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Unfinished Business

A year after 50 wins, the ACC regular season and tournament championships and a NCAA Regional title, Georgia Tech returns nearly its entire team intact for a run at the College World Series in 2001.

The Yellow Jackets made their point. A year after missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years, Georgia Tech’s baseball team responded with 50 wins, the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and tournament championships, and a NCAA Regional title in 2000.

Tech was an offensive juggernaut, batting a school-record .342 as a team. The pitching staff was the deepest in the last seven years and posted the best team earned run average since 1994.

But despite it all, Georgia Tech failed to reach its ultimate goal of advancing to Omaha and the College World Series last spring. And now in 2001, head coach Danny Hall has assembled what could be his deepest and most talented team in his eight years at the helm of the Tech program as he looks to lead the Yellow Jackets to the promised land of college baseball.

The numbers alone are staggering. All nine of Tech’s everyday starters return for 2001, including the National Player of the Year in junior third baseman Mark Teixeira. The Yellow Jackets return 98 percent of their hits and runs, and 99 percent of their home runs, RBI and stolen bases. Add in leadoff specialist Matthew Boggs, who missed all of the 2000 season with an elbow injury, and those numbers are even higher.

Hall’s pitching staff returns six of its top eight performers from a year ago. The Yellow Jackets must account for the loss of all-America hurler Cory Vance, but Tech welcomes to the program junior Brian Sager, who posted a 12-1 record as a member of Stanford’s starting rotation over the last two years.

On paper, the Yellow Jackets appear nearly invincible. But they don’t hand out ACC and National Championships based on pre-season expectations.

‘I know that our club will be ranked high in the preseason and we are going to be one of the favorites in the ACC,’ said Hall, who is 303-130 in seven years as Tech’s skipper. ‘But I think the biggest thing for us, and it’s a thing that we learned last year, is that you have to bring a good effort and a great attitude every day that you come to the park. We have to get that same attitude that we had last year where nobody cares who is getting all the hits or who is making all the pitches, and do the little things on a daily basis that are going to improve you as a player and help us win games.

‘That’s all about chemistry and all about attitude,’ Hall continued. ‘If we come with the attitude that we are going to try to get better every day and that the nine or 10 guys that are playing work very hard to get the job done, then I think that we are going to have another great year. On paper we look great. But just because you are talented on paper doesn’t automatically make you a great team.’

Hall enters the 2001 season with the good problem of trying to find a spot in the lineup for an extremely deep team. In addition to Teixeira, the Yellow Jackets return all-American junior second baseman Richard Lewis and two first-team All-ACC performers in senior catcher Bryan Prince and senior outfielder Jason Basil. Tech also returns senior starters Derik Goffena (designated hitter) and Brad Stockton (outfield), juniors Victor Menocal (shortstop) and Wes Rynders (center field) and the sophomroe first base platoon of Jason Perry and Tyler Parker.

But Tech also welcomes Boggs back to active duty after missing all of the 2000 season while recovering from elbow surgery. A pesky hitter who always finds a way to get on base, Hall will certainly try to find a spot for Boggs in the everyday lineup.

‘Boggs is going to be our leadoff hitter, and in my opinion he’s one of the top leadoff hitters in the country,’ said Hall. ‘I’ll probably move Lewis down to the two-hole, although I though he did a great job as our leadoff hitter last year when Boggs whet down. But I think that Boggs is the kind of guy that can set the table for Lewis, and Lewis can set the table for Teixeira, and so on down the line. The good thing for the guys in the middle of the order is that we have two guys like Boggs and Lewis who can hit, get on base, run and steal bases, and put some pressure on our opponents.’

And of course Tech welcomes in another outstanding crop of freshmen, many of whom will push some veterans for playing time.

‘We have a lot of guys that are capable of playing, and if you look at our team I think that you could make a lineup out of 12 or 13 guys who deserve to play,’ said Hall. ‘But only nine of them are going to get into the lineup on a given day. That means that there are going to have to be two or three guys each day that are going to have to bite the bullet, keep the team in focus, and know that they are going to eventually get their chance to play.’

And with a new 5,000 seat, state of the art stadium on the horizon for the 2002 season, the future of Georgia Tech baseball appears brighter than ever before.

