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Countdown to Opening Day: Loyola Marymount Lions

Feb. 16, 2009

With a National Player of the Year candidate at first base receiving throws from a talented infield, a two-time All-West Coast Conference selection in the outfield, a balanced pitching staff, and a group of impressive newcomers eager to earn starting nods, look for the 2009 LMU baseball team, which is led by first-year Head Coach Jason Gill, to compete and succeed in the competitive West Coast Conference.

2008 Season
Playing a schedule that would eventually be ranked second in the nation in terms of strength of schedule, LMU finished the year with a 23-32 overall record and a 7-14 mark in the WCC in 2008. The Lions started the year 3-6 after dropping a game to Sacramento State to open the season, falling to UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and then No. 9 Long Beach State, and splitting a four-game series with UC Santa Barbara headed into the San Diego State Aztec Invitational. There, the Lions were scheduled to collide with three ranked teams (Oklahoma State, Oregon State and San Diego) and one (San Diego State) who had dropped out of the Top-25 that same week. The Lions finished the tournament with a 3-1 record, claiming the 2008 San Diego State Aztec Invitational Tournament Championship. The Lions opened the tournament with a 3-2 heartbreaking loss to No. 20 Oklahoma State. Senior right-hander Andy Beal tossed six innings and recorded eight strikeouts, including the first five straight batters faced, before LMU lost the game in the ninth inning. LMU hit the field against another ranked opponent, taking on the defending National Champions from Oregon State. The Lions pounded-out 20 hits, led by sophomore Ryan Wheeler who batted 4-for-5 with two runs scored and two RBI, en route to crushing the No. 12 team in the nation, 13-3. Carrying momentum, LMU defeated host San Diego State by a score of 7-2. Freshman right-hander Martin Viramontes got the start for the Lions, tossing five innings and allowing two runs on five walks and four hits while striking out 10 batters en route to his first victory of the season. Lee Roberts was the only reliever LMU needed on the night, pitching the final four scoreless frames, surrendering only two hits and striking out five batters. LMU sealed the Tournament Championship when it routed WCC-foe San Diego by a score of 13-3. Senior A.J. LaMonda recorded a career-high five hits and senior Andy Preston added six RBI, including a grand slam, in the victory. The Lions would extend the winning streak to four games with a victory over UC Riverside, before dropping three of four to Cal the next weekend. LMU reignited itself following the trip to Cal, winning eight of its next nine games, including three-of-four from Cal State Northridge, two from USC in the only two meetings on the season, and a sweep of conference-foe Portland on the road. Unfortunately, the remaining path to the end of the season was not nearly as smooth, as the Lions lost four straight games following the five-game winning streak en route to losing each of its final seven series on the year. LMU did end the season on a high note, defeating Gonzaga at home, but ended the year having lost eight of its last nine games.

2009 Season
This year, LMU looks ready to get back on the winning track through dependence on both experienced and newly acquired hitters, as well as the arms of both their returning pitchers and fresh faces eager to show their stuff. Expecting to be amongst the best in the West Coast Conference, the Lions look to be in the mix for their first postseason bid since 2000.

LMU was predicted to finish sixth amongst its WCC opponents, after being selected to finish fourth in four of the last five seasons. "I have never felt that the preseason rankings were ever extremely important," Gill said. "I think if you happen to be a team that is ranked high, and of course all teams want to be ranked high, I think you work with that, but the reality is the only ranking that matters is the one at the end of the year. I have high expectations for our team this season, and I've expressed those expectations to my players. Those expectations do not necessarily pertain directly to wins and losses, but in their effort and respect for the game. I would be disappointed if my players did not want to win the conference, so I expect us to battle and play each and every game hard."

Trying to defy the preseason predictions, LMU returns four starters to the field, highlighted by the return of junior Angelo Songco in the outfield and junior Ryan Wheeler at first base. Songco is a two-time All-West Coast Conference selection and Wheeler is a 2009 Wallace Award candidate. Senior Kyle Spraker will likely earn a starting spot at one of the two positions on the left side of the infield after starting every game for the Lions at shortstop last year, while sophomore Jonathan Johnson is a favorite to get the initial starting nod at second base. A host of freshmen talent, and Brad Bauer, a transfer from Cuesta College, will battle for playing time around the infield. The Lions are deep at the catching position, and there will be constant competition for starts behind the dish. On the mound, the Lions return seven pitchers from last year's staff. Viramontes, senior Ernie Cho and freshman Alex Gillingham are expected to be called upon to provide quality starts for LMU as the season begins, while a handful of arms could potentially see starts throughout the year. Juniors Xavier Esquivel and Jeremy Burrell, along with sophomore Chris Eusebio and senior Lee Roberts anchor a solid bullpen that will be expected to deliver relief innings late in ballgames.

