The Rutgers University baseball team recently put the finishing touches on another fall season and, in typical fashion, head coach Fred Hill downplayed any possible excitement heading into the spring.
“I think the fall went pretty well,” said Hill, now in his 21st season at Rutgers. “I was very pleased with the way all of our players performed.”
Under normal circumstances, such a bland statement would seem meaningless, but when you consider the talent level this year, it begins to make more sense.
In 2003, Rutgers was extremely inexperienced – and it showed in the early portion of the season. With several freshmen seeing significant playing time and just one senior on the pitching staff, Rutgers struggled to a 2-10 mark through its first 12 games. Slowly, however, Hill’s patient approach and unwavering belief in his players began to pay off. By the end of May, Rutgers was the BIG EAST Regular Season Champions (with a 19-6 mark) and headed to its fifth NCAA Tournament in the last five years – not bad for team that lost 12 players from the previous year – including first-round and third-round draft choices as juniors.
So, this fall began with much more certainty that the last. After bringing in 16 newcomers the previous season, Hill and his staff had just four recruits this fall. Still, he was without the services of two key players.
“I don’t know if we got a true picture of how we will be in the coming season because we didn’t get to see Mike Bionde or Rich Canuso in drills this fall,” said Hill. “They are almost back from their injuries, but we weren’t able to get them in there.”
Hopefully, Canuso’s string of bad luck is over. After showing flashes of promise last season, he went down in the team’s eighth game of the year with a torn ACL suffered in a first-base collision at Georgia Tech. With his knee heeling quickly, Canuso broke his hand just before the start of fall practice. Bionde, on the other hand, underwent surgery to repair a shoulder injury that had lingered since high school.
With his infield on the mend, Hill quickly turned his thoughts – and praise – to the outfield. Looking directly at assistant coach Glen Gardner, who played for Hill and has coached with him for 14 seasons, Hill spoke strongly about the outfield’s play.
“I think this is the best set of outfielders we have had here,” said Hill, with Gardner shaking his head in agreement. “There is more depth out there than ever before and all five returning guys could play for us without question.”
Those five – Nick Cerulo, Jeff Frazier, Johnny Defendis, Jeff Grose and David Williams – will find themselves battling for playing time this fall, although there is little doubt that all five will see significant action.
Cerulo, a fifth-year senior, was the starting centerfielder last year and has emerged, along with second baseman Graig Badger, as one of the team leaders.
“Nick is a very vocal guy and he isn’t afraid to say some things to the younger guys,” said Hill. “Badge might not be as vocal, but he works extremely hard and also does a good job keeping everyone in line.”
Badger, the team’s starting second baseman, is coming off an impressive season in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League (ACBL), where he earned Player of the Year honors just months after setting single-season Rutgers records for stolen bases (41) and walks (56) while hitting .318 from the leadoff spot.
Frazier, a junior, is coming off an outstanding summer in the Cape Cod League after hitting 21 home runs in his first two seasons at Rutgers. Recently, Baseball America predicted that Frazier will be selected in the first round of the June amateur draft – quite a statement for a player who was not drafted out of high school.
Defendis had an outstanding second half last spring, hitting near .400 over the final 30 games, while Grose performed well in limited time. Both spent the summer with Danbury of the New England Collegiate Baseball League and showed enough promise to warrant an invitation to the Cape Cod League this coming summer. Williams, who sat out last season, is an enticing offensive specimen.
The pitching staff is where Hill will need to do the most work, although it is not due to a lack of talent. Other than his top two starters, Jack Egbert and Shaun Parker, Hill will head into the preseason looking to find roles for the remainder of the staff.
“It’s not like last season, where we had two guys back who had pitched for us and a bunch of new players,” said Hill. “This season, there is some very good experience on our staff and we just need to slot people into their proper roles and give them the best chance to succeed.”
Hill and Gardner pointed to sophomore Steve Hook as the fall’s most pleasant surprise. With Canuso out of action, Hook took most of the reps at first base and displayed significant improvement offensively and defensively.
“Steve probably showed the biggest change,” said Hill. “He showed some really nice power and was much better defensively. He hit five home runs this fall, which was the most on the team.”
The biggest advantage to a fall season is the ability to work with the newcomers and Hill came away impressed by all four.
“I think we have two very good pitchers in Chris Rini and Steve Holt who can help us right away,” said Hill. “Tim Querns made an impression at third base and Ryan Hill did a good job in the outfield and showed the flexibility to play some first base as well.”
“We made a lot of progress this fall,” said Hill. “We were able to get a lot of teaching done, but we still have some question marks that will need answering once we start up again in January.”
“The hardest part is that we aren’t able to play any outside opponents and are forced to play intrasquad games in the fall. It is totally different when you get out there against another team and see some different faces. The NCAA only allows a team to play a certain number of games and we want to keep those for the spring, which we feel will help our chances in the postseason.”
While the Class of ’53 Baseball Complex will lay dormant for the coming months, the team will continue to work. A stringent strength and conditioning program and individual work with the hitters and pitchers will keep everyone sharp heading into the 2004 schedule, which is as challenging as ever.
“The work habits and attitudes have been excellent,” added Hill. “This year, the players are more mature about their baseball and approaching things differently – with a greater sense of purpose.”
“We didn’t play that well in the NCAA Tournament last year and I think that is giving our returning players the push they need to get better. It was a great experience for so many young guys to play in the tournament and they now seem committed to being better this year.”