A position by position look at the 2001 Yellow Jackets:

Pichers

Although Hall must replace last year’s staff ace Cory Vance, Tech does return two of its three weekend starters from last season in junior right handers Steve Kelly (Fairfield, Ohio) and Rhett Parrott (Dalton, Ga.). Those two will be counted on to be the anchors of the starting rotation in 2001, and expected to join them in the rotation is junior righty Brian Sager (Branford, Conn.), a transfer from Stanford University who is eligible immediately.

Kelly, who went 8-2 with a 4.73 ERA in 83.2 innings last spring, was one of Tech’s most consistent pitchers in the second half of 2000 when he posted a 7-1 record in his final 10 starts. He enjoyed an impressive summer in the Cape Cod League, where he was voted as one of the league’s top prospects, and was the Yellow Jackets’ top pitcher in the fall.

Parrott took firm control of the No. 2 spot in the weekend rotation last season, and finished the year with an 8-3 record and a 4.48 ERA in 88.1 innings. One of the hardest throwers on the Tech staff, Parrott has all the tools to be a dominant pitcher in the ACC. In two starts last year against powerhouses Florida State and Miami, Parrott allowed just two runs in 14.1 innings while registering 17 strikeouts.

Sager, who went 6-1 with a 5.18 ERA as Stanford’s No. 3 starter last season, posted a 12-1 record in two years as a member of Stanford’s starting rotation. He was the Cardinal’s winning pitcher in the championship game of both the NCAA Regionals and NCAA Super Regionals last season, and brings with him a wealth of big-game experience.

‘I think that Kelly, Parrott and Sager would be our weekend starters as it stands today,’ said Hall. ‘But I don’t think that it has been determined what order they would go in. All three are outstanding pitchers and all three are going to go very high in the draft.

‘Obviously Kelly and Parrott have been around our team and they know what to expect, but Sager comes from a great program like Stanford and he has been in their starting rotation. I think we have three experienced weekend starters, and those three guys are quality pitchers.’

Sophomore right hander Philip Perry (Marietta, Ga.) enjoyed a highly-successful rookie campaign and could put pressure on Kelly, Parrott and Sager for a spot in the weekend rotation. More likely, however, he will get the nod for the important non-conference, midweek matchups. Perry posted a 4-0 record and one save in 15 games last spring with a sparkling 2.93 ERA. Even more impressively, Perry held opponents to just 28 hits in 43 innings, just a .179 average.

‘Philip Perry came on at the end of last season, and he pitched a great game against Florida State in the ACC Tournament,’ said Hall. ‘Right now I’d say that he is our No. 4 starter, and I look for him to put a lot of pressure on the first three guys. But we know for sure that he’ll be starting those big midweek games.’

Leading the way out of the bullpen is a pair of righties in sophomore Jeff Watchko (Roswell, Ga.) and senior Andy Mitchell (Conyers, Ga.). Last year, the duo combined for a 8-1 record and 11 saves while working the late innings of ball games.

Watchko stepped into the closer’s role last year and produced immediate results, posting a 3.38 ERA in 58.2 innings of work. His poise on the mound in pressure situations, combined with his ability to throw three pitches for strikes, gives him all the tools to be an outstanding closer, and Hall plans to continue to use him in that role this season.

Mitchell, who is 7-1 with five saves in 46 career appearances, gives Tech a wealth of experience out of the bullpen. The senior sidewinder, who had a 4.84 ERA in 49 innings last season, has the ability to be especially tough on right-handed batters.

‘I see Jeff Watchko staying right where he is as our closer,’ said Hall. ‘He handles pressure very well, he is a strike thrower, and he has good stuff. Andy Mitchell may have been the most improved guy on our pitching staff during fall practice. I think we have a very good one-two punch at the end of the bullpen with two guys who can come into a game and shut it down.’

Junior Kevin Cameron (Joilet, Ill.), Tech’s main middle relief man from last year, also returns after going 5-2 with one save in 49 innings while posting a 4.41 ERA. The right-hander, who may well have the best ‘stuff’ on the staff, will again see plenty of innings out of the bullpen and could also be a candidate for some mid-week starting assignments.