Pitchers

SR RHP Ernie Cho returns after leading the team in ERA (4.53) and appearances (24)


Gill and his staff are faced with the task of filling the void left by the draft and/or departure of Andy Beal, Mike Kenney and Nate Keadle from last year's starting rotation. Those three players accounted for three of the top-four innings pitched numbers from last year, but LMU does return 54 percent of the innings from 2008. "Although we lost some innings and starting pitching from last year, we as a team are confident that our players are poised to succeed this season. We have one of the best young pitching coaches on the West Coast in Drew Keehn, and I have the upmost confidence in his ability to help our pitchers get better every day."

One favorite to get the nod on Friday is Martin Viramontes, who as a freshman last year, was called upon out of the gate to provide starts. Ernie Cho is in the mix to get starts on Saturday after earning two spot starts and serving as one of LMU's top relievers just a year ago. Alex Gillingham, who is just one year removed from high school, will likely see time as LMU's third starter, and will be expected to immediately contribute quality innings and starts on the hill for the Lions. Senior Lee Roberts, who made six of his seven career starts last year, and freshmen John Lally and Ramiro Carreon are all in the mix to earn starts either in the three-man rotation or as the fourth starter during the week.

Asked to make an immediate impact as a starter at the Division I level last year, Viramontes turned in a stellar freshman campaign in 2008. The native of Fresno, Calif. made 10 starts for the Lions finishing the year with a 3-6 record and a 6.26 ERA. He posted a team-high tying 55 strikeouts in 54.2 innings of work, including notching a season-high 13 strikeouts in his collegiate debut against UC Santa Barbara on March 1. The right-hander dealt five or more innings in eight of his 10 starts on the year, including six or more in six of those eight. His longest outing came on March 29 against Portland when he pitched 7.1 innings.

"Viramontes has the stuff to be an outstanding Friday starter for us, and given his experience as a week-in-week-out starter last year, I feel that he is a likely candidate to take the ball on Friday. He has a very high ceiling in terms of potential, and we as a coaching staff and a team look forward to seeing him continue to get better and compete for us throughout the year," Gill said.

Gill is also expecting big things from Ernie Cho, a senior right-hander who, with the exception of two starts last season, has contributed all of his innings out of the bullpen during his tenure at LMU. After appearing in just 11 games and pitching a total of 8.1 innings as a freshman and sophomore, Cho had a breakout season as a junior. He posted a career and team-high 24 appearances, contributing 49.2 innings and posting a team-best 4.53 ERA. Overall, the native of Hacienda Heights finished the season with a 1-1 record and 36 strikeouts. His lone victory, the first of his collegiate career, came on April 8 against Long Beach State when he tossed a career-high six innings and struck out a career-best six batters. Perhaps his best outing of 2008 came out of the bullpen when he pitched 5.1 scoreless innings of relief against San Diego on April 26.

According to Gill, "Cho is a sinker-baller who benefits from his 84-87 mile-an-hour velocity because of the movement it provides to his pitches. Our staff encourages him to throw as many strikes as possible, pitch to contact, and let our defense do the work behind him. If he can establish his sinker and effectively place it where he wants, I feel that he can win a lot of games for us this season."

The Lions expect immediate results from freshman Alex Gillingham. The right-hander, a 2008 graduate of Westlake High School in Westlake Village, Calif., earned three varsity letters in high school. He garnered All-Conference recognition as a junior and senior, and was named Team Most Valuable Player and Pitcher of the Year as a senior. "Gillingham has command of a pretty good sinker and slider," Gill says. "The slider has late break and a lot of depth to it, and he has the potential to be very effective on the hill for us. Gillingham is highly competitive, and as he matures this season, it is our hope that he will learn how to command and control his competitive streak and focus it in the right direction. He is very young, but he will be expected to mature on the go, and at a very fast pace."

Although it is still up in the air who will take the mound as the fourth starter in a four-game non-conference series, or as the midweek starter, according to Gill, "there is a competitive battle for the fourth starter position between Lally, Carreon and Roberts, and any one of the players could get the start. As one of only three left-handers on the roster, Lally has that going in his favor, but Roberts may be the slight favorite to get the nod to start the season because of his prior experience at the Division I level. Carreon throws a lot of strikes, and when he gets to the point where he is consistently staying on top of the baseball, he will prove very effective for us. In any event, I expect very strong outings out of our fourth starter throughout the season."

