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Countdown to Opening Day: San Francisco Dons

Feb. 17, 2009

After a one year absence in 2007, San Francisco returned to the 30-win mark, finishing 31-26 overall, and 12-9 in the West Coast Conference in 2008. The Dons are very young this season with a roster featuring 23 underclassmen and just three seniors. The team is highlighted by the return of two Louisville Slugger Freshmen All-Americans in LHP Matt Lujuan and OF Connor Bernatz. USF will look to them to continue their dominance in the highly competitive WCC.

With just four players remaining from the 2006 squad that won 39 games and went to the first ever Regional for USF baseball, the Dons will rely heavily on core veterans and strong newcomers to take the team back to the post season.

2008 in Review

Finishing the season with 31 wins was a great accomplishment for the Dons, but falling short of second place in the West Coast Conference by just two games was a disappointing end to a quality season. USF swept Loyola Marymount and took two of three from Saint Mary's, Portland, Gonzaga, and eventual conference Champion San Diego, only falling to Pepperdine and Santa Clara.

"We were disappointed in conference play," said head coach Nino Giarratano. "We were 5-1 to start the WCC season, and then we hit a rough patch. We had a chance to beat Pepperdine and Santa Clara, but we lost both of those series. We won five conference series, but still finished fourth. All in all I really was appreciative of all the effort that the kids gave last season."

Highlights of the season include taking two of three from Fresno State, beating Stanford at home, and winning the third consecutive Dante Benedetti Classic at AT&T Park. USF continued it's dominance at Benedetti Diamond, winning 17 of 24 games in friendly confines.

Off the field, the Dons were successful in the classroom, earning a program high 3.18 team GPA.

"We've never had a GPA at 3.18," said pitching coach Greg Moore. "It shows their time management skills, discipline, and how much they sacrificed to achieve this. They represented the University and this program well and I'm very proud of them."

Four Dons were taken in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft in 2008, highlighted by San Francisco's second consecutive player chosen in the first round. Junior LHP Evan Fredrickson was taken by the Milwaukee Brewers as a first round compensation pick (35th overall). He follows LHP Aaron Poreda who was taken in the first round in 2007. Senior second baseman Joey Railey, the defending WCC Defensive Player of the Year, was chosen by the San Diego Padres in the 21st round, LHP Matt Baugh went to the Colorado Rockies in the 29th round, and OF Kyle Morgan headed to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 36th round.

"I'm so proud of all our guys that got drafted," Giarratano said. "It's great to see that Evan can be financially stable and play in the big leagues. We'll really miss Railey, the energy he brought to the team and his defense at second. Matt and Kyle both had very good seasons at USF and it's exciting to see them get a chance to play professionally."

USF graduated all seniors on the field including reigning West Coast Conference Scholar Athlete of the Year, shortstop Tavo Hall, and 2008 WCC Honorable Mention Mitchell Bialosky.

"We did well in the classroom last season, graduating all our seniors, and on the field we played with our hearts and represented USF well. We represented the Bay Area well in the draft, and all in all, 2008 was a good year and hopefully we can build on that."

Coach Giarratano, Ryan Lipkin, and Team USA

Head coach Nino Giarratano and catcher Ryan Lipkin had the opportunity to travel this summer with Baseball USA's National Collegiate Team and they both came home with the Gold Medal the team won in the Czech Republic.

Giarratano coached the offense over the summer and the team finished with a .265 batting average, 209 hits (36 doubles, five triples, 25 homeruns), 138 RBI and 150 runs scored. For some perspective, Team USA's opponents batted .154 with 16 doubles, one triple, and one homerun. Lipkin batted .256 in 15 games with 10 hits (two doubles, two homeruns), seven RBI and four runs scored.

Goals and Expectations for 2009

After suffering some injuries to key players last season, USF is hoping for a healthy season first and foremost. Senior 3B Dane Braunecker and junior SS Derek Poppert went down with injuries last season, but will be needed to anchor the left side of the infield this season.

Braunecker, in his first season as a Don, batted .299 in 29 games before being sidelined with a knee injury. Poppert played in 39 games before succumbing to injury. Their defense was spectacular as they finished their shortened seasons with .971 and .939 fielding percentages respectively.

USF will have to start playing better on the road as they play more than half of their games on the road this season. In 2008, the Dons finished the season 13-19 away from Benedetti Diamond.

"Our first 18 games are on the road and we start off the season playing some tough teams," said Giarratano. "It's hard to go on the road that much, but realistically I'd like to go at least .500 and stay healthy physically and emotionally."

"I look for this team to be competitive," Giarratano continued. "I think we can compete for a conference championship and a regional bid. But I expect them to do well off the field and in the classroom as well. I want each kid to compete to the best of his ability in all aspects. I'm looking forward to seeing what the new team and new group of players on the field bring to us."

