Quite a challenge for Hurricanes

After a little maneuvering by head coach Jim Morris, the Hurricanes' aluminum bats came alive with season-highs in runs, hits and home runs against the University of Minnesota last weekend at Mark Light Stadium.

UM will definitely need more of the same offensive fireworks this coming Friday night, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m., as they face one of the hottest teams in the nation in the Florida International Golden Panthers in the opener of the Homestead Challenge at the Baseball Complex.

As part of the tournament, the Hurricanes will play Kansas State, Saturday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m., and Lipscomb University Sunday, Feb. 24. UM will host Lipscomb at Mark Light Stadium, starting at 1 p.m.

But the Hurricanes will have enough to worry about against the Golden Panthers, who have ran off eight consecutive victories, including one over the Hurricanes Feb. 6. The Golden Panthers, who are coming off a 14-5 victory over Bethune Cookman, recently cracked the Collegiate Baseball poll at No. 25 FIU received 51 votes in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll and are at No. 30 behind Louisiana-Lafayette, Alabama, Rutgers and East Carolina.

Despite losing five position starters and five pitchers from last season's squad that finished 43-21 and reached the Super Regional against Southern California, the Golden Panthers posting series wins over Florida A&M and St. Francis. The Golden Panthers have outscored the opposition 93-37. And with eight seniors on the team, head coach Danny Price is thrilled at the kind of results his team could potentially produce down the road.

"Like any start of a new season, it's going to take us a while to really mesh as a team, but there is a lot of leadership on this team," said Price, who is 803-407 at FIU and is in his 21st season at the school. "They've gotten a taste of the big time. This team knows what its going to take to get there."

Although, he never mentioned Omaha, Price no doubt would love to end up in the College World Series in June. Last season, the Golden Panthers finished second in the Sun Belt Conference with a 16-11 mark. They went 3-1 to win the Notre Dame Regional before being ousted by USC one step away from the CWS.

Judging by their start it hasn't had a negative effect on the Golden Panthers, who are hitting .372 as a team, while their pitching staff has limited the opposition to a .215 batting average. 10 FIU players are hitting .350 or better.

Senior catcher Michael New, who has 10 at-bats and only two starts, leads the team at a .700 hitting clip. New had five hits with a grand slam, double and five RBI in a 21-2 victory over St. Francis, last Saturday, Feb. 23. Freshman Alejandro Suarez is second with a .529 batting average, followed by Orlando Garcia. But catcher Tommy Duenas, Alex Ansoleaga and Brad Eldred, all regular starters, have done most of the damage at the plate for the Golden Panthers.

Duenas, a Coral Gables High graduate, is hitting .379 and is on the squad with 11 hits. Duenas is one of two players with a team-leading nine RBI. Steady defensively, the 5-11, 196-pounder hasn't committed an error all season.

Ansoleaga is hitting .406 (13-for-32) on the year with six RBI and eight runs scored, while Eldred is hitting..433 with four home runs and nine RBI. The Golden Panthers pitching staff has also been sharp with a combined ERA of 1.65, limiting opponents to a .217 batting average.. Starters Michael Baluja and Josh Banks already have posted two victories apiece. In 82innings, the Golden Panthers have recorded 94 strikeouts and allowed 43 runs all year.

Coming off a series sweep against the Gophers, the Hurricanes rebounded offensively with 38 runs and 48 hits, including 12 home runs, to increase their team batting average to .313. Freshman Erick San Pedro, who made his first three starts of his collegiate career, went 5-for-10 against Minnesota and leads the Hurricanes with a .500 batting average. Shortstop Javy Rodriguez, the team-leader in hits with 18, is hitting .474, while Matt Dryer is at .419. Jim Burt Jr. is hitting .400 with 12 hits and nine RBI. Catcher Danny Matienzo has a team-leading five home runs.

But even with the offensive turnaround the Hurricanes pitching staff continues to struggle. UM will enter the Homestead Challenge with a 6.30 ERA and known of their starting pitchers have recorded a victory. Right-hander Kiki Bengochea has the worst ERA (10.64) among all the starters. Both closer George Huguet and J.D. Cockroft have two victories to lead the staff.

In the first meeting of the season, the Hurricanes dropped a 7-1 decision to Florida International at University Park as true freshman Brandon Camardese took the loss. FIU took a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the first around three singles and three walks issued by Camadese.

After Skip Adams struck out, Alex Ansoleaga reached on a line-drive single to centerfield. Daniel Bustamante and Brad Eldred each drew walks to load the bases before Hector Nunez blooped a single to center to plate the first run. Tommy Duenas followed with a two-run single up the middle that scored Bustamante and Eldred.

The Golden Panthers added another run in the fourth when Bernie Gonzalez hit his first home run of the season over the scoreboard in left field. FIU added three more runs in the seventh off UM pitchers Vince Bongiovanni and Luke DeBold. Duenas had an RBI single that scored Eldred from third and Gonzalez followed with a two-run triple deep to center field. The Hurricanes only run of the night came on an RBI double by Danny Figueroa that scored Javy Rodriguez.

FIU starter Josh Banks, who recorded a career-high 11 strikeouts, picked up the win. Despite the loss, the Hurricanes have a 81-19 lead in the all-time series against the Golden Panthers. The Hurricanes will face the Golden Panthers for the third time this season Thursday, May 2, at Mark Light Stadium.

After taking part in the Homestead Challenge, the Hurricanes will take part in the Cal-State Fullerton Kia Bash, Mar. 1-3 in Fullerton, California. The University of Southern California will also participate in the tournament.

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