The 2007 season, if you'll pardon the pun, truly came out of left field.
Mark Johnson was fired after a 30-25-1 campaign in 2005, and Bill Byrne's decision in hiring Rob Childress as Texas A&M head coach was met with scrutiny from many corners of Aggie fandom. A 25-30-1 first season, complete with midseason dismissals, postseason cuts and an array of one-run losses, failed to captivate "Joe Aggie." Those postseason cuts even challenged the "institution" of old school Olsen Field, leading to further alienation. When the MLB draft threatened to decimate the recruiting class, and the local scouts pulled a one-over by signing recruits who shouldn't have been signable, there was a significant threat that Childress would be unable to gain traction.
Instead of worrying about the sideshows that dominate internet fan talk, Childress stuck to his vision of Aggie baseball. He, Matt Deggs, Jeremy Talbot, Will Bolt, and Jason Hutchins worked tirelessly throughout the summer in the evaluation and recruitment of unsigned high school and junior college players. Getting those players to buy into his vision was undoubtedly a challenge, but Childress stuck with his goal of creating a blue collar team that would fight until hell froze over, and then fight on the ice.
Fast forward to February 2007, and the opening day roster features a handful of names that you've never heard of unless you took a trip to fall ball. Players like Ben Feltner, Scott Migl, Dane Carter, Brian Ruggiano, Brodie Greene, and Kiel Renfro never made it onto a press release or received any public fanfare before their arrival on campus. Several more fell into the same situation, but were red shirted and didn't play this season. Throw in guys like David Newmann, Brandon Hicks, Darby Brown, Gary Campfield and Kirkland Rivers; who had never played in a Division 1 game, with returnees like Blake Stouffer, Craig Stinson and Parker Dalton who had pedestrian career numbers, and you've got yourself set up for the ultimate rebuilding year.
Instead, Childress and the 2007 team proved the naysayers and conventional wisdom wrong. A team that was thought to be fat on the mound and thin at the plate ended up being the opposite, and a hot start began slowly making believers out of everyone.
No, A&M wasn't the most talented team to play in the Big 12 this year. No, they weren't the best coached and they weren't the last conference team playing this year. But this club had that special quality of truly coming together, playing for one another and creating a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. Week by week, more people came back to the idea that Rob Childress could get it done, and get it done now, and a trip to college baseball's sweet 16 would follow.
2008 won't be coming out of left field, though.
The 2007 season may very well be the defining one for Childress, as he'll have the opportunity to prove to the high school and college baseball community that this run was far more than a flash in the pan. Aggie fans already know better.
He'll face a talent turnover at the top of his batting order and pitching staff. Senior starters Kyle Nicholson, Craig Stinson, and Parker Dalton are gone, as well as role players Josh Stinson, Matt Ueckert and Jason Meyer. The big league draft threatens to decimate the team again, and the financial and career aspirations make it tough that guys like David Newmann, Blake Stouffer, and Brandon Hicks return to campus after being taken in the first few rounds. Gary Campfield and Ben Feltner have decisions to make after being drafted in the middle rounds as well.
Childress found Matt Sulentic just a bit before the pro scouts did in 2005, and he'll be fighting that same battle this year. Kevin Ahrens was taken with the 16th overall pick by Toronto, and will be virtually impossible to get on campus. Eric Eiland was taken in the second round by those same pesky Blue Jays, and will be similarly difficult to land on campus.
Where the skipper can make some big hay is with IF Will Middlebrooks, a super-talented Texarkana product who's drawn comparisons to Scott Rolen. He was expected to be a sandwich or early second round pick, but fell all the way to the fifth round—presumably on perceived signability issues. That would be all well and good for the Aggies, if not for big market and deep pocketed Boston taking him. Middlebrooks would be well served to make the personal investment and going to college for three years, turning whatever he gets in the fifth round into first round millions, and it will be Childress' job to remind the youngster of that very fact. Drake Britton, a very highly regarded southpaw from Tomball, also went to Boston in the 23rd round and has tremendous upside for the Aggies should he arrive on campus.
Along with retaining those signees, Childress has to address some gaps in his line-up. Two years after announcing that he has the best catching situation in America, he has no catcher that has played a game at the collegiate level. Mayde Creek product Kevin Gonzales (who red shirted behind the two Stinsons this year) and acclaimed Athens HS product Andrew Nettune will get a stab at the catcher's position. This is the highest individual need position on the team.
Darby Brown looks to return at first base, while Childress must replace Dalton at second and Hicks at shortstop. The shortstop position will most likely go to Middlebrooks if he doesn't go pro, while second base could be Carter or Greene. Middlebrooks projects as a third baseman at the next level and could also step in there, allowing Greene to return to his natural position at shortstop. Ruggiano will be firmly in this mix as well.
Kyle Colligan will hold down his spot in centerfield, Luke Anders looks to remain as the DH, and Feltner will be in the line-up should he return. Incoming freshman David Alleman, who is a pure leadoff hitter that the Aggies so dearly missed this season, will be given an opportunity to lockdown a corner OF job.
Of additional great need is a frontline starting pitcher. There are no arms currently on the roster that stand out as a potential Friday night guy, but neither did Kyle Nicholson at this time last year. Childress will either need to develop one of those arms very quickly, like Thebeau or Britton, or go out and find a transfer in the summer.
While these names may step into these roles, last summer's recruiting is more evidence that it's just too early to tell. The staff kept that very late signee list very close to the vest, most likely for additional recruiting purposes, and there's little doubt that they'll do it again. Should he be looking for a summer recruiting splash or coup, look for it to be in the two battery positions or an additional power bat in the middle of the line-up.
While it would be impossible for Childress to improve another 23 games in the win column next season, Aggie fans are hoping to see the sustain the progress made this year. With the right mix of guys making it on campus, proper player development, and the return of 15 home conference games, 2008 has potential to be another very special year for Texas A&M baseball.
First look at 2008 Aggie Baseball
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