last season, doesn't have a shortage of impressive credentials. The 5-11, 178-pounder has a .367 lifetime batting average at Miami with 144 runs and 222 hits. With another victory in the College World Series, Rodriguez can become the only player ever at UM to be part of three baseball national championship teams.

Reaching that goal drives him, sitting and awaiting without getting drafted doesn't.

"Back then I was mad and anybody in my position would probably be too. But after a couple of days after the draft, I put it out of my mind. I don't bring it up anymore," said Rodriguez, who looks trimmer than he's ever been at Miami. "Yeah, it bothered me, but that's out of my hands."

"I'm not out to prove anything and I now that I can play this game. I'll just go out and prove it and help this team get where we want to go. Being in Omaha, is the only thing that matters. Nothing else does."

Rodriguez will again be in the third slot in the batting order and captain the infield. But he may be asked to produce even more with the questions surrounding the youngsters at the top of the line-up.

"Whatever it takes," Rodriguez said. "This is a team game."

Junior third baseman Kevin Howard, the Hurricanes second-leading hitter a year ago at .336, quietly lurked in the shadows, but with Charlton Jimerson, Mike Rodriguez and Kevin Brown all gone, the expectations around Howard have risen. The Hurricanes are looking for more of the Howard, who led the team in 2000 with a .413 batting average and was named Freshmen of the Year by Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball. Howard led the Hurricanes in doubles (20) and scored 55 runs.

"If I go out there trying to do too much I'm going to run into trouble," Howard said. "There are a lot of highs and lows in the game of baseball and therefore I don't think you can change you're approach. My main concern is winning and I'll do whatever is needed of me to accomplish that."

Matienzo, who hit close to .700 in the 2001 CWS, will start behind the plate with Greg Lovelady no longer around on the field (Lovelady was hired as hitting coach several months ago.) The 5-11, 190-pound junior is another of the players with long ball ability and could prove crucial to how far the Hurricanes advance this season. He hit .324 with 64 RBI last season.

Morris is enthused to know that his starting catcher has no quarrels with being called upon to hit the ball over the fence. Instead, he likes the idea that Matienzo is being receptive. "Danny has gone about his business day in and day out and a strong presence on this ballclub," said Morris. "He can swing the stick and we're certainly going to need that this season." No problem.

"I feel a little pressure, but I've always hit," said Matienzo. "I've done it before. I know I can make things happen."

The loss of Tom Farmer and Brian Walker, the Hurricanes top two starting pitchers from a year ago, hasn't stopped Morris from declaring pitching as the strength of this year's squad. Only sophomore Kiki Bengochea remains from last year's starting staff with red-shirt junior Troy Roberson and sophomore T.J. Prunty joining him this season.

Roberson, who will start on opening night, has been clocked in the upper 80's to mid 90's this fall after missing the last two seasons with elbow problems. Roberson entered the 2000 season as the Hurricanes No. 2 man in the rotation and was 2-0 with a 1.88 ERA before going down with the injury.

"Troy has great stuff, change-up, breaking ball," said Morris. "He can beat anybody on our schedule."

Bengochea, a third year starter, went 9-4 with a 4.10 ERA a year ago and was effective during a stint with the USA Team during the summer.

Bengochea is 14-9 all-time at UM. Prunty will be given the chance of locking up the third spot in the rotation. Prunty had 16 strikeouts and gave up just two walks in 14 innings last season and led the team with a 1.29 ERA.

The Hurricanes bullpen could be classified as one of the nation's best with set-up man Luke DeBold and closer George Huguet leading the charge. DeBold recorded 67 strikeouts and compiled a 1.74 ERA. Huguet was a freshman All-American after taking over the role early in the season and going on to 14 saves.

"I think our pitching is going to be strong once again," Morris said.

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