PROVIDENCE, R.I. – After winning a school-record 48 games and advancing to the NCAA Regionals for the first time since 1994, Connecticut has been chosen as the favorite to win the 2011 BIG EAST baseball championship by the league’s 12 head coaches.
The Huskies received nine of a possible 11 first-place votes in the preseason poll. The coaches also chose Connecticut outfielder George Springer as the BIG EAST Preseason Player of the Year and named righthanded pitcher Matt Barnes the BIG EAST Preseason Pitcher of the Year.
Connecticut returns seven starting position players and its top two pitchers from last year’s team, which went 48-16 overall and 20-6 in the BIG EAST Conference, finishing a half-game behind Louisville in the regular-season standings. The Huskies advanced to the BIG EAST Championship final for the third time in the last four years and hosted the Norwich Regional of the NCAA Championship.
Connecticut’s returning starters include Springer, who hit .337 with 18 home runs, 62 runs batted in and 33 stolen bases last season, and Barnes, the Huskies’ Friday starter who went 8-3 with a 3.92 ERA in 2010. First baseman Mike Nemeth (.386, 15 HR, 84 RBI) joined Springer and Barnes as unanimous Preseason All-BIG EAST selections, while designated hitter Kevin Vance (.322, 7 HR, 36 RBI) was named to the team as well.
St. John’s, which went 43-20 overall and 16-11 in BIG EAST play, was picked second in the preseason poll, edging Louisville with 107 points. The Red Storm won a record sixth BIG EAST Championship last season and were selected for the NCAA Regionals for the third time in the last four years. Outfielder Jeremy Baltz (.396, 24 HR, 85 RBI), a Baseball America All-America First Team pick and the BIG EAST Rookie of the Year last season, was named to the Preseason All-BIG EAST Team, along with righthanded pitcher Kyle Hansen (8-3, 3.71 ERA), who was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2010 BIG EAST Championship.
Louisville was picked third with 105 points following a 2010 season in which the Cardinals went 50-14 overall, won the BIG EAST regular-season title at 21-6 in the conference, and earned the No. 7 national seed in the NCAA Championship. Louisville set a school record for wins and finished the year ranked as high as No. 16 nationally. Second baseman Ryan Wright (.366, 16 HR, 80 RBI) was unanimously chosen to the Preseason All-BIG EAST Team, joining outfielder Stewart Ijames (.324, 14 HR, 63 RBI).
USF (26-32, 16-11 BIG EAST) was picked fourth in the preseason poll with 87 points on the strength of two of the top pitchers in the BIG EAST. Southpaw Andrew Barbosa went 8-2 with a BIG EAST-leading 2.40 ERA, while righthander Randy Fontanez went 5-7 with a 3.59 ERA and led the conference in innings (110.1) and strikeouts (105) last season. Both pitchers were chosen to the Preseason All-BIG EAST team.
Pittsburgh was tabbed fifth by the BIG EAST coaches with 82 points. The Panthers went 38-18 overall and 18-8 in the BIG EAST last year, finishing third in the regular-season standings, but will have to replace the production of 2010 BIG EAST Player of the Year Joe Leonard. Catcher Kevan Smith (.361, 5 HR, 46 RBI) and lefthanded pitcher Matt Iannazzo (11-2, 3.76 ERA) were the Panthers’ Preseason All-BIG EAST picks.
Rutgers was chosen sixth in the preseason poll with 75 points. The Scarlet Knights played a challenging schedule to a 30-26 overall record and a 15-12 mark in BIG EAST play last year, finishing sixth in the conference. Steve Nyisztor was the Preseason All-BIG EAST choice at shortstop after he hit .410 with four home runs and 51 RBI last year, while Ryan Kapp (.318, 9 HR, 39 RBI) was chosen as a designated hitter.
Cincinnati (29-29, 13-14 BIG EAST ) and Notre Dame (22-32, 10-17 BIG EAST) tied for seventh in the preseason poll with 56 points. The Bearcats will have 15 new players and 16 returning letterwinners in 2011, including righthanded pitcher Andrew Strenge, who set a BIG EAST record with a 0.62 ERA in BIG EAST games as a freshman. Overall, Strenge went 7-1 with a 1.93 ERA to lead a strong Bearcat staff. Notre Dame and new head coach Mik Aoki are led by second baseman Frank DeSico (.333, 1 HR, 25 RBI) as the Irish look to return to the BIG EAST Championship in 2011.
West Virginia was picked ninth in the preseason poll with 38 points. The Mountaineers were 27-30 overall and 10-17 in BIG EAST play last season, qualifying for the BIG EAST Championship on the last day of the regular season. Third baseman Grant Buckner (.363, 8 HR, 50 RBI) was the Mountaineers’ lone representative on the Preseason All-BIG EAST team.
Villanova was 10th in the preseason poll with 31 points, followed by Seton Hall (25 points ) and Georgetown (13 points). The Hoyas placed catcher Erick Fernandez (.315, 5 HR, 29 RBI) on the Preseason All-BIG EAST team.
The 2011 baseball season begins Feb. 18 with the early season highlighted by the third annual BIG EAST/Big Ten Challenge taking place in Florida. The first weekend of league play is March 25-27 with all 12 schools in action. The 2011 BIG EAST Baseball Championship will return to Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla., May 25-29, with the championship game to be televised on ESPNU.
2011 Preseason BIG EAST Baseball Coaches’ Poll
1. Connecticut (9) 117
2. St. John’s (2) 107
3. Louisville (1) 105
4. USF 87
5. Pittsburgh 82
6. Rutgers 75
7. Cincinnati 56
Notre Dame 56
9. West Virginia 38
10. Villanova 31
11. Seton Hall 25
12. Georgetown 13
Preseason BIG EAST Player of the Year:
George Springer, OF, Connecticut
Preseason BIG EAST Pitcher of the Year:
Matt Barnes, RHP, Connecticut
Preseason All-BIG EAST Team
Pos. Name, Class, School Key 2010 Stats
P Matt Barnes, Sr., Connecticut * 8-3, 3.92 ERA, 82.2 IP, 75K, 25 BB
P Matt Iannazzo, Jr., Pittsburgh 11-2, 3.76 ERA, 93.1 IP, 58 K, 22 BB
P Kyle Hansen, So., St. John’s 8-3, 3.71 ERA, 94.2 IP, 85 K, 38 BB
P Randy Fontanez, Sr., USF 5-7, 3.59 ERA, 110.1 IP, 105 K, 28 BB
P Andrew Barbosa, Sr., USF 8-2, 2.40 ERA, 86.1 IP, 95 K, 22 BB
C Erick Fernandez, Sr., Georgetown .315, 5 HR, 29 RBI
C Kevan Smith, Sr., Pittsburgh .361, 5 HR, 46 RBI
1B Mike Nemeth, Sr., Connecticut * .386, 15 HR, 84 RBI
2B Ryan Wright, Jr., Louisville * .366, 16 HR, 80 RBI, 10 SB
SS Steve Nyisztor, So., Rutgers .410, 4 HR, 51 RBI, 11 SB
3B Grant Buckner, Sr., West Virginia .363, 8 HR, 50 RBI
OF George Springer, Jr., Connecticut * .337, 18 HR, 62 RBI, 33 SB
OF Stewart Ijames, Jr., Louisville .324, 14 HR, 63 RBI
OF Jeremy Baltz, So., St. John’s * .396, 24 HR, 85 RBI
DH Kevin Vance, Jr., Connecticut .322, 7 HR, 36 RBI
DH Ryan Kapp, Jr., Rutgers .318, 9 HR, 39 RBI
* - unanimous selection