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Fall Ahead

Sept. 25, 2011

By Jon Cooper

– It’s way too early for Georgia Tech Baseball Head Coach Danny Hall to lose sleep over anything baseball-related. The 2012 college baseball schedules haven’t even been released yet.

Yet, Hall, who will mark his 35th year of experience as a baseball coach this year — he has 24 as a head coach, and the last 18 coming at Georgia Tech — was among the ranks of insomniacs watching infomercials in the early morning last Sunday night.

It wasn’t anything that happened on the field that kept him awake. Instead it was something that was about to — the start of Fall Practice.

“It’s kind of funny. I usually sleep well, but for whatever reason, last night I didn’t sleep great,” said Hall, who is 779-349-1 at Georgia Tech (302-167-1 in the ACC), and is 13 wins shy of his 1,000th career win as a head coach. “It must have been in anticipation but it is something that you always look forward to because it’s kind of a new beginning and a new year.”

Sleepless night notwithstanding, the start of Fall Practice is still one of Hall’s favorite times of the year.

“College baseball is very competitive and if you’re not competitive and don’t have passion and drive you’re going to be left behind,” he said. “I’m always excited to get started again with the new group.”

It was a lot newer group last year, when he broke in 17 freshmen, including position players Kyle Wren in center field, Mott Hyde at second base, Zane Evans at catcher, and first baseman/DH Daniel Palka, as well as midweek starter Matthew Grimes. The team not only won 40 games for the 14th time in Hall’s tenure at Tech, but got Hall his 300th ACC win and shared the Coastal Division title with powerful Virginia, which was ranked No. 1 or 2 in the country for most of the season.

Hall is excited to see what happens now that all these freshmen have been through ACC regular-season and postseason play, and NCAA Tournament play, and had a summer to improve themselves in various leagues around the country.

“No question about it. You’ve got Zane, you’ve got Mott, you’ve got Daniel, you’ve Kyle, you’ve even got a guy like Brandon Thomas, who certainly played in a lot of games as a freshman but played in a bunch of games last year,” he said. “To see all those guys with a year under their belt and another summer under their belt, we definitely have much more experience going into the fall this year than we had last year.”

As rewarding as last year was, Hall said it’s important to put it in the rear-view mirror.

“Every year is different,” he said. “So probably be the first thing that we have to do, is we have to forget about last year but we also have to learn from it.”

What Hall needs to learn before embarking on 2012 is who is going to fill some big holes. The team lost its top two starters (Mark Pope and Jed Bradley), as well as shortstop Jacob Esch, who was crucial in settling down the middle infield last season, and third baseman Matt Skole.

The good news is that Tech has a much deeper talent pool from which to choose than last year.

“It always starts with pitching. So if we’ve got good pitching then we have a chance to have a good year,” he said. “Then you kind of figure out what kind of team you’re going to have not only defensively but offensively.”

It’s a lot to replace, but Hyde figures to be more confident in his ability to take over and hold the shortstop position, where he began 2010, and there is no shortage of quality arms battling for positions. Dusty Isaacs was superb over the summer in the Great Lakes Summer League, as was Luke Bard in the Cape Cod League, while DeAndre Smelter showed some power as a closer on the Cape. They are all sophomores. Junior Buck Farmer, who was dominant as last season’s Sunday starter, and pitched one of his best games on Sunday of the Atlanta Regional, keeping Tech alive, also was superb in Cape Cod. Devin Stanton improved over the summer in the Coastal Plain League, and should take on a bigger role as the main lefty out of the ‘pen.

Hall hinted he also might look at Palka, and junior Kyle Davies, who began his career as a lefty reliever.

On the infield, sophomore Alex Cruz (SS/3B) had a superb summer in the Florida Collegiate Summer League, as did sophomore OF/1B Paul Kronenfeld (New England Collegiate Baseball League). Look for junior outfielder Sam Dove to build off of last season and the summer in the Valley Baseball League.

“I followed [the summer leagues] pretty closely,” Hall said. “I saw every day what guys did. It’s kind of what I expected. I felt like we had some good, young pitchers and they all went out and pitched well this summer.”

All last week, and for the coming weeks leading up to the White and Gold World Series at the end of October, it’s a time for guys to show how they have improved and to experiment.

It’s all leading to a bigger goal for Hall, playing better in May and hopefully into June.

“My take on what we need to do to move forward is we need to play better in regionals,” he said. “We’ve been very competitive in the ACC. I think it was a great accomplishment last year to tie Virginia for the regular season championship but we’ve got to take that next step beyond the ACC. It’s not an easy step because there are a lot of good teams at the end of the year that are all fighting for the same thing. But we’ve just got to do a better job of leading and believing in ourselves so that we go play well in those NCAA Regionals.”

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