New Leadership Emerges

Graduation in 2008 took the last few remaining remnants from the most successful four years in program history. Joey Railey, Mitchell Bialosky and Tavo Hall ended their college careers last season and their loss leaves a hole to be filled.

"It's a huge impact on this team to lose those players," Giarratano said. "They were a part of something special here at USF. We were playing some of the best teams in the Country and winning 30-plus game every season, so it's going to be tough to replace them. It's going to be hard to replace their experience; the experience they gave us was very rich and rewarding."

With just four players remaining from the 2006 Regional team and just two with significant playing time (Senior OF Zach Kim and junior OF Bobby Ethel), the Dons will look to new leaders to help this team achieve its goals.

Kim, who has been with the program for five years, Braunecker and OF Drew Johnson are the lone seniors on the squad and will be looked upon to be the leaders on and off the field this season. The junior class has some strong leadership candidates as well in Lipkin, Poppert, and UTL George Lujan, who is one of the emotional leaders on the team. Sophomores who had significant playing time last season will be relied upon as well. Matt Lujan, who led the dons with a 7-2 record and 3.19 ERA, will lead on the mound and LHP Garrett Luippold will anchor the bullpen after leading the Dons with 25 appearances.

"We have some great kids on this team," said Giarratano. "They will do a wonderful job of leading on the field and off, emotionally, physically, academically. We've got some great players who are also just great human beings."

Team Strengths

Again this season, team speed and defense are at the top of the list. As a team last year, the Dons stole 57 bases, 31 of which came from players returning this season. That speed bodes well defensively also.

"I think the biggest strength from the team is obviously our team speed and ability to play defense. I really like what we could do from the defensive standpoint. We're very strong in the infield, we run very well in the outfield. Offensively, I think we'll be able to score enough runs and we should matchup pretty well with other teams at the plate," said Giarratano.

Pitching

USF has a good and equal mix of arms both in the starting rotation and bullpen. Losing Fredrickson and Baugh to the draft and spot starter Brian Anderson to graduation, the Dons need to fill holes in the rotation. Freshman All-American LHP Matt Lujan will move into the number one slot and start on Friday's and junior RHP Alex Kalogrides (3-4, 4.20 ERA, 23 app, 49.1 innings, 44 K's) will move into the Saturday slot. Sunday's and mid-week games are open to a host of quality arms.

Sophomore LHP Garrett Luippold (4-1, 5.80 ERA, 40.1 innings, 30 K's) is valuable in the bullpen for middle relief and closing, but will most likely move into the starting rotation. Sophomore RHP Sean Burns (1-1, 15 K's in 18.1 innings) also has a shot at a starting spot after showing promise during his freshman campaign. Mid-week, look for newcomers Doug Murray (junior RHP, El Cerrito, CA/Diablo Valley College) and Cameron Love (freshman RHP, Beaverton, OR/ Jesuit HS).

USF's bullpen is full of strong arms with middle relievers Jordan Remer (freshman LHP, Piedmont, CA/Piedmont HS) and Bob Mott (freshman LHP, San Luis Obispo, CA/Mission College Prep). Junior LHP Joe Anderson will slide into the left-handed specialist position after redshirting last season. Redshirt freshman RHP Kyle Lawton has a good chance to start the season as the team's closer. Rounding out the bullpen are junior RHP Joe Oropeza (11 K's in 13.1 innings) and sophomore RHP Jonathan Abramson (3.93 ERA in 13 appearances).

Catching

JR C Ryan Lipkin led the Dons in batting average at .384, ranking sixth in the league


Junior Ryan Lipkin returns from leading the Dons with a .384 batting average last season and a successful stint with Team USA (collegiate). Lipkin tied for third on the team with 66 hits (nine doubles, two homeruns), had 21 RBI and a respectable .972 fielding percentage behind the plate. He will get the nod at the dish on most days.

"Lipkin has really improved, especially over the summer with Team USA," Giarratano said. "I think Ryan is a strength for us because he's significantly increased his ability to catch and throw. He's always been a plus offensive player, but I look for him to have a great season and do some remarkable things behind the plate."

Redshirt sophomore Travis Higgs will get No. 2 back up duty after seeing time in 12 games last season. Redshirt freshman Matt Quintero and incoming freshman Mason Morioka (Torrance, CA/West Torrance HS) will back up as needed.

"Travis has a great work ethic and has really matured as a catcher and an offensive player. He puts us in a great situation to rest Lipkin one day a week. Mason and Matt are backing up Higgs and Lipkin and will be able to learn from those two and help us in the future," Giarratano added.

Infield

With the loss of big players Railey, Bialosky, and Hall, the Dons have big shoes to fill around the infield. Sophomore Stephen Yarrow saw playing time at first base last season when Bialosky pitched and will move into the starting role this year. Yarrow had a successful freshman campaign, batting .265 with two doubles, two triples, and two homeruns and only committed two errors in 27 games. Second base is undecided with junior transfer Robert Abel (Woodland, CA/University of Arizona) most likely getting the starting nod. Fighting for his spot is junior George Lujan, who missed last season due to injury, and sophomore Chris Escobar who batted .333 in 22 games last year.