When he is not summoned for starting duties, Roberts is expected to contribute productive innings out of the Lion bullpen. The Hermosa Beach, Calif. native made six starts and appeared in 23 games for LMU as a junior last season, finishing the year with a 2-4 record and a 6.67 ERA over 56.2 innings of work. A highlight of the season, and of Roberts' career, he earned a complete-game victory over Cal State Northridge on March 18. In his three years of play, Roberts has appeared in 63 games, amassing a 5-5 record and a 5.96 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 113.1 innings of work.

Junior Xavier Esquivel will continue to be another frequently called-upon arm out the bullpen this year for the Lions. The frontrunner to take the ball as the team's closer, Esquivel finished last season with a 4-5 record and a 6.91 ERA after appearing in 19 games, starting five. He totaled 43 innings pitched and 29 strikeouts, earning a team-best three saves along the way. "Esquivel had a good summer and a pretty good fall," Gill said. "He is expected to be the closer coming out of the gates." Pitching in the Northwoods League last summer, he garnered All-Star accolades and finished the season with a 2-0 record, 12 saves, 32 strikeouts and a 0.33 ERA in 24 appearances for the St. Cloud River Bats. For his efforts, he was named Perfect Game USA's "Best Relief Pitcher" following his summer season.

Sophomores Chris Eusebio and Greg Meyers, along with junior Jeremy Burrell, are three more returners who will likely see innings as relievers this season. Eusebio appeared in a team-high 24 games out of the bullpen as a freshman last year, and finished the year with a 1-1 record, 21 strikeouts and a 5.88 ERA. Meyers appeared in nine games, starting one for LMU as a freshman in 2008. He finished the year with a 1-1 record and a 7.04 ERA in 7.2 innings on the hill. Burrell made 11 appearances last season, contributing 17 innings of relief over that span, including a career-high 5.2 innings against Pepperdine on April 19. The local product from Hawthorne, Calif. finished the year with a 7.41 ERA and struck out four batters.

According to Gill, "Eusebio and Burrell are both getting better, and if Burrell can get a little better command of his split-finger, he has the potential to get the ball late in games."

Along with Gillingham, Lally and Carreon, LMU has some fresh new pitching entering this season with the arrival of freshmen Ryan Hawthorne, Jason Wheeler, Mike MacGillivray and Steve Covelo, and junior transfer Jordan McClintick. Hawthorne, a 2008 graduate of Crespi Carmelita High School in Encino, Calif., earned three varsity letters in high school. He garnered All-Area, All-Conference and All-CIF recognition following his senior campaign. According to Gill, "Hawthorne is one of the best all-around baseball players and athletes on the team. He is a legitimate two-way Division I player who will provide innings on the hill and will compete for time in the outfield." Wheeler, the younger brother of teammate, Ryan, garnered All-Area, All-League and All-CIF recognition after both his junior and senior years, helping guide his team to the Pioneer League Championship in 2007 and 2008. MacGillivray was voted De La Salle High School Pitcher of the Year as a senior after guiding his team to a CIF Large School Division Championship. Covelo, a left-hander, was a three-year varsity starter and garnered All-Conference recognition after posting a 2.39 ERA and six victories as a senior last year. In his final season at Seward County Community College, McClintick appeared in 16 games, starting two. He posted a 7-1 record with a 3.00 ERA in 30 innings of work, also recording two saves on the season. He averaged 6.60 strikeouts per nine innings and just 2.40 walks per nine innings.

Catchers
In 2009, the Lions will have four different players competing for time behind the dish. In addition, all four of the players are returning and have time playing at the Division I level. Seniors T.J. Bernardy, Brett Mendoza and Ollie Enos are three players battling for the early-season starting job. Sophomore Matt Koch, who had won the job following the fall season, will be sidelined due to injury to start the year.

"The catching position is very deep for us this season," Gill said. "All of our catchers have gotten exponentially better, and Coach [Scott] Walter has done an unbelievable job of working with them. On the other hand, no one player has emerged as the day-to-day catcher so far, and I look forward to the competition for the starting spot calling the pitches."

