By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
Just seven months removed from its first-ever Division II College World Series appearance, the ACU baseball team prepares to kick off a new season this weekend with a little less power and a lot more speed.
Although just 13 players on the ACU’s 30-man roster return from last season, the team was rewarded with a No. 6 pre-season national ranking, courtesy of Collegiate Baseball magazine.
Additionally, the Wildcats were picked to win the Lone Star Conference South Division title in the annual pre-season poll released by the conference office last week.
Needless to say, expectations are high for ACU, a team that went 45-20 last season yet failed to clinch the LSC South title for the first time in three seasons. The man who expects the most is eighth-year head coach Britt Bonneau, who sports a 290-125-1 ACU record and six straight 40-plus win seasons.
“Nobody’s afraid of us,” Bonneau said. “People are always trying to get us, knock us off. It’s nothing new to us. We want to play with that target on our chest every year.”
But unlike last year, when the Cats’ powerful lineup led the division with 56 home runs and saw no one steal more than 21 bases, this season’s team looks to be full of base-hit batters and speedy base runners, said Bonneau.
“If you want to compare us to the World Series team from last year, it’s a totally opposite team,” he said. “We’re gonna hit to the gap rather than rely on power, we’re gonna be able to generate a lot of runs. I think we’re just as talented.”
Much of the Wildcats’ added speed will be generated by projected leadoff hitter Dan Gubbels, a junior center fielder who transferred from Feather River Community College in the off-season. According to Bonneau, Gubbels had over 30 stolen bases there last season.
Bonneau said another off-season transfer, junior second baseman Josh Ashton (Lubbock Christian), has the potential to steal 25 bases in 2004.
Even the team’s new starting catcher, junior transfer Cody Cure (Texarkana College), has impressive speed to complement solid backstop skills.
“It’s a fast lineup,” junior shortstop Ryan Barker, the LSC South Pre-Season Player of the Year, said. “We brought in the right transfers to take over the roles of the seniors we lost, and I think we can win a lot of games.”
Pitching remains a question for the team, which lost last year’s closer, senior right hander Justin Whitlock (3-1, 2.98 ERA, 7 saves in ’03) for the season after his June Tommy John surgery.
Although he doesn’t have a definite four-man rotation in mind, Bonneau said sophomore right hander Zach Harris (1-0, 5.00 ERA in ’03) has the potential to be a weekend starter for the Cats, while senior righty Aaron Lawler could develop into a Tuesday starter and junior transfer Coy Polk has a “great chance” of being a full-time closer.
“We have the arms, there’s just a lot of questions to be answered on the mound,” Bonneau said.
With a new-look starting lineup and an unproven pitching staff, the question remains: Do the Cats have what it takes to return to the College World Series?
“I think so,” senior right fielder Brian Johnson said. “I think we’re just as strong. It’s gonna be a lot of hard work, but we definitely have a chance to go the same distance as last year.”
With so many new faces-including four in the projected starting lineup-chemistry will be a key issue.
“I think the first month of the season will tell us a lot about ourselves; who can do what, who we can rely on in certain situations,” Barker said. “It’s not hard to jell; it’s just a process.”
The tougher process for Barker-who hit .310 with eight home runs and a team-high 62 RBI in 2003-has been transforming from the young learner he was last season to the elder leader his numbers have made him.
“It’s weird for me,” he said. “I looked up to all those guys and they taught me so much about this game. But I like the role I’m in now. It’ll help me as a ball player.”
Regardless, said Bonneau, how the team mixes will correlate with where it is in May.
“We’re trying to put together a puzzle to win a championship,” he said. “We have to jell together and bounce off each other. Those are characteristics of champions.”