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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    An infusion of youth

    Colt Sedbrook
    Colt Sedbrook

    Youth has its advantages.

    It’s a concept UA baseball coach Andy Lopez is seemingly banking on this season with a 33-man roster that boasts just five juniors and two seniors.

    “”The inexperience really means nothing to (Lopez), at least not right now,”” said one of those seniors, left-handed pitcher Brad Mills.

    “”So the older guys, you can’t cruise, you can’t feel like since you’ve been here for two or three years, that that spot’s yours, because someone behind you is always going to be pushing.””

    Last year’s team featured 10 upperclassmen, the year before that, 13. And the 2004 squad that went to the College World Series? Twelve juniors and seniors on its roster.

    But Lopez isn’t concerned about an experience-thin squad, thanks in large part to 10 returning sophomores – most of whom saw major action last season.

    “”There’s nothing that we can throw at them this year that they didn’t see (last year),”” Lopez said. “”They played good competition last year, at Mississippi State, (Cal State-Fullerton) and some other people, so from that standpoint, even though they’re sophomores, they should have a little veteran season to them.””

    The number of freshmen potentially seeing action isn’t unusual for a Lopez-coached squad. This year’s 12 freshmen are actually the fewest the coach has had on his roster since that World Series squad, which featured 10.

    Arizona also has four redshirt freshmen, including outfielder Diallo Fon, a transfer from Vanderbilt who is expected to make an immediate impact.

    Early in pre-season practice, it looked like Lopez’s road map to Omaha, Neb., for the 2007 CWS could hit a bump.

    Junior infielder Colt Sedbrook, last year’s leading hitter who is expected to be a major team leader on and off the field, had to work out personal issues or face missing the entire season.

    But Lopez said yesterday he is penciling Sedbrook into the lineup Friday, when the team opens the season against Gonzaga.

    “”As we speak, he’s still working through some things, but I am optimistic that he will be with us this weekend,”” Lopez said.

    Should things not work out with Sedbrook, it’s entirely possible that Lopez’s infield could feature three freshmen – Erik Castro at third base, Robert Abel at shortstop and Kevin Rodland at second.

    Even with their youth, the Wildcats still return their top three starters from last season (Mills, righty Preston Guilmet and lefty David Coulon), leading home run hitter (left fielder Brad Glenn), second-leading RBI-man (first baseman Bill Rhinehart) and – personal issues permitting – their top two hitters (Sedbrook and Rhinehart).

    And Arizona adds a number of what Lopez deemed “”impact guys,”” including Abel at shortstop and right-handed pitcher Jason Stoffel, who is slated to close.

    Abel, arguably the jewel of Lopez’s recruiting class this season, will replace the departed Jason Donald, who skipped his senior season and is now in the Philadelphia Phillies’ organization as a third-round draft pick.

    Like Donald, Abel has the opportunity to start from day one as a Wildcat, but that’s where he’d like the comparisons to end.

    “”I’m ready to make my own footsteps,”” said Abel, who hit .480 his senior season at Woodland (Calif.) High School, his fourth year as a starter.

    “”I had a guy like (Donald) at my high school, too, and you can’t really worry about what they did. You can just worry about right now and what I’m going to be doing and what the team’s going to be doing.””

    Stoffel, whose fastball has been clocked at 93 mph, will challenge for a spot in the rotation.

    The infusion of youth has made for an interesting camp leading up to the season opener. Freshman, sophomore, junior, senior – it doesn’t matter to Lopez. The slates are wiped clean.

    “”No one’s safe as a starter,”” said outfielder Jon Gaston, who started 41 games last year as a freshman and will open the season as the starter in right field.

    “”It’s just a constant grind. It’s, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ as far as who’s going to start.””

    Last season was an up-and-down affair in which the team never found consistence. In late February and early March, Arizona won six of seven games, but then dropped eight of its next nine.

    The Wildcats struggled to put together a winning streak again until they won four straight in April, but then lost just eight of its next 11 games, and, finally, finished the season on a five-game winning streak.

    The inconsistency can in part be attributed to the number of freshmen playing key roles on the team, but Gaston believes last season’s struggles “”will be our fuel drive to succeed this year.””

    In any case, Rhinehart and Mills, the only players left on the squad from the team who went to Omaha, know the difficulties of a return trip.

    “”It’s not just a walk through the season, and you’re going to get there,”” Rhinehart said.

    “”It’s a long process, and by working hard and doing things right, we can make it this year.””

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