Bernardy played in 38 games, starting 16 for LMU last year as a junior. He batted .209 with 14 hits, eight runs scored, five doubles, a home run and 12 RBI. In 2007, he was named 2007 LMU Baseball Newcomer of the Year after starting 17 of LMU's 21 WCC games and batting .250 over that span. His seven RBI in conference play ranked fourth on the Lions, while he finished the season batting .233 overall with 12 RBI and six doubles. Over the course of his two-year career at LMU, he has batted .223 with 16 runs scored, 11 doubles, a home run and 24 RBI.

Enos, who transferred to LMU from the College of Wooster prior to the 2008 season, batted .255 in 45 games played and 22 starts in his first season in crimson and navy. The native of Charlottesville, Va. scored 15 runs and drove in 13 while posting three doubles.

"Ollie caught very little last year and he has improved a lot," Gill said. "He is hitting the ball very well, and right now it looks like he and T.J. will battle for starts early in the season. In all likelihood, Enos and Bernardy will split time at the position, ensuring a fresh sets of legs behind the plate."

Koch made 24 starts and played in 43 games as a freshman last year. He batted .276 with nine runs scored, seven doubles, a triple and 13 RBI, collecting eight multiple-hit games, including three hits against UC Santa Barbara on February 29 and Gonzaga on May 18.

Mendoza, who could see time at a variety of positions in 2009, played in 35 games and started a career-high 21 in 2008. The native of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. batted .286 with 15 runs scored, three doubles and five RBI. In addition, he notched four multiple-hit games, including three-hit games against UC Riverside on March 11, Portland on March 30, and Gonzaga on May 16.

Infield
With experience and depth at virtually every position, the Lion infield should prove to be a strength of the team in 2009. Junior Ryan Wheeler is a lock to start at first base this season after a stellar sophomore year. Wheeler, who was named to the 2009 Wallace Award Watch List, garnered All-WCC First Team honors last year after batting .345 and starting every game for the Lions as a sophomore. The native of Torrance, Calif. finished the season with 36 runs scored, a conference-best 20 doubles, one triple, six home runs, 45 RBI and 110 total bases. In addition, he slugged .542 and reached base at a .405 pace. In conference games alone, he hit .372 and slugged .628 with 15 runs scored, 11 doubles, three home runs and 24 RBI. His 21 multiple -hit games tied him for first on the squad last year, while he was the team leader in doubles and second in batting average, slugging percentage, runs scored, hits, RBI, home runs and total bases. Following the successful sophomore season, he went and played in the Cape Cod League over the summer. There, he was named a Cape Cod League All-Star and to Baseball America's Top-30 Prospects list after batting .285 with 24 runs scored, seven doubles, 67 hits, five home runs and 18 RBI in 42 games played for the Brewster Whitecaps.

"Wheeler is a legitimate Division I hitter," Gill said. "He has the ability to hit in any team's lineup across the country, and I think he will hit for power and hit for average out the number three hole or the cleanup spot for us this year. Defensively, he has improved markedly at first base, and we expect him to continue to improve his game on the defensive side."

Alex Guthrie, who walked-on to the team at the beginning of the school year, is working behind Wheeler and improving on a daily basis. A 2008 graduate of Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, Calif., Guthrie earned two varsity letters in high school. The right-handed hitter garnered All-Area accolades as a senior, and All-League in his junior and senior campaigns. The native of Sunnyvale, Calif. batted .404 with 25 runs scored, two home runs and a .469 on-base percentage as a senior.

"Guthrie came on late in the fall as a walk-on and has improved tremendously so far this year," Gill said. "He is doing a great job for us, and is really helping our team out and making others around him better."

Senior Kyle Spraker, who started every game for the Lions at shortstop in 2008, returns after batting .260 with 25 runs scored, 13 doubles, a triple and a home run last year. The native of Portola, Calif. posted 16 RBI and slugged .350 for the season, while also stealing a team-best nine bases. His best offensive performance last season came on April 18 when he collected four hits against Pepperdine. Spraker hit safely in seven consecutive games from April 12 to April 22, while amassing 13 multiple-hit games for the season.

Freshman Shon Roe is also challenging for the starting shortstop job in 2009. Roe, a 2008 graduate of Quartz Hill High School in Quartz Hill, Calif., was a three-year varsity starter in high school. A two-time team captain, he was named All-Conference in all three varsity seasons and All-Area as a junior and senior. In addition, he garnered All-State and All-CIF honors following his senior campaign, a year in which he was named Golden League Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year.

