Will Pack's inexeperience hurt them in WAC baseball chase?

RENO - Gary Powers isn't quite sure if the Nevada Wolf Pack baseball team's glass is half empty or half full entering the 2011 season.

"We have a solid, experienced nucleus coming back, no question," Powers said. "But we also have a large inexperience factor. We do have a good group of returning players who have had success. But we also have a huge factor of inexperience, guys who have to be significant contributors for us this year."

Gone from a year ago are 15 players who began the season with the Wolf Pack. Many of the missing names were a big reason why the Wolf Pack won 26 of its final 39 games a year ago to finish with its most victories (36-22-1) in a season since the 2000 team ended up 38-19.

"Hopefully we can start this year the way we ended up last year," said Powers, whose Wolf Pack will open the season Friday at UC Irvine.

Powers, who has a record of 856-674-5 over 28 seasons as the Pack coach, will have to find replacements for starters Kevin Rodland (shortstop), Shaun Kort (first base), Cullen Mahoney (second base), Westley Moss (center field) and pitchers Chris Garcia (starter), Jesse Rasner (set-up) and Tyler Graham (closer) as well as versatile and valuable utility player Nick Leid.

"We are going to have to look to our veteran guys for leadership early in the season as our young players try to fit in," Powers said.

That leadership comes in the form of three powerful bats (Nick Melino, Brock Stassi, Brian Barnett) and three talented arms (Stassi, Jeremy Cole and Tom Jameson) in the starting rotation.

"The middle of our order is our strength," Powers said.

Melino, who hit seven homers and drove in 35 runs, led the Pack last year with a .388 batting average. Stassi hit .364 with five triples, nine homers and 42 RBI. Barnett, a former standout at McQueen High and Western Nevada College, led the team with 18 homers and 71 RBI and also hit .348.

"We're going to swing it well," said Barnett, a senior.

"It's nice to be in the lineup with those guys," said Stassi. "You know one of us each time through the order is going to get a fastball we can drive."

All three complement each other well.

The right-handed Barnett is as powerful a hitter as you'll find in the Western Athletic Conference, Melino is a switch-hitter who is on pace to finish among the top 10 hitters in school history, and the left-handed Stassi is as talented an all-around player as you'll also find in the country.

"They all have different attributes, one is right-handed, one is left-handed and one is a switch-hitter," said Powers, whose team was picked by the league's coaches to finish third in the WAC this year. "All can hit for average and all of them can hit the ball out of the park."

Stassi, last year's WAC Pitcher of the Year, was 7-4 with a 3.43 earned run average a year ago. Cole, a senior this year like Stassi, was 4-3 with a 4.95 ERA and Jameson blossomed as a freshman to go 6-1 with a 3.84 ERA.

The only issues with those three are their health and mental outlook.

Stassi is dealing with lingering shoulder soreness that he also had to overcome last year and Cole, Powers said, might not be in good enough shape to start the season in the rotation. The 6-foot-6 Jameson, like all freshman phenoms, needs to prove that the final month of last season was not a fluke.

"That was last year," said Jameson, who allowed just one hit in eight innings in a WAC Tournament victory last May. "This is a new year. I can't worry about what happened last year."

That's the attitude Powers wants all his players to carry into the coming year.

"This is the first year in a long time that we have a lot of guys back who had significant success the year before," Powers said. "And all those guys have already done a nice job of taking on a leadership role. Now it's about how the other guys fit around them."

A look at the 2011 Pack baseball team ...

FIRST BASE: Kort is the Pack's all-time leader in games played (234), at-bats (868) and doubles (73). The Pack plans on replacing Kort this year with some combination of Stassi, 5-9 Waylen Sing Chow (.250 in 44 at-bats last year) and 6-foot, 190-pound newcomer Hugo Hernandez (College of the Canyons).

SECOND BASE: Leid, who hit .320 with 20 RBI last year as a junior, and Mahoney, who hit .317 with 24 RBI as a freshman, are gone. That leaves a huge hole and, possibly, a huge problem for the Pack all season long. Powers, ideally, would like freshmen Jake Schu and/or Loren Gardner-Young to take over the position. If that doesn't work out, he is considering moving Barnett from right field back to the infield (he played shortstop in high school and junior college). "If we do that (move Barnett to second), that's the end of that problem," Powers said. "So we'll see."

