The 2013 VCU Baseball season will feature an interesting mixture of old and new.
It will look similar because the Rams return seven of their nine starting position players (including their designated hitter) from a squad that qualified for the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament a season ago.
It will be new because it is the first time in 18 years VCU will be without Head Coach Paul Keyes, who lost his courageous battle with cancer in November.
"There are no words to express on what the loss of Coach Keyes means to this program," said Head Coach Shawn Stiffler, who spent the previous six seasons as Keyes' top assistant. "You can't think about VCU's baseball program without thinking of Coach Keyes.
"Certainly he is going to be in our minds every day, but one big wish that he had was that he didn't want this season to be a tribute for him. However, we are going to think about him every day before we go out in the dugout."
Moving forward, the Black and Gold will still play the same hardnosed style Keyes taught throughout his tenure at VCU.
The Rams will once again boast a deep roster, and perhaps the deepest they've had in years, when they welcome back 14 returners to go along with a talented class of newcomers.
"Our depth is very important to us this year," said Stiffler. "Every player has been pushed in practice. Everyone has to go out each day and compete at a high level. The depth is going to help us when we need to juggle some lineups and move guys around."
The final new challenge will come as VCU begins its first season in the Atlantic 10 Conference. The Rams are familiar with a handful of their new league mates, including cross-town rival Richmond, but will also face schools such as Butler, Dayton, La Salle and Saint Louis for the first time.
"The advantage is everything is fresh," Stiffler said. "It is a new opponent that you haven't faced before, everything is new and exciting. Teams are not going to have a lot of information on us but at the same time, we don't have the same information about them. Our players should be excited to go to new cities, towns, campuses and play new people."
With the mixture of old and new, one thing will remain consistent: the winning tradition and expectations of the VCU Baseball program are here to stay.
"I think the expectations are the same this year as they have been every year," added Stiffler. "We expect to put ourselves in a position to contend for an A-10 regular season championship, win the A-10 Tournament and move onto an NCAA Regional."
VCU's outfield will feature a p air familiar faces in junior center fielder Bill Cullen (pictured left) and senior right fielder Taylor Buran. However, the left field starting position is still up for grabs.
Cullen, who Stiffler claims is "one of the best all around center fielders I've ever coached," has already garnered attention from several national outlets, including Preseason All-America citations from Collegiate Baseball, National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and College Sports Madness, on the heels of a breakout sophomore campaign. In 2012, the Colonial Heights, Va. native hit .347 with 25 doubles, nine triples (second-most in the NCAA) and five home runs.
Buran, who enters his final season at VCU, played 55 games in right field last year, hitting .297 with nine doubles, four home runs and 22 RBIs. More importantly he recorded a perfect fielding percentage with 57 putouts and three outfield assists, and will once again be counted on defensively.
With two-thirds of the outfield secured by returners, the left field spot has been quite the battle since the fall. Junior Landon Prentiss and freshmen James Bunn, Cody Acker and Michael Thomas are all in the mix to lock down the starting role.
"Someone needs to win the job in left field and start to separate themselves from the group," said Stiffler. "I feel comfortable with all of them playing out there, but I would like to see one of them break away from the rest and win the job."
Regardless of who wins the left field starting job, the Rams' outfield will be one of the most athletic and defensively gifted trios VCU has had in years.
The Rams return their entire starting infield from 2012, which led the CAA in fielding percentage (.975).
Junior Joey Cujas (pictured right), a First Team All-CAA selection a year ago, returns at third base. Not only is Cujas one of VCU's best hitters, but he's also a solid defender. As a sophomore, he batted a team-best .390 to go along with 21 doubles, two triples, three home runs and 49 RBIs, while boasting an impressive .963 fielding percentage.
Up the middle, the Rams return 2012 CAA All-Rookie selection Vimael Machin, who started all 59 games at shortstop, and senior Jordan Weymouth, who served as the Rams' primary second baseman. The duo started all but two games together a season ago and turned 38 double plays.
VCU also returns veteran first baseman Brent Mikionis, who started 54 games in 2012 after missing much of 2011 with an injury. The addition of junior transfers Trevor Marino and Tom Crimi, and the return of senior Cody Yount, will allow the coaching staff some flexibility at first base.
Marino and Crimi will also provide depth in the middle infield and give VCU's coaching staff the added ability to shift lineups.
BEHIND THE PLATE
With the departure of Nick Abrahamson and Taylor Perkins, the Rams will have a trio of players vying for the starting catcher position. Returning junior Chris Ayers, who saw action in 53 games in 2012, is battling with incoming junior Nick Octavi and freshman Walker Haymaker for the starting nod.
Ayers, the only returning player with catching experience, spent the majority of last season as the Rams' DH, and hit .302 with 12 doubles, a triple, two home runs and 37 RBIs. The Chesterfield, Va. native has worked on the defensive part of his game this offseason, and has improved tremendously.
Octavi and Haymaker add defensive depth behind the plate. Octavi was named Junior College Defensive Player of the Year in Maryland a season ago, while Haymaker possesses a strong throwing arm.
THE PITCHING STAFF
VCU's pitching staff is perhaps the epitome of the mixture of old and new. The Rams lost nearly 60 percent of their innings pitched from 2012 (312 1/3) but also return a pair of arms from their weekend rotation - senior Ryan Farrar (pictured left)and sophomore Heath Dwyer.
The Black and Gold will lean heavily on Farrar, who is poised to be the opening day starter. Farrar, a local product from Mechanicsville, Va., started 14 games last year and finished with a 3.67 ERA in 88 1/3 innings pitched (second-most on the team). He also limited opposing hitters to a .265 batting average with 64 strikeouts.
"Farrar was very consistent for us last year and we are expecting big things out of him not only as a pitcher, but as a leader," said Stiffler.
Dwyer will also fill a role in the Rams' weekend rotation. The Chandler, Ariz. native made 10 starts and logged a 4.55 ERA during his rookie campaign in 2012, while opponents hit just .257 against the southpaw.
"Heath showed signs of brilliance for us last year and is one of the most deceiving pitchers we have," Stiffler said. "He really dedicated himself to getting better this offseason and has gotten stronger at it is showing in practice."
Entering the season, it appears the final spot in the weekend rotation will belong to incoming junior Tyler Buckley. Buckley comes to VCU after an impressive season at Lackawanna Junior College in Pennsylvania, where he helped lead the Falcons to the JUCO World Series. He finished the 2012 season 10-1 with a 1.84 ERA in 78 innings. Buckley also struck out 68 batters en route to a Junior College All-America citation.
The Rams' mid-week rotation and bullpen will likely feature a combination of newcomers, returners and two-way players. Juniors Seth Green and Logan Kanuik, as well as freshman Michael Thomas are battling for spots.
VCU will have added depth in its bullpen with the freshmen trio of Dan Black, Hunter Absher and Michael Carpenter. Left-handed junior specialist Bryce Lee as well as primary infielders Weymouth and Marino will provided depth to the pen as well.