"Yarrow will have the opportunity to play everyday and really improve. He has the chance to hit for power and is a plus defensive player. Abel is the leading candidate for second, but George Lujan and Escobar will really push them. Escobar has a chance to play in the outfield also," said Giarratano.

The left side of the field will be manned by Poppert at short and Braunecker at third. Redshirt freshman Adam Clear will back up Poppert at short, but can also play second and third.

"Poppert had a wonderful summer in the Cape Cod League and is back and ready to play short," Giarratano said. "He has some big shoes to fill replacing Tavo Hall, but I think he'll do great. Braunecker is a wonderful defensive player, a great team player; he's going to have a great year."

Outfield

SO OF Connor Bernatz was second on the team in hitting at .347 en route to WCC All-Freshman team honors last season


Senior Zach Kim (.303, tied for first with 11 stolen bases) will be the veteran voice in left field and senior Drew Johnson will get the nod in right. Freshman All-American Connor Bernatz and junior Bobby Ethel (tied for second on team with nine stolen bases) will share center field duties. Bernatz will roam the outfield, also seeing time in left and right. Freshman Jared Denham (Antioch, CA/Deer Valley HS) will back them up as will Escobar.

"Kim and Johnson are two of our senior leaders and will anchor the outfield this season," Giarratano said. "We are stacked in center with Ethel and Bernatz, and we have quality backups in Denham and Escobar."

Non-Conference Schedule

USF opens up the season with 18 consecutive games on the road and 22 of the first 23 away from Benedetti Diamond. The Dons didn't fare too well on the road last season, going 13-19. USF meets five teams who earned Regional berths last season, starting with UC Davis at Davis on February 24 and March 24 at home, at California on March 3 and March 31 at AT&T Park, and both No. 25 Oregon State (March 5) and Oklahoma State (March 7) at the Palm Springs Tournament. The Dons play at No. 15 Stanford, a Super Regional team a year ago, on April 27.

San Francisco will open the season with a four game set at Texas-San Antonio on February 20-22. The Dons travels to UC Riverside on February 26-March 1, a team USF has had trouble with in the past. Also competing at the Palm Springs Tournament is Texas Tech (March 6) and Gonzaga (March 8). The Dons will travel to Washington March 13-15 before hosting Sacramento state in the home opener is on March 17. They then go right back out on the road for a four game set with New Mexico State (March 20-22).

Other notable non-conference opponents include San Jose State (March 10, April 21 at home), at Cal State Bakersfield on April 1, Pacific (April 7 and May 5 at home) and San Diego State on May 11.

Dante Benedetti Classic

Three games, three wins. AT&T Park has been good to the Dons as they won their third consecutive Dante Benedetti Classic, on April 1, 2008, 5-1 over No. 7 California. In the inaugural game in 2006, USF defeated the Bears 7-6 in a thrilling come from behind victory. Two seasons ago, the Dons earned the 6-2 victory over Santa Clara.

The Classic celebrates the legacy of Dante Benedetti, former Diamond Dons head coach and a giant in San Francisco youth and collegiate baseball. Benedetti, who coached USF for 16 years for an annual salary of one dollar, passed away in November 2005 at the age of 86 after a long illness.

West Coast Conference

USF begins West Coast Conference play at home, hosting Gonzaga March 27-31, the first of four home conference series. Saint Mary's will visit the Hilltop on April 3-5. The Dons travel to Loyola Marymount on April 9-11 before returning to host back-to-back series against Santa Clara (April 17-19) and No. 17 Pepperdine (April 24-26). USF heads south to meet No. 11 San Diego on May 8-10 and ends the season at Portland on May 15-17. The WCC Championships are set to take place on May 22-24.

"I think USF is definitely one of the top four teams in this conference," said Giarratano. "You obviously can't ever count San Diego out, they've been so good over the past two years or so, but they lost some great starting pitchers after last year. Pepperdine has been strong for as long as I can remember and Loyola Marymount is very much improved. This year Santa Clara could be very good with the pitching they got back and their big offensive players. Portland is much improved and Saint Mary's is building. So hopefully we can stay in the top three, but it could go any way depending on how you play in the 21 game spread that we have."

Closing Remarks

After a fun and rewarding summer with Team USA, Coach Giarratano leaves us with his thoughts on the experience and being here at USF.

"Team USA taught me a lot about players and how close our program is to being really, really good," said Giarratano. "Having been able to assess the ability levels of the players, our guys are close."

"I think the one thing I learned is a little bit of patience," Giarratano continued. "It's always nice to get rewarded with something like that and come back and just be one of the normal guys. I'm so happy to be back at USF with my players and in this program and hopefully I can help them realize how close they really are because I think the one thing that gave me the opportunity to be with team USA is the players that have been here for the last four seasons and its been a great reward."