‘Kevin Cameron is the kind of guy that can help us in a number of different areas,’ said Hall. ‘He was very effective out of the bullpen last season, but I also think that he could come in and do a very fine job as a weekday starter if we need him in that capacity.’

Hall welcomes five other newcomers to the pitching staff this season, and a number of those rookies have a chance to contribute immediately. Leading the way is 6’9′ freshman southpaw Kyle Bakker (Omaha, Neb.), who was very impressive during fall practice. The coaching staff likes Bakker’s deception on the mound as well as his ability to throw strikes, and he has a chance to push for significant innings right away as a midweek starter or out of the bullpen. Another rookie southpaw, Aaron Walker (East Palestine, Ohio), has very good movement on his pitches and will likely be used as a setup man against lefty batters.

A trio of right-handers also join the mix. Freshmen Brian Burks (Alpharetta, Ga.) and Matt Lorenzo (Hartville, Ohio) both had very solid performances in fall practice, while sophomore John Berthelsen (Alpharetta, Ga.) will make his debut this spring after walking on to the squad midway through last season.

‘I think that we have some young pitchers that are going to make some great setup guys,’ said Hall. ‘If Kyle Bakker is not starting games, then I think that he would make a great setup man. Matt Lorenzo and Brian Burks are two guys that I felt had great falls and could be used in a setup role. Aaron Walker has very good stuff and could help us as a situational guy to come in and get left handed hitters out, while John Berthelsen is a guy that works very hard and has the chance to be a major contributor in our program down the road. All told, from one through 10 or 11, I think we have a very deep pitching staff.’

Catchers

Tech enters the 2001 season with the luxury of quality depth behind the plate. Senior Bryan Prince (Ft. Oglethorpe, Ga.) established himself as one of the top backstops in the ACC and the nation last season and is a candidate for All-America honors this spring. Prince, who was charged with the responsibility of batting behind Teixeira for the majority of the season, emerged as one of the Yellow Jackets’ best clutch hitters. He batted .387 with seven home runs and 77 RBI and was an ironman behind the plate, starting 52 games. But what makes him such a good catcher, in addition to his timely hitting, is his ability to handle the Tech pitching staff.

Pushing Prince for playing time will be the talented sophomore Tyler Parker (Marietta, Ga.). An all-star candidate in his own right, Parker blasted 11 homers and drove in 41 runs as a rookie last season. Parker was the primary backup to Prince last season, starting 12 games behind the plate, while also seeing time at first base and as the designated hitter. He spent the summer playing for the Wareham Gatemen in the Cape Cod League where he was voted as the starting catcher in the Cape Cod League All-Star game after batting .272 with 10 doubles while also stealing 18 bases.

‘I think we are in the fortunate position of having two great catchers,’ said Hall. ‘Bryan Prince was voted as our team co-MVP last season and it was deserved not only because of what he contributed offensively, but because of how he handled out pitching staff and all the little things that he does behind the plate. Bryan had the responsibility of batting behind Mark Teixeira all of last year, and the way the he handled that situation says a lot about him as a player and as a person.’

‘That being said, I think we also have a great catcher in Tyler Parker,’ said Hall. ‘I would expect that Tyler will catch a little more this year then he did last year. He had a great summer in the Cape and he had a great fall. There is some great competition between the two players, and that’s certainly a good problem to have.’

Senior Jason Basil (West Chester, Ohio), who has entrenched himself in the Tech outfield, was rec-ruited as a catcher and has seen time behind the plate in his first three seasons. Freshman Kevin Gergel (Marietta, Ga.), who can also play first base, adds even more depth at the position and adds another left handed bat to the bench.

‘It’s nice to have two guys like Jason Basil and Kevin Gergel behind those first two,’ said Hall. ‘On a lot of other teams either Jason or Kevin would get a lot more playing time, but we’re in the fortunate position to have some quality depth behind the plate.’

Infielders

Three of the four infield positions have veteran starters returning, with only first base up for grabs in the preseason. Mark Teixeira (Severna Park, Md.), who has been decorated with more awards in his first two seasons than any other player in school history, will start at third base. The ACC and National Player of the Year in 2000, the switch-hitter led the ACC in batting (.427), home runs (18), runs scored (104), walks (67), on base percentage (.547) and slugging percentage (.772). And already recognized as one of the premier hitters in the country, Teixeira has worked hard to improve his defense in each of the last two seasons.

