The Minnesota baseball team heads south this weekend for its season-opening set.
The road trip will include an early morning contest with North Carolina-Asheville today, along with games against The Citadel on Saturday and Virginia Tech on Sunday.
The Gophers are coming off a second place finish in the Big Ten tournament – their sixth consecutive appearance in the championship game. This year’s squad will also try to continue Minnesota’s impressive string of 44 straight winning seasons.
Senior designated hitter Sean Kommerstad, a Minnesota native who batted .300 in 90 at bats last season, said opening weekend is always an exciting time.
“We’re ready to get out of the snow bank up here and play in some warm weather,” he said. “It’s time to see what the off-season did for us.”
This year’s squad, picked to finish third in the Big Ten behind Michigan and Ohio State by Baseball America magazine, will have a tough month leading up to Big Ten play.
Coach John Anderson, Minnesota’s all-time winningest coach with 905 victories and in his 26th season at the helm, said the difficult nonconference schedule the Gophers face every season is something they take pride in.
“It gets their attention early. To improve, you need good competition,” he said. “If you face no challenges, the team can get false hopes and become lackadaisical.”
Minnesota will get the challenge it is hoping for as its first opponent of the season, North Carolina-Asheville, was a NCAA tournament qualifier last season. All three of the Gophers’ opponents have played in at least four contests this season.
Sophomore center fielder Matt Nohelty, Minnesota’s sole All-Conference performer from last season, said the fact that the team returns 20 letter winners, including 12 seniors, is huge for its confidence level heading into 2007.
“We’re prepared, confident, and ready to get outside,” he said. “The older leadership on this team has brought everyone’s comfort and confidence up a level.”
Leading the team in batting average last season at .361, Nohelty will be a big part of an offense that includes senior left fielder Mike Mee, who led the team in RBIs in 2006 with 37, and senior shortstop Dan Lyons, named to last year’s All-Big Ten tournament team.
Minnesota will be without one key piece of its puzzle this weekend though, as senior second baseman Jeremy Chlan, who started 42 games last season, will stay home due to illness.
True freshman Derek McCallum will get a chance to see some action early on in his career.
Anderson said it will be good for the young infielder in the long run.
“He’s getting thrown in the fire a bit this weekend,” he said. “But we got to be flexible and this will only help our stability up the middle for the season.”
The opening weekend will also give the Gophers a chance to get a look at the pitching staff, anchored by juniors Gary Perinar and Dustin Brabender. Baseball America picked Brabender as one of the top five draftable prospects in the Big Ten. Behind those two is a corps of young arms that will need to shore up the back end of the rotation.
Anderson said the early season is all about working the kinks out at all positions heading into conference play.
“Of course we’re trying to win games,” he said. “But, more importantly, we’re evaluating the team responses to these early season challenges.”