Jan. 28, 2011
By Jon Cooper
– The sound of ball hitting bat resonated from Russ Chandler Stadium.
It was a beautiful sound.
The first contact of the year, combined with temperatures nearing 60 degrees and bright sunshine was a treat for the senses. It was especially sweet considering that not long ago the only sound heard around the stadium was that of shovels against ice on the sidewalk.
Yes, the calendar still reads January, but the crack of the bat and the thud of the mitt is sure a sure sign that Spring is near.
That means a new season of Georgia Tech baseball and a new team. For the Yellow Jackets, it’s newer than usual. New to the tune of some 17 freshmen, six of whom may be expected to start. They’ll try to spackle the holes left by a school-record-tying 10 players selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Draft, nine of whom signed contracts (seven of them underclassmen).
But new faces aren’t going to change the way head coach Danny Hall heads into the season or his expectations for the team once they get into it.
“My expectations never change,” said Hall, who begins his 18th season at the helm. “I said when I came here, our expectation is to get to Omaha every year, hopefully have a chance to compete for a National Championship. That never changes. The groups change but expectations don’t. So I’m very enthusiastic about this team. We definitely have work to do. This is a team that will have to get better as we play but I see no reason to think that we can’t compete at a high level.”
“I think we definitely have a lot of good, young, talent,” he added. “The thing that those guys lack is experience. But they do have a lot of talent. I’ve been very pleased with every one of these guys and look forward to working with them and seeing how they develop throughout the year. I’m very pleased with their talent level.”
Among the talent are catcher Zane Evans, expected to be the first freshman to start behind the plate since Jason Varitek.
Being lassoed in with Varitek doesn’t throw the youngster. Nor does having to meet the expectations of excellence synonymous with Tech.
“I’m excited, I just can’t wait. I’m ready to play,” said the Roswell, Ga. native and Roswell High School grad. “We’re all a little nervous but we’re excited to get out here and try to help the team out. There are 17 freshmen, so we’re excited for this year and the years to come.”
It’s not that they’re thinking past the opening games against Kent State. They’re just eager to play ball.
“The freshmen, we bring a whole lot of energy,” said Macon, Ga., native and Tattnall Square Academy grad, DeAndre Smelter, likely to start in the outfield, although he’s also a right-handed pitcher. “Of course the upperclassmen have done this before. So they’ve got experience. The two combinations can be a deadly thing.”
Pollsters certainly think so. The Yellow Jackets were picked second in the ACC Coastal Division in the preseason coaches poll and 19th nationally by Collegiate Baseball and ESPN/USA Today. To Hall, that speaks about reputation.
“I guess people still think we’re pretty good even though we lost a lot of people,” he said, with a laugh. “That’s all it means. We haven’t fallen off the radar, so that’s good. But it doesn’t really mean anything. You have to play and settle all the games on the field.”
Hall is excited to see how it plays out, of course, but is concerned about how eager some squads are to call out his young team.
“[Kent State head coach and former Tech assistant under Hall] Scott Stricklin and I kind of talked about scheduling and after we basically agreed to play each other, he goes, ‘I think it will be the best team that I’ve ever had,'” said Hall, adding with a laugh, “Then, ‘Oh, by the way, the pitcher that we’ll throw on Friday night, I think is a first-round pick.’
“St. John’s doesn’t call us that often so they called about playing,” he continued. “I noticed that they’re ranked (the Red Storm sits at No. 26 in the Collegiate Baseball poll). I noticed that they took [ACC Coastal Preseason No. 1) Virginia deep into the regionals last spring and they have their top three starting pitchers back and they have a freshman All-American (outfielder Jeremy Baltz) back who hit 24 home runs. When people call you, I guess I need to be a little leery that maybe they know something that I don’t know. But I think it’s great. I think it will be great competition. We need to play as good people as we can play early to get ready for that opening weekend in the ACC.”