By Corey Donetz
Rider’s baseball team is looking to put the frustrating finish of last season behind it and prove the doubters wrong in 2012.
The Broncs were chosen to finish second in the preseason MAAC poll, but anything less than a championship will be a disappointment.
The Broncs will send sophomore Mike Murphy to the mound to open up the season today at Norfolk State.
The team’s new additions will need to step up immediately, as Rider lost a number of seniors last year, including starting pitchers Mike Thomas and Nate Eppley, both MLB Draft selections.
“Last year was last year,” Rider’s Head Coach Barry Davis said. “Each year we lose someone who contributes to the team’s success. We have a lot of new guys, [and] they have little choice but to step in and do their best. We will find out who is ready pretty quick.”
Murphy was redshirted last season, but comes into 2012 as a professional prospect with high expectations. Rider is 5-2 in Murphy’s seven career starts. The Broncs’ core of returners include senior Brandon Cotten, junior Adam Wayman and sophomore Nick Crescenzo.
Closer Tyler Smith was named to the preseason All-America team. The junior set the Rider record for saves in a single season last year with 15, which was 10th-best in the nation. MAAC batters hit for a modest .109 average against Smith last year as he posted an impressive 1.26 earned run average in MAAC play. He was named MAAC and New Jersey Closer of the Year for his performance.
Cotten and Crescenzo were each selected to the 12-man preseason All-MAAC team to round up the Broncs’ preseason awards.
Cotten continued his stellar play in the outfield last season while hitting .331, scoring a team high 43 runs along with four homeruns and 29 RBIs. He was also named to the preseason team last season, and was named to the All-MAAC team after last season.
“I was very excited to receive this award,” Cotten said. “I made preseason All-MAAC last year and then at the end of the year, took home the crown for that award again, so it’s something I strive to be.”
Crescenzo is coming off a remarkable freshman campaign in which he hit .355 with 31 RBIs. The outfielder was named both MAAC and New Jersey Rookie of the Year, as well as a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American.
“I was excited about it,” Crescenzo said. “But I don’t let these types of honors get to my head.”
Crescenzo has continued to work in the offseason to improve his performance this year.
“I believe my leadership has improved, as well as my baseball knowledge,” he said. “I hope to lead by example for the freshmen that we added to our team this year.”
With 10 freshmen on the team, many question marks loom this year as the Broncs’ roster consists of catchers who haven’t caught a regular season game, a middle infield who hasn’t played together and some pitchers who haven’t pitched in a college game. However, the players aren’t too concerned.
“I don’t really think losing all those guys is going to affect us,” Cotten said. “The group of guys we have this season are the hardest group of guys I’ve played with in my career here and all that hard work will translate into playing well and winning games.”
The team will go through many lineup changes in the beginning because the season can play out in many different ways.
“I’m excited for this season to begin,” Cotten said. “Hopefully we will have a very successful year.”
The Broncs will play a total of four games over the weekend against Norfolk State to kick off the season, and senior Patrick Devlin, freshman Kurt Sowa and junior Joe Calogero will get the starts following Murphy in game one.
As a senior, Devlin will look to use his experience of starting 30 games on the hill to help himself as well as the incoming freshmen on and off the field this season. He had a 3-1 record with a 3.77 ERA last season before being shut down for the season in March.
“I think the thing that we need to do as a whole pitching staff is continue to work,” Devlin said. “Nobody, like Coach Davis always says, is as good as they think they are. We can always be doing something to get better each and every day, whether it is dry picks or towel drills, they all help to reach to where we want to get.”
The Broncs will spend over a month on the road until they open up MAAC play at home against Niagara on March 24.
“We will need to improve with each day,” Davis said. “The young guys gaining experience with each game will help. Hopefully we will be a real contender as the season progresses.”
The year is young, but players’ eyes are on the prize.
“Nothing is more important to me than my teammates and I having a very successful season, and to bring home a MAAC championship,” Cotten said. “I can leave the individual awards behind. There is no ‘I’ in team, but there are 30 guys who strive for one main goal: to become MAAC champs.”