Oregon Nine Taking Shape

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Roster turnover is a given in collegiate athletics, and particularly so in baseball. Players are eligible to be drafted by a major league team after they have completed three years of school or have reached the age of 21.

But college baseball must deal with an additional wildcard that other sports don’t: Young players are also able to sign with a professional team directly out of high school. Thus, a player who has committed to attend an institution may not be part of the squad when the team convenes for fall camp.

As a result, a constant search for new players is one of the most important aspects of building a successful program.

Such was the summer for Oregon head baseball coach George Horton.

Eight Oregon Ducks were drafted last June by major league teams, the most in program history. Seven of those eight signed professional contracts, ending their careers at Oregon.

It is not just new players Horton has to acquaint himself with. Over the offseason, Horton’s entire staff took new positions at other programs.

“Start with a brand new coaching staff,” he said. “The likes of Bryson LeBlanc and Andrew Checketts and Mike Kirby have moved on and congratulations to them for their new opportunities.”

But Horton likes the new coaches coming in the door.

“We certainly feel like we have the makings of a great staff,” he explained. “Coach Jay Uhlman is coming back. He was our volunteer coach for a year and a half. Coach Mark Wasikowski is someone I’ve known for many years. Then Dean Stiles was part of my staff during the first two years. I think we have the ingredients to have a great staff.”

Still, Horton acknowledges there will be some adjustments necessary.

“It’s new,” he said. “I’m going to be working more with the pitching with Coach Stiles’ help. Different people, different terminology, and different roles. The two words are compensate and adjust, but it is exciting to start our quest for the 2011-12 season.”

Not only is it the number of players lost to the bigs, but the names are important as well. Tyler Anderson, Madison Boer, Scott McGough, Kellen Moen, Jack Marder, KC (now Casey) Serna, and Danny Pulfer. These are the players who defined the Oregon baseball in the three seasons after the program was reinstated.

“It’s exciting,” said Horton of welcoming 14 incoming freshmen and 20 returning players to fall camp.

The 2011 campaign saw the Ducks post 33-26-1 mark and finish a disappointing 8th in the conference. However, it was that core group who created those elevated expectations going 38-22 the year before and earning an NCAA invite.

“Those are going to be tough kids to replace,” allowed Horton. “Their leadership, their excellence here, the culture of them and being on the leadership council. They’re going to be hard to replace, but we thought we had a solid recruiting class and now we’ve got different leadership and it really provides guys with an opportunity to say ‘hey, it’s my turn, let me step up’.”

Strength up the middle is the measure of any baseball team, and that is precisely where the Ducks will have to retool.

The pitching staff will have a pair of returning starting pitchers, led by senior Alex Keudell. The right-handed work horse (90 IP, a 7-3 record and an ERA of 3.81) passed on signing a major league contract to return for his fourth season with the Ducks. Keudell acknowledged the decision to return wasn’t an easy one.

“It was difficult,” he said. “I definitely had to talk to my parents about what they thought. And it just came down to whether or not I wanted to come back here. I didn’t think the money was that significant, that it was going to change my life, so to come back here and have another opportunity, I love playing here.”

Perhaps his desire to return was also influenced by his team coming up just short of expectations last season.

“Huge disappointment last year,” was Keudell’s assessment of 2011.

What went wrong?

“I think this team needs to be little tougher and have no fear,” he said. “I think last year we were a little bit scared sometimes so I think just have no fear and go for it.”

Along with Keudell, Horton will look to lefthander Christian Jones to help anchor the staff. The junior from Danville, Ca contributed a solid 77 innings of work last season going 9-4 with a 3.36 ERA for the Ducks. But that still leaves a lot of innings for Horton to fill.

“Replacing the likes of Madison Boer, Tyler Anderson, Scott McGough and Kellen Moen is going to be a very difficult challenge,” said Horton. “Some youngsters are going to have to step up and pitch critical innings.”

Horton must also field a new double-play combo, with J.J. Altobelli likely moving from third to shortstop and Aaron Payne at second.

“I’m one of the older ones out here now,” said Altobelli. “It’s mine and a couple other guys’ time to be leaders. A lot of our leaders from last year have moved on to play professional baseball.”

“That remains a mystery,” said Horton about who will replace the sure handed Altobelli at the hot corner.

Catching will be