Feb. 11, 2004
Throughout his tenure at Siena, Tony Rossi has become accustomed to winning and winning on a regular basis. Last year with the task of replacing one of the most successful classes in school history, Rossi's young but talented Saints responded by posting a winning conference record, but narrowly missed out on qualifying for the MAAC Tournament. After a season of learning on the job, last year's kryptonite an inexperienced and green team (four freshmen started), has turned into this year's strength. Eight starters along with a deep and talented pitching staff return from a club that flashed signs of brilliance during 2003.
If there was any facet that kept the Saints competitive throughout 2003 it was their pitching. "Overall if our pitching is healthy we'll be alright. Last year they were the strength of our team and provided they stay healthy we know they'll do the job and put us in great shape to accomplish our goals," declared Rossi. Led by the efficient Ryan Bitter and a solid bullpen, Siena will again rest heavily on their mound corps.
After transferring to Siena from San Diego Mesa Junior College, Bitter erupted onto the scene by dominating MAAC opponents. As the season progressed the 6-1 right-hander was nearly untouchable as he recorded five shutouts during his last seven games (all MAAC contests) and finished with an overall record of 6-6 (3.51 ERA). For his efforts he was one of only two pitchers in the conference to earn First Team All-MAAC status. When asked about Bitter's success, the veteran Head Coach states: "Ryan is a guy who is always under control and throws only as hard as he needs to, in many respects he pitches like a college version of Greg Maddux."
After suffering a season ending injury during 2003, red-shirt sophomore Ken Grant looks to give a strong staff another lethal element. Grant, who warranted Honorable Mention Freshmen All-American status (Louisville Slugger) will be worked along slowly and will probably begin the season as a one or two inning hurler. The hope with the talented and lanky right-hander is that his arm strength will be strong enough to allow him to move into the number two-spot in time for MAAC play.
Senior Josh Copskey, who has served as a weekend starter during each of his first three seasons will try to work his way around a pre-season injury. Copskey is coming off a difficult junior year that saw him experience bouts of wildness. During his first two seasons in Loudonville the righty walked just 31 in 151 innings in becoming an important cog in the Saints staff.
Southpaw John Lannan will also have an opportunity to crack the conference rotation after finishing up his rookie campaign strong. Lanan was fourth on the squad with a 5.44 ERA last season and was handed the ball in the Saints' critical series finale with archrival LeMoyne when Bitter was unavailable. He responded brilliantly, and the staff is high on his potential.
The emergence of talented freshman Trevor Reid, will be one to monitor during 2004. Reid could secure a starting job but his status will depend primarily on the needs of the pitching staff. His versatility will make for one of his most valuable commodities, as he is comfortable as a starter as well as a reliever.
Coming off a solid fall Josh Burnett will also try to place himself into the starting equation. After receiving mound time during his first two seasons at Siena, the staff feels as though Burnett, a native of nearby Delmar, might on the verge of a breakthrough season. Equipped with good velocity and a decent breaking ball, the junior looks to push himself into more consistent action in 2004. During his first two seasons Burnett has appeared in eight games, starting four times while compiling a record of 1-3.
Recently the catching position has been one of Siena's strongest and most transient positions. During the last three years the Saints have watched Bill Cilento hand the duties over to Jim Buckley who last year passed the torch to Matt Mueller. Following the graduation of Mueller that trend will continue this season. Rossi is banking on a pair of sophomores Eric Hildenbrand and Brian Schmotzer to pick up the slack in 2004. Hildenbrand, who is probably the better of the two defensively, appeared in 24 games last year and will get the first crack behind the dish. The sophomore who hit .192 as a freshman has shown great strides offensively as he was one of the team's better hitters during the Fall season.
Schmotzer isn't relegated to the backstop as last year he platooned between first base, DH and catcher in an attempt to get his bat into the lineup. During his rookie season the Ohio native, hit a solid .247 while knocking in 23 runs. Despite their hitting prowess, the pair's chief responsibility could be handling one of the conference's deepest pitching staffs. "They will have to jump right into the fire, and obviously the key to catching is defense", stressed Rossi.
The key to Siena's season could rest in the hands of a veteran infield that returns a group of players who have done nothing but start during their tenure in Loudonville. Blake Hanan, Kevin Roberts and Tony Cipolla return for their fourth year as starters and sophomore Bill Lazio will likely get the nod at first base.
"You always like when you have three, four-year starters returning; they are the core of the team not only defensively but offensively as well," commented Rossi. The keystone combination of Hanan and Roberts gives the Saints one of the best middle infields in the MAAC and helps set the stage for a defense that should augment the Saints' deep pitching staff.