SHORTSTOP: Kevin Rodland, who hit .256 with 41 RBI and 16 stolen bases a year ago, was the starter at short for the past three seasons. Rodland hit .260 over 160 games with 128 runs scored, 39 doubles, 14 homers and 92 RBI. He also stole 38 bases and made 53 errors in his eventful three seasons. Joe Kohan, a junior, hit .354 in 96 at-bats a year ago and has the inside track to the job.

THIRD BASE: Garrett Yrigoyen, who hit .296 last year with 10 doubles, three homers and 30 RBI, is back for his junior season. "He's gotten stronger and put on about 12 pounds of muscle since last year," said Powers of the 6-2, 200-pounder.

LEFT FIELD: Melino is back for his junior year. The Green Valley High graduate currently ranks fifth on the Wolf Pack's all-time list for career batting average (at least 300 at-bats) at .369. The part-time designated hitter has also made just one error in the outfield in his first two seasons. "He's gotten a lot better out there," Powers said.

CENTER FIELD: Moss manned center field the last two seasons, hitting .293 with a .372 on-base percentage. The speedy Moss had little power (just 20 extra base hits over 399 career at-bats) but he did steal 36 bases and play excellent defense, running down balls hit in the gaps. Powers said sophomore Jamison Rowe, who had just 10 at-bats last year, gets the first crack at the job. Rowe hit a pinch-hit grand slam against Seattle last April 17, accounting for half his hits (two) and all of his home runs (1) and RBI (4) a year ago.

RIGHT FIELD: This is Barnett's home if he isn't needed at second. His 18 homers last year were the most by a Pack player since Shawn Scobee slammed 22 in 2006 and his 71 RBI were the most since Matt Ortiz drove home 76 in 2000. If Barnett heads to the infield, the Pack has a host of freshmen who could see added playing time in the outfield: Curtis Frisbie (Redding, Calif.), Tommy Niebergall (Portland) and Damonte Ranch High graduate Anthony Rosa. Sing Chow can also play the outfield.

CATCHER: Sophomore Carlos Escobar and junior Michael Turay are expected to see most of the playing time once again. Escobar hit .238 with five homers and 14 RBI last year and Turay finished at .189 with one homer and 13 RBI.

PITCHING: Jameson, Stassi and Cole are expected to anchor the starting rotation. Powers also will need to find a replacement in the rotation for departed senior Chris Garcia, who was 6-3 with a 5.07 ERA a year ago. The other key losses from the pitching staff are closer Tyler Graham (10 saves in 23 games), set-up men Jesse Rasner (3.43 in 17 games), Jerad Harvey (3.86 in 10 games) and Anthony Fagan (5.59 in nine games) and spot starter Beau Witsoe (5.74 in 17 games).

Returners Matt Keplinger (6.92 in 17 games), Tyler Rogstad (six games), Bryan Suarez (injured most of 2010), Trent Soares (one game), Rickey Denham (nine games), Jayson McClaren (15 games, 11.39) and Carson High graduate Matt Rutledge (has not appeared in a game for the Pack) will compete for innings.

The Pack also added a host of juniors (Derek Allen, Jacob Overbay, Timothy Culligan, Elliot Van Gaver, Mark Joukoff and Troy Marks) as well as a pair of freshmen (Braden Shipley and Sean Prihar) to the mix.

Overbay is the brother of former Pack outfielder Lyle Overbay, Prihar is a Damonte Ranch High graduate and Shipley could also see time in the infield.

OVERALL OUTLOOK: There is a lot of hope and promise surrounding the Wolf Pack this season.

"The conference is loaded this year so it's going to be tough," said Powers, who guided his team to a second place finish (14-9-1) in the WAC last year. "Every team has a lot of experience back from last year. So we have a lot of work to do."

The goal, obviously, is to get back to the NCAA regionals for the first time since 2000. The Pack went to four regionals (1994, 1997, 1999, 2000) in seven seasons but has yet to return since joining the WAC in 2001.

The Wolf Pack will play the 2011 and 2012 in the WAC before making the jump to the Mountain West Conference in 2013.

"We have real high expectations this year," said Stassi, whose father Jim hit .381 in two seasons (1981, 82) for the Pack. "We see all the banners from the teams in the 1990s. There's a lot of tradition here. Hopefully we can add to that tradition."


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