‘What can you say about Mark Teixeira?’ said Hall. ‘He’s done everything that you could possibly ask a guy to do. He continues to get better offensively and he continues to work hard to be an outstanding defensive third baseman. He’s a guy that our players look to for leadership both on and off the field, and I expect him to have another great year. He never ceases to amaze me.’

The remainder of the left side of the infield will be patrolled by junior shortstop Victor Menocal (Gainesville, Ga.). Menocal, who has been Tech’s starting shortstop since the day he arrived on campus two years ago, was the most improved player on the Yellow Jackets’ roster last spring. After struggling at the plate and in the field as a freshman, he established himself as one of the best shortstops in the ACC last year with his timely hitting and dazzling defense.

‘Victor Menocal has continued to get better,’ said Hall. ‘He played a lot as a freshman, worked hard in the off season, and came back with an outstanding season last year. He’s an even better player now than he was at any point last year, and I think he’s ready to have a monster year.’

Junior Richard Lewis (Marietta, Ga.) returns as Tech’s starting second baseman after manning the position for the last year and a half. Lewis, a second-team all-American and first-team all-ACC honoree last season, emerged as one of the top hitters in the conference last season. He finished the 2000 season with a .398 batting average, but his average hovered near the .500 mark as late as mid April. An excellent all-around athlete and one of the fastest players on the Tech squad, Lewis is second to none in terms of his defensive abilities around second base.

‘Richard Lewis is an all-America and a great second baseman,’ said Hall. ‘He’s going to be a very high draft pick, and in my opinion he’s a guy that can play in the Major Leagues. I also have a lot of confidence that he could get over there and play shortstop if we needed him to do so.’

Hall’s lone question mark on the infield heading into the season is at first base, where as many as three different players could wind up as the starter. Senior Derik Goffena (Sidney, Ohio), who hit .301-4-56 last year, started 25 games at first base last season and has been a regular in the Tech lineup since his freshman year in 1998. Also competing for time here is a pair of sophomores in the left-handed hitting Jason Perry (Jonesboro, Ga.) and the righty Parker.

While Goffena settled into the role of designated hitter for much of the second half of the 2000 season, Perry and Parker platooned at first base. Perry, who missed much of the first half of the season with a broken wrist, came on strong during the second half of the year and finished .291-4-12 while fancying some skillful glovework at first base. Parker, who will surely figure into Hall’s plans behind the plate, was a fine defensive first baseman in his own right.

‘First base is a log jam,’ said Hall. ‘But if I had to name a starter right now, I’d probably go with Jason Perry based on the way that he played in the fall. He swung the bat very well and hit left-handers very well, too. He came on strong late in the year, and I think he’s very comfortable at first base.

‘But we also have Tyler Parker and Derik Goffena sitting right there,’ Hall continued. ‘Parker split some time with Perry at first base last year, and Goffena had been a major contributor to our program over the last three years. So we have some options at first base.’

Sophomore Davis Myers (Duluth, Ga.) and freshman Cameron Lane (Columbus, Ga.) add depth at the middle infield positions, and both have the versatility to play second base or shortstop. Myers saw action in 21 games a year ago and proved to be a more than capable back-up.

‘I’ve made Davis Myers my utility guy,’ said Hall. ‘He has the ability to play either second base or shortstop and I have no problems putting him out there.’

Junior college transfer Brian Jackson (Tifton, Ga.) is an outfielder by trade, but has the skills and experience to play third base if needed. Freshman Kevin Gergel (Marietta, Ga.) adds depth at first base.

Outfielders

Hall enters the 2001 season with a number of different options in the outfield as the Yellow Jackets return all three starters from last season and add several new faces into the mix. Basil, the ACC’s leader in RBI last season with 83, was recruited to Tech as a catcher but has established himself as an everyday player in the outfield. Basil was the Jackets’ starter in left field last season, but Hall plans to use him in right field this spring to better take advantage of his strong arm. Basil was perhaps the hottest hitter in all of college baseball at the end of last season, finishing the year by earning MVP honors at the ACC Tournament and posting a .382 final batting average with 15 home runs and 25 doubles.

‘Jason Basil really impressed me with his ability to play left field last year,’ said Hall. ‘He worked very hard to make himself into a very good defensive out-fielder. We’ve moved him to right to take advantage of his arm a little bit more, because he has the best outfield arm that we have. His offensive numbers last year we not too far behind those of Mark Teixeira, and he’s proven that he’s a very good offensive player.’

Junior Wes Rynders (Marietta, Ga.) will likely again patrol center field. Rynders struggled at the plate at times last spring, but he more than made up for any offensive deficiencies with his outstanding defense play. A speedy player and a good athlete, Rynders has plenty of range in center field and a more than capable arm.

‘Wes Rynders is as good a center fielder as I have seen in college baseball,’ said Hall. ‘He gets great jumps and makes the tough plays look very easy. Wes has continued to work hard and add strength, and I look for a much better year from him offensively. But I always tell him that I don’t care if he hits .200; as long as he plays defense the way he plays it, he’s going to be our center fielder.’

Much like first base, Hall will have a number of different players to go to in left field. Senior Brad Stockton (Marietta, Ga.), who was Tech’s regular starter in right field last year, will have the early nod in left this spring. Stockton, who hit .342 with seven homers, 22 doubles and 39 RBI in 2000, gives Hall the option to insert another left-handed bat into the lineup and brings leadership and experience.

Also figuring into the plans in left field could be Matthew Boggs (Dalton, Ga.), a junior who redshirted during the 2000 season as he recovered from fall elbow surgery. Boggs, a pesky hitter who is one of the best leadoff men in all of college baseball, is back healthy and could see action in left field, center field, or second base. Whatever position he ends up playing, however, Hall will certainly pencil him in at the top of the lineup on a daily basis.

Other players in the mix for time in left field or at the DH spot are sophomore Jon Henry Kail (Pittsburgh, Pa.) and freshman Matt Murton (McDonough, Ga.). Kail shined in limited duty last season, batting .328 in 64 at bats. He has all the potential and ability to be an outstanding hitter and Hall will likely try to get him into the lineup as often as possible. Murton, an outstanding power prospect, was impressive in fall practice and could push some of the aforementioned veterans for at bats.

‘Left field is a toss-up,’ said Hall. ‘Matthew Boggs could play left field and he is probably the best defensive left fielder. Brad Stockton had a very good year for us last year. Jon Henry Kail is probably the most dangerous hitter and he’s a guy that could put up some big time power numbers. Matt Murton is a freshman who is going to be a great player in our program. So we have three or four guys that are capable of playing there, and it will be up to them to see who is going to establish themselves as the everyday starter.’

Jackson, a transfer from Middle Georgia Junior College, is versatile enough to play either right or left field and could be a factor in the infield as well.

‘Brian Jackson is a kind of guy that you like to have on your team,’ said Hall. ‘I like him at third base, and he can also play the outfield. He’s a player that works hard and loves to play the game.’

Schedule

As is custom, the Yellow Jackets will again take on a schedule that includes the nation’s top opponents. In addition to the usual Atlantic Coast Conference opponents, including 2000 College World Series participants Florida State and Clemson, Tech will face Georgia, Georgia Southern, Auburn, Rice and Nebraska in key non-conference matchups.

In all, Tech has 14 games on the schedule against teams ranked in Baseball America’s and Collegiate Baseball’s pre-season Top 20, and the Yellow Jackets will play 23 games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season.

‘I think our schedule is very tough,’ said Hall. ‘We open up out of the gate with a team like Rice who has been to the World Series recently and a team like Nebraska who just barely missed the World Series last year. Then we go right to Georgia Southern who is going to be loaded and was a team that gave us fits in the NCAA Regional last year. We’ve got two games with Auburn, who is going to be tough. We’ve got a good Rutgers team coming in, and they have been to the NCAA Tournament the last two years.

‘But I hope that our schedule will help prepare us for the ACC season and for the NCAA Regionals, and hopefully it will prepare us for our ultimate goal of playing for a National Championship.’

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