MORGANTOWN - Can you believe it's baseball season all ready?
West Virginia University is going to open its 2011 season this weekend in the Big East/Big Ten Challenge in Florida.
The Mountaineers meet Iowa, second in the Big Ten last season, on Friday. Then they go against Penn State on Saturday and Illinois on Sunday. Those tough tests trigger a 57-game schedule for WVU.
Coach Greg Van Zant, in his 17th year as head coach, has 32 players on the roster. Twenty-two were on last year's squad, including 18 lettermen.
These early games will be played on several diamonds in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater areas. The two-conference challenge also was held in this part of Florida last year.
"We are fairly well experienced among position players," said Van Zant. "But our pitchers are less experienced. So the pool of recruits is very small."
Van Zant, now second all-time in wins with 477, does think some of the new pitchers have potential to contribute this year. But they're not ready yet.
Two big losses from last year's mound staff were Andy Altemus and Chris Enourato. They each finished with six wins, with Altemus setting the single-season school record with 29 appearances. Enourato, ace closer, registered a team-best 67 strikeouts.
Jedd Gyorko will be missed as one of the best shortstops and hitters in the Big East. He's now got a bright future opportunity in organized baseball. Last year he batted .381 and had 19 home runs and 57 RBI.
Taking over at shortstop this season is Grant Buckner. He has done a really good job in practice. Van Zant was unable to find a strong shortstop with junior college experience.
"Grant is a veteran player, and he'll fit in well," Van Zant said. "He knows what he's doing, and we have a lot of confidence in his ability.
"We have some position players who know what they're doing," Van Zant said.
Those include catcher Kevin Griffin, first basemen Ryan McBroom and Justin McDavid, second baseman Brady Wilson, and third baseman Dan DiBartolomeo. Jeremy Gum is the designated hitter.
Leading outfielders include Matt Frazer (LF), Mark Dvoroznak (CF), and Justin McDavid or Brady Wilson in right field.
Right-hander Andy Berry could be the starting pitcher in Friday's game.
Others who are expected to see action include infielders T.J. Kuban and Chris Rasky; and outfielder Tyler Steele-Worksham.
Van Zant said he's confident his veteran position players will perform well hitting and fielding, especially as the season progresses. But the pitching staff remains a big question mark.
"This is as good a freshman class as we've had," he added. "And some of the new pitchers could help this year. They're not ready yet, though."