By Daniel Johnson, Sports Editor
After a 2006 season defined by broken home run records and victories led by power hitting, ACU baseball fans may be expecting the same old team trying to overpower its opponents in 2007. But expectations can be misleading.
Head coach Britt Bonneau said although this year’s team will still hit consistently, it will be the added speed and depth of pitching that will make the difference in the long run.
“We won’t live and die by the three-run homer,” said Bonneau. “We’re going to be more of a regional type of team. We’re gonna put pressure on the defense in regional play.”
It is the pressuring regional type team that the Wildcats needed at last year’s South Central Regional Tournament where ACU went 1-2 before being eliminated when its pitching and powerful hitting ran out.
This year though, Bonneau and his players are confident the team they have has the potential of the program’s first Division II College World Series appearance since 2003.
“We have enough depth that we could go to the College World Series,” said shortstop and pitcher Trey Watten.
ACU is used to early expectations of success. And this year is no different.
The Collegiate Baseball Magazine pre-season poll ranked the Wildcats at No. 17 in the nation and they are slated to win the Lone Star Conference South Division. But Bonneau has his heart set on the rankings that will determine the postseason.
“What we need to watch is the regional ranking,” Bonneau said.
ACU was picked to win the LSC South despite being runner-up last year to Angelo State. Angelo, who is ranked No. 33 in the nation, received the second most votes for first in the LSC South and is the only other LSC South team ranked.
In the North, defending LSC champ University of Central Oklahoma was picked to finish first. UCO, who defeated ACU in the LSC tournament championship, holds the LSC’s highest national ranking at No. 15, two spots above the Wildcats.
Despite high expectations that winning may bring, Bonneau hopes they will only inspire his team to bring them to fruition.
“Hopefully we’re accustomed to those types of targets on our backs,” Bonneau said. “We just got to go out there and be able to take control.”
Speed’s the word
The biggest asset signings in the off-season that gave the Wildcats more than anything else was speed.
“If I’m a fan sitting and looking at a team playing and using their strengths helps them win; ours would be our speed.” Bonneau said.
The biggest addition to the Wildcats speed on the diamond is junior college transfer and starting second baseman J.J. Pacheco. The first team all-American had more than 40 stolen bases last season and will leadoff for the Wildcats.
Pacheco will contribute his stealing skills to a Wildcat squad that is no stranger to stolen bases. ACU finished second in the LSC behind Angelo State with 117 stolen bases.
“The one thing about speed is it doesn’t slump,” said Watten.
Pacheco’s speed will add onto the already present speed of players like sophomore outfielder Minor Alexander, who led the Wildcats with 16 stolen bases last season.
Pitching with depth
On the mound this season the problem isn’t finding good pitchers but finding which pitchers from the Wildcats deep bullpen will start. “We’ve got a lot of guys who are fighting for starting pitching jobs,” Watten said.
Three of those fighting for a spot are returning starters Ben Maynard, Chris Wiman and Brian Kennedy. All three had winning records last season, and all three were are all-LSC pitchers.
“There’s three pitchers with at least 26 wins,” Bonneau said.
Maynard, who began his career at ACU as a walk-on on the junior varsity squad, is nine wins away from finishing his career as the all-time leader in wins and has a shot at finishing his career as the all-time leader in innings pitched. Maynard was also selected as the preseason player of the year.
But the returning starters aren’t where the bullpen ends for the Wildcats, as versatile player Watten – the team leader in hitting and innings pitched during the fall and starting shortstop – will also see time on the mound.
Watten is already being compared to ex-Wildcat Brad Massey – who played in the infield and pitched for the Wildcats from 2000 to 2003 – and will most likely start on the mound in ACU’s season opener against Henderson State on Friday.
Transfers Jameson Maj and Matt Davis also have a legitimate shot at making the starting four. Maj, a hard-throwing pitcher, and Davis, a left-hander who tries to control the plate, might see time Friday or Saturday.
Power at the end of the Tunnel
Although the Wildcats no longer have the single-season home run record holder, Joel Wells, or the consistent bat of Johnny Zepeda, they are not powerless.
Two of Bonneau’s biggest weapons at the plate last year are still swinging for the purple and white: catcher Jordan Schmitt and third baseman Alec Sowards.
“They’re not gonna drop home runs like Joel Wells,” Watten said. “But I think they’ll be really consistent.”
Both were consistent last season, Sowards had a .396 batting average and earned his first LSC division honors while Schmitt hit a .307 as a freshman.
Three more starters: first baseman Danny Williams, designated hitter Matt McGuire and Watten may return to the lineup giving the Wildcats experience against LSC pitchers.
Athletes in the outfield
One of the biggest assets on defense to the Wildcats this season is junior college transfer Matt Spotanski.
“He’s the true center fielder we haven’t had in a long time,” Bonneau said.
Spotanski, who transferred from Saddleback College, will take over for Chris Walsh in center field.
Spotanski’s former teammate at Saddleback transfer Mike Elkerson will also most likely start in left field for the Wildcats, but Watten said that nothing was guaranteed.
“There’s a battle for an outfield spot,” Watten said. “There maybe six maybe seven guys battling for those three spots and only one is locked up.”
Watten said sophomores Travis Catalani and Reid Bishop all have shots at a spot in the outfield while Alexander and junior college transfer, Corey O’Neill, are both vying for the right field position.
“They’re all playing well,” Watten said. “I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision.”
With all the new skills of this year’s team, Bonneau is confident in his team’s ability to compete. But just because speed and a deep bullpen are the highlights of this year’s team, Bonneau wouldn’t be surprised to find another power hitter like Wells on this year’s roster.
“We might have another Joel Wells, and we just don’t know it yet,” Bonneau said.
ACU will kick off its season against Henderson State Friday at Crutcher Scott Field at 4 p.m.