"There is very good competition for the positions on the left side of the infield, and those battles will not be won until game one in February," Gill said. "Kyle and Shon are both strong candidates to earn the starting nod at shortstop, and whoever does not start at that position, has a very good chance of earning the starting spot at third base."

With regards to playing time at third base, juniors Will Dugoni and Brad Bauer, along with freshman Trevor Gee, all have been working toward earning the starting nod. Dugoni batted .310 in 31 games played and 13 starts last year for LMU. He scored 14 runs and drove in five, while posting a career-best three hits and two RBI on March 20 versus Cal State Northridge. Over his two seasons in a Lion uniform, Dugoni has amassed a .309 batting average in 60 games played and 94 at bats.

Bauer was named All-Conference after batting .430 in league play at Cuesta College last year. In 2008, he amassed four home runs, nine doubles, 28 runs scored and 27 RBI, helping guide his team to the Western State North Conference Championship. Gee enters his first year as a Lion after graduating from Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif. last year. A four-year varsity starter, he served as team captain in his junior and senior years. Gee garnered All-CIF recognition after his senior campaign, and was named All-Area as a junior and senior. The native of Glendale, Calif. also helped his high school squad to the CIF Division III Championship, and a No. 1 ranking, in 2008.

Sophomore Jonathan Johnson is the early favorite to start at second base once again this year. Johnson batted .281 in 46 games played and 30 starts as a freshman. Last year, he tallied 19 runs, three doubles and eight RBI, including recording a season-high two RBI at Portland on March 29. The native of Lakewood, Calif. collected six multiple-hit games, including a season-high three hits against Santa Clara on May 2.

Outfield

JR OF Angelo Songco returns after tying the for league lead in homeruns (15)


Junior Angelo Songco highlights the outfield for the Lions this season, and he will likely get the starting bid in centerfield to start the season. Songco, who was a member of the 2008 Brooks Wallace Award Preseason Watch List and a preseason All-Conference selection, earned 2007 WCC Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-American honors before turning in yet another great year in 2008. Last season, he garnered All-WCC First Team honors after starting 51 of LMU's 55 games. The native of Granada Hills, Calif. finished the season batting .356 with 36 runs scored, 17 doubles, 15 home runs, 48 RBI, 130 total bases and a .681 slugging percentage. A pure hitter, he ranked first on the team in batting average, slugging percentage, on base percentage, RBI, home runs, walks and total bases. In conference games alone, he batted .429 with 17 runs scored, nine doubles, six home runs and 23 RBI. Songco finished the year ranked second in the WCC in home runs, third in slugging percentage, and fourth in total bases and doubles. He posted 19 multiple-hit games, including 10 two-hit, eight three-hit and one four-hit performance. Following a stellar sophomore year, he went on to play in the Cape Cod League where he won the Cape Cod League Home Run Derby with eight home runs in the first round and five in the second.

"Angelo is going to start in the outfield, likely in centerfield to start the season," Gill said. "He provides a powerful bat in the middle of the lineup, and has some speed in the outfield on defense. The battles for the other two outfield positions will be won and lost in February. Right now Coach Jeff Walker is working with all of our outfielders, and I'm looking forward to the competition for starts throughout the year."

Returners Will Dugoni, Brett Mendoza, Andrew Irvine and Joe Vierra will be joined by a foursome of freshmen who will all compete for time at the corner outfield positions. Redshirt freshmen Mike Lowe and Evan Simonitsch are battling with sophomore Joe Vierra and true freshman Ryan Hawthorne for time in left field. The competition for starts in right between freshman Josh Bryan and Irvine is also heating up as the team inches closer to the start of the regular season. Dugoni and Mendoza, who have been used at various positions throughout their careers at LMU, also provide competition at both outfield positions.

"Dugoni is one of the best athletes we have on the team, and we'd like to utilize his speed in the outfield if possible. He is a utility player that is currently working in both the infield and outfield, and we expect to use him in a variety of roles this season," Gill said.

According to Gill, The Lions are "going to take the approach of play the game hard and come to the park ready to battle and leave it all on the field. We want to play each game inning-by-inning, pitch-by-pitch and at the end of the day we'll look at the scoreboard and see what it tells us. In terms of strengths for this year, our strength will hopefully be our ability to play as a team. We don't necessarily stand out in any particular category, but we have balance as a team. If our attitude stays right, and our ability to grow together as a team happens the right way, great things will come forth. We need to continue to put the team first and make sure no one is acting based on individual agendas. Our players have to like each other and want to win for each other, and if that continues to happen throughout the season, we will be successful."