Don't forget about us

Despite falling within two outs last season of a seventh College World Series appearance under coach Jim Morris, the return of four position players and a slew of incoming freshmen, including former Miami Brito Private standout and Class 1A player of the year Gaby Sanchez, the Hurricanes are having to deal with something that rarely happens in Coral Gables- little respect.

The early prognosis on the University of Miami baseball team is in from around the country. And the Hurricanes aren't very happy.

The Hurricanes, coming off a 34-29 finish after losing the South Carolina Regional, were omitted from Baseball America's top 25-preseason poll. Miami is 14th in Collegiate Baseball and 20th in ESPN/Sports Weekly. But that is no consolation for a program that has four national championships in their trophy case and two as recent as 1999 and 2001.

Miami is taking the snub personally, including Morris.

"Nobody is expecting anything from us but we're still Miami," says Morris, who is 428-141-1 since arriving at Miami in 1994. "I took it as a slap in the face. With all the tradition here and the fact that we have been to the CWS seven out of nine years, for a publication to come out and not rank us anywhere, I took it that way. We are better than that. It's something I hope our players felt like it was an insult, too."

Says returning shortstop Paco Figueroa: "We're mad because of the rankings. It puts us down, but the same time it gives us something to after and prove to people that these are the Hurricanes. I thought we really improved at the end of last season. Just wait to they see us this year."

After losing 13 players to graduation and the pros Morris acknowledged this week at Media Day that the 2002 season was indeed his toughest during his tenure at UM. Even though the Hurricanes rebounded from an 18-18 start to win the Gainesville Regional before being eliminated by the Gamecocks never reached a comfort with his team.

"I wasn't in a very good mood. I came to the ballpark angry everyday," Morris said.

That could change if the Hurricanes develop a consistent pitching rotation and several of the team's 13 newcomers live up to their clippings. Starting with Sanchez who has drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff after an impressive fall that earned him the nod as starting third baseman. Sanchez, who led Miami Brito Private to a Class 1A state championship last year, is already unanimously considered the best hitter on the team and a player who should bring stability to the middle of the Hurricanes line-up.

Morris recently asked who the best hitter on the team was. And without hesitation the Hurricanes answered Sanchez. Sanchez has already gained widespread acceptance in the clubhouse, partly for his work ethic and maturity.

"The kid is solid," says junior Jim Burt, who spent the off-season working out with Sanchez. "He doesn't come across as a teenager. Gaby has his head on right."

Sanchez, drafted out of high school in the 15th round, turned down a significant amount of money to play for the Hurricanes. But he isn't bothered by the expectations that will undoubtedly come his way.

"I just wanted to come here and make it a point to play," says Sanchez. "I feel no pressure. It's just not me, it's everybody else. You're not going to win a lot of baseball games counting on one guy."

Says Morris: "He's our third baseman. No question."

Burt, who hit .322 with nine home runs and 48 runs batted in last season, is penciled in at first base after playing the outfield in his first three seasons with the Hurricanes. Morris is relying on Burt for much needed power in a line-up that is built on speed and contact hitters.

Burt is taking the position switch in stride in addition to welcoming Morris' challenge.

"I've been playing the outfield since high school. But I've working hard to make the change. You just have to quick with your first couple of steps. I don't see a problem," says Burt. "I do feel like I have to be a leader on this team."

Sophomore Erick San Pedro will handle the catching duties. San Pedro is another player coming off a stellar fall. San Pedro's defensive skills behind the plate should limit the opponent's running game and prove to be an asset for the Hurricanes.

Center fielder Danny Figueroa (.300, 16 RBI) heads a talented group of outfielders that includes transfers Tom Shannon and Brian Barton. Shannon, a junior college transfer from Fresno City College, is the frontrunner to start in left field, while Barton, a transfer from Loyola Marymount, has the inside track on the right field position after a solid fall. Sophomore Richard Gianotti (.314, 10 RBI) gives the Hurricanes a reliable fourth outfielder.

The pitching staff is another story.

The Hurricanes return just one starting pitcher in junior right-hander Dan Touchet (6-2, 4.41 ERA) and will have to open the season without closer George Huguet is resting a sore right elbow and won't be ready for at least three weeks. In the meantime, junior left-hander J.D. Cockroft (5-0, 2.22) will fill the closer's role. Touchet will take the ball as the Hurricanes No. 1 starter. But the situation is unclear after Touchet with sophomore Brandon Camardese (0-3, 7.18), Vince Bongiovanni (1-4, 6.23) and Ryan Dixon (0-0, 3.86) likely to compete for spots. "It all starts with pitching. If we don't pitch well we won't win a lot of games," said Morris. "We have to establish our pitching staff to have any chance of reaching the CWS. And the pen has to come through."

As usual the Hurricanes will be faced with a tough schedule in 2003 which features nine teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season. Miami plays Florida (Feb. 14-16), San Diego State (Feb. 21-23), Tennessee (Mar. 7-9) and Georgia Tech (Mar. 28-30).

Opening night is Feb. 5 at Mark Light Stadium against Florida International University.

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