Roberts gives the Saints a switch-hitting look and improved on his power numbers in 2003 belting a career-high five home runs while driving in 19 runs. The Saints starting second basemen who has grown accustomed to leading off, very well could find himself in the middle of a revamped Saints attack. Roberts, once again prepared for his collegiate season by participating for the NECBL's (New England Collegiate Baseball League) Newport Gulls. Defensively the Green and Gold will once again count on the chemistry that has allowed Roberts and Hannan to be among the school's greatest double-play tandems ever.
Hannan should also see his name penciled in the middle of the Saints' nine despite coming off an up-and-down junior season in which he set a career high with four home runs. In addition to providing Siena with some pop in the middle of the order, he also is a great base-runner who is a threat to break anytime he is on base.
Tony Cipolla returns for his final season at the hot corner. Last year Cipolla was not only the most consistent Saint offensively, he was also among the team's best in batting average (.279) and run production (27 RBI). The four-year starter should surface in the middle of the Saints' batting order where he has the ability to provide some power when needed. He enters this season with 11 career home runs. Defensively, Cipolla provides the Saints with great instincts at a position where the skill of anticipation might be second to none.
Bill Lazio hopes for a better bill of health in his sophomore season. After tearing it up during both the fall and preseason workouts last year, Lazio suffered a season-ending hamstring injury on March 30. He possesses terrific offensive skills highlighted by his bat speed and overall quickness. If needed, the native of Ohio can also make the transition to the outfield where he saw playing time as a freshmen. Another player who could see action at first base if Lazio does indeed make the transition to outfield is catcher Brian Schmotzer who will split time behind the plate, at first and DH.
Junior College transfer Shawn Hampton had a solid debut in 2003 tying for the team lead in batting (.279), and RBI (27) while finishing second in home runs (5). However, Rossi thinks that Hampton has only scratched the surface. "He's a quality player who possesses one of the quickest bats on team. If he can explode offensively for us it would be awfully big", states Rossi. In the field Hampton is a versatile player who will see time not only in the outfield but possibly at first base as well as DH. Noted as an extremely hard worker, if Hampton can get hot offensively it could change the entire dynamic of the Saints' lineup.
Enhancing Hampton's presence in the outfield will be Fairfield transfer Greg Batista who made his way to Siena at the outset of the spring semester. Batista gives the Saints another gifted hitter who should see immediate playing time. The junior led the Stags in batting during 2003 (.302), home runs (7) and RBI (31).
Also factoring into the outfield mix are returning starters Matt Gidaly and Scott King. Both earned starting roles as freshmen and bring very different talents to the field. King, who started in right field arrived at Siena with great offensive credentials. The former Most Outstanding Player in Suffolk County (Long Island) showed signs of his potential throughout 2003 and will be counted on to have a big year. When needed to, King can also provide the Saints with another right-handed hurler as he saw mound time last year.
Gidaly brings tremendous speed and athleticism to the center field position. Regarded as a "great defensive outfielder" by Rossi, Gidaly has showed signs of improvement at the plate during the preseason.
Providing depth in the outfield will be Chris Mahoney as well as Luis Khoury, who could also see action in the outfield when he isn't on the mound.
Anywhere at anytime continues to be the mantra expressed by the Siena baseball team and that again will be the school's scheduling philosophy during 2004. What this season's schedule lacks in household names (Florida State, Florida) it makes up for in both quantity and quality of opponent. On February 21, Tony Rossi's Saints will begin the season against perennial Conference USA threat North Carolina-Charlotte. Six days later the Saints will make their way out to the Bayou for three games against the University of New Orleans, and two with Sun-Belt powerhouse Louisiana-Lafayette. The Green and Gold conclude their spring break excursion with a three-game set against the always-strong Jaguars of South Alabama. The highlight of the non-conference schedule takes place when the Saints venture to Rocky Top and a three-game series against the nationally ranked Tennessee Volunteers.
Siena rounds out the remainder of its non-conference schedule with tradition rivals Pennsylvania, Wagner, Long Island, Holy Cross, Hofstra, Quinnipiac, Vermont, Binghamton, Dartmouth, New York Tech, Cornell, Massachusetts and Army. As always, the Saints will be tested in conference play and will battle for the top spot against the likes of defending champion Lemoyne, Manhattan, Marist and Niagara. But, "every game in the MAAC is a war," according to Rossi. A year later and equipped with an additional season of experience, the 2004 Saints should be prepared to meet the challenge of another daunting slate.