The overwhelming majority of teams in all sports and levels have optimistic hopes and often lofty goals at the beginning of a season, even when there are pitfalls in their path to greatness.
The USF baseball team is no different, with clearly stated goals from the West Coast Conference to Omaha, Neb., the site of the College World Series.
The difference with the Dons, however, is that they have the pieces in place to meet their goals.
USF, which finished tied for third in the WCC last season, is returning with practically its entire pitching staff, including all three starters, and will bring back key offensive pieces to the lineup.
“We’re returning 23 players on a 35-man roster,” USF coach Nino Giarratano said. “We have a veteran crew of pitchers with a lot of experience and some big bats in the lineup. Omaha [and the national championship] is everyone’s destination. I don’t think our players think we’re that far away from going to Omaha and winning a national championship.”
Giarratano’s sentiment is echoed by senior shortstop Derek Poppert.
“We have our eyes set higher than [just a WCC championship],” Poppert said. “We are setting the bar high, to get into a regional and go farther.”
The head of the Dons’ rotation will be All-WCC right-hander Doug Murray, who led the conference in wins last season with an unblemished 9-0 record and had the sixth-best ERA in the conference at 3.77.
“We’re looking to get quality starts [from Murray] and for him to keep us in games,” Giarratano said. “Anytime you look at a perfect record, 9-0, there are going to be a lot of expectations.”
Murray is eager to get the season started and will be the Dons’ opening-night starter against Pacific on Friday in Stockton.
“We’re ready for the season to come,” Murray said. “This is what we work for.”
The next starter in line will be junior left-hander Matt Lujan, who as a freshman in 2008, led the Dons with a 7-2 record and 3.19 ERA and was named to the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American teams, along with All-WCC honors.
Although Lujan took a step back last season, finishing with a 4-7 record and 5.74 ERA, he will be a mainstay in the USF rotation this year.
The final slot in the USF rotation will be junior right-hander Matt Hiserman, who will be working as the Dons’ closer when he is not starting.
Hiserman led the Dons with a 3.43 ERA, which was second in the WCC, but finished the season with a 4-6 record.
While the pitching staff will feature familiar names, the USF lineup will be going through a considerable change in style.
The Dons lost outfielder Zach Kim to graduation last year, who led the team in hits, average and stolen bases. Kim also led a relatively “small-ball” type of lineup that emphasized getting on base and stealing bases.
Giarratano emphasized that now the Dons lineup will feature more big bats.
“It’s not a change in philosophy as much as it is a change in personnel,” Giarratano said. “We’re going to be a much more powerful team, playing for the three-run home run and hits in the gaps.”
The power will mostly come from the left side of the infield, in Poppert and junior third baseman Stephen Yarrow.
Poppert had a team-high 52 RBIs last season and was named All-WCC, while Yarrow led the Dons with 13 home runs, good enough for fourth in the WCC.
On paper, it appears Poppert and Yarrow may have to carry the offensive load, but both believe the Dons will have a balanced lineup.
“I have confidence in the rest of the lineup,” Yarrow said. “If I don’t hit in one game, someone else will.”
Last year: 28-28 overall, 12-9 West Coast Conference (third)
Coach: Nino Giarratano (12th year, 308-317 career record)
First game: Friday, at Pacific, 6 p.m.
First home game: Sunday, vs. Pacific, 1 p.m.
Benedetti Classic: April 16, vs. St. Mary’s, 6:30 p.m., AT&T Park
Key losses: OF Zach Kim, OF Drew Johnson, INF Dane Braunecker
Key returners: C Ryan Lipkin, INF Derek Poppert, RHP Matt Hiserman, RHP Doug Murray