Red Storm Look To Rebound in 2004

It's like sending a field goal wide to the right or left in the closing seconds of a game. Or a turnover in a key situation late in a game that gives the team leading the ball again with a chance to close out the game.

For the St. John's University baseball team, the last three seasons have been marked by near misses.

One game here, and one game there has left the Red Storm on the outside looking in for a BIG EAST Tournament berth in those seasons.

In 2001, the team finished with a 13-13 record in the always-competitive BIG EAST. But the team lost seven one-run games in league play, as they finished in fifth place.

In 2002, the Red Storm made a furious comeback - winning four of their last six BIG EAST games - and finished the season with a 14-12 mark in the conference. An 11-10 loss to Rutgers in the final game of the season, however, sent St. John's home for the summer.

Last year, it was another season in which the team could look back on just two or three games - one-run and two-run losses, respectively, at Rutgers, and a pair of narrow misses at home to Connecticut and West Virginia - that made the difference.

For a program that has always been among the most competitive in the BIG EAST, it's been three frustrating seasons for St. John's head coach Ed Blankmeyer and the Red Storm.

They enter the 2004 season, however, with a quiet confidence. There's no swagger. There's no signs indicating, 'This is the year.'

There is just a feeling that this year, St. John's will be back in the BIG EAST Tournament and, with that, back in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid.

"The good part about coming into this season is knowing that we didn't lose a bunch of players like we have in the past," said Blankmeyer on his ninth edition of Red Storm baseball. "We've got some guys who have been around the block.

"They haven't tasted what it's like to play in the postseason. They've certainly heard about it from the coaching staff and some of our alums, and they are a very hungry group of baseball players."

Leading the way for the Red Storm this season will be a trio of seniors who have definitely been around the block and, like Blankmeyer, come out to play every day.

Senior co-captains Mike Rozema and Anthony DeRosa, along with senior pitcher Joe Reid - who returns to the team after being drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 2003 Major League Baseball Draft - give Blankmeyer good reason to have confidence in this team. His captains, Rozema and DeRosa, have combined to start nearly 200 games the last three years, while Reid battled back from Tommy John surgery to become one of the most effective starters in the BIG EAST last season.

With three new starters in the lineup, and a deep, but untested, pitching staff, St. John's will enter the 2004 season with a relatively unheralded team, but with more leadership than Blankmeyer has had in his eight-year helm.

"Those three games - Rozema, DeRosa and Reid - are the backbone, and will be, this season," Blankmeyer said. "They may not have the postseason experience some of my other teams have had, but they know how to get it done, and they know what type of attitude to bring to the ball park every day.

"In this league, with teams like Notre Dame, Rutgers and Virginia Tech, you have to be ready."

Last year, Rozema began his third-straight as the starter at shortstop. His first two years had been marked by decent appearances at the plate, and solid defense up the middle.

No one would have expected what was to come, but the junior put up one of the best seasons in school history and one of the best in the country for his position. Rozema led the team in batting with a .408 average, which ranked third in the BIG EAST, and earned first-team all-league honors. Along the way, he earned three citations as a third-team All-American, from the American Baseball Coaches Association, the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and Baseball America. He led the team in several categories, including at-bats (196), runs (44), hits (80) and total bases (106).

Rozema will anchor the St. John's infield, and should form one of the top middle infields in the BIG EAST with junior college transfer P.J. Antoniato. Antoniato, who played shortstop at Briarcliffe Junior College, will move to second.

At first base, sophomore Eddie Schultz, who started 27 games and hit .298 last season, is expected to get the nod. Schultz was somewhat of a surprise last year, but he responded nearly every time the Red Storm needed a key hit, leading the team with 14 doubles. He committed only two errors all season as well, and should see most of the time at first.

Junior Jim Martin started 46 games last year, handling most of the duties at third base. After a stellar freshman season in which he hit .328, Martin, who was sick during the summer of 2003, struggled at the plate, batting only .247. One of the most patient players on the team - he struck out only 21 times last year - Blankmeyer is hoping for Martin to return to the form he showed his freshman season.

Senior Derek Sullivan - who provided one of the highlights of the 2003 season with a walk-off home run against Connecticut - could see time at second, third or short. He had a solid campaign last year after transferring from Sacramento City College, hitting .290 with 10 doubles.

Redshirt Chris Joachim will see time in the corner positions, while freshman Ryan Crespi and junior transfer Matt Robinson will press for time in the infield.

With 95 career starts, DeRosa will lead a young outfield. After a freshman season in 2001 that limited him to only 12 games, DeRosa has combined to hit .325 in the last two seasons with 12 home runs 64 runs batted in. In his final season, Blankmeyer is expecting to pencil DeRosa in the middle of the lineup most days. In his second full season of play last year, DeRosa started 51 of 53 games and batted .312 with six home runs a team-high 34 RBI.

Sophomore Greg Thomson started most of the season in right field last year, but the 5-11 speedster will move to center, taking over the spot left by Bill Graiser. Thomson was decent at the plate last year, batting .287 with six stolen bases. He is a tremendous defensive player and - combined with Rozema and Antoniato in the infield - gives St. John's a strong presence up the middle. Thomson needs to cut down his strikeouts - he had 38 last season - but can hit to the gaps and get on base.

In right field, a group of player will battle for the starting nod. Senior Drew Jackson and junior Blake Hershelman - who could also see time behind the plate - are expected to lead that race. A third-team junior college All-American at Potomac State Junior College in Maryland, Jackson got off to a great start last season, but finished batting only .254 with two home runs and 19 RBI. Hershelman, who started 38 games for the Red Storm, had the best season of his career, hitting a team-high seven home runs and driving in 30 runs.

Redshirt junior Ken Devenney, a transfer from Davidson College, junior college transfer Tim Blackmon and freshmen Chris Anninos and Eric Grabowski will all press for time.

The graduation of three-year starter Asa Grunenwald leaves a big void behind the plate, but one that could be eased by the addition of junior college transfer Joe Burke. A Brooklyn native, Burke comes to St. John's from Nassau Community College, where he was a third-team Junior College All-American last season. A strong defensive catcher who brings power to the plate, Burke's addition will give the Red Storm added defense up the middle and help bolster the lineup.

Hershelman could see time behind the plate as well, along with freshman Brendan Monaghan.

Last year, Blankmeyer and the Red Storm were hut by a lack of depth in the rotation. His starting rotation of Reid, Anthony Varvaro and Jim Wladyka kept opponents in check, but quality arms out of the bullpen hurt the team as the season wore on.

This season, with Reid and Varvaro, now a sophomore, leading the way, Blankmeyer is hopeful that St. John's will have the depth needed to keep them among the top in the BIG EAST.

Reid, who sat out the 2002 season after undergoing surgery on his right arm, returned last year and posted a 3-3 record with a 3.74 earned run average, best among starters. He allowed 32 earned runs on 73 hits in 77.0 innings pitched and was one of the most dominant starters in league play. He will be a weekend starter for the Red Storm.

Joining him will be Varvaro, a lanky, hard-throwing Staten Island product. He had some impressive outings as a freshman, but finished the season with a 4-6 record and a 4.83 ERA. With a year of experience under his belt, Varvaro could be ready for a big season.

The third spot in the weekend rotation could be filled a trio of players. Wladyka, redshirt freshman Rob Delaney and freshman Anthony Sullivan could all see time. Wladyka, a crafty right-hander, struggled at times last year, but with his experience - he's started 23 games in two years - he could get the nod. Delaney, a burly lefty, and Sullivan, who went 7-1 with 125 strikeouts in 88 innings during his senior year at Arlington High School, will also be in the mix.

Senior Geno Orsogna, who also returned after missing the 2002 season due to surgery, should lead a deep, but untested group in the bullpen. Orsogna, who went 5-2 as a sophomore, saw limited action last year, but is experienced.

Freshman southpaw Matt Tosoni - a 6-foot, 5-inch Canadian, should see extensive action, while classmates Michael Maynard and Cole Kimball, redshirt Justin Muir and sophomore Shane Kochon could help the team out.

Hard-throwing sophomore Craig Hansen, who struggled last year with a 2-2 record and a 7.03 earned run average, is expected to inherit the closer's role.

St. John's will open the 2004 season with a trip to the Southwest, playing a three-game series at Southeastern Conference power Arkansas. They will then spend 10 days in Texas, with a three-game set against perennial power Lamar and games against Sam Houston State, Texas-Arlington and Texas Christian.

A three-game road trip to North Carolina to play UNC-Asheville will close out the early portion of the season before St. John's returns home on March 16 to host Hofstra. The team will play a three-game series at home against Fairleigh Dickinson on the weekend of March 20-21, and then hosts Georgetown the following weekend as BIG EAST play begins.

The Red Storm will have their hands full, with a three-game set at home against Virginia Tech on April 3-4 followed up doubleheaders at Connecticut and league power Notre Dame.

St. John's plays a three-game set at Boston College on April 17-18 and another one at West Virginia on May 1-2. Three home series - doubleheaders against Villanova and Rutgers and a three-game set against Seton Hall - highlight the later portion of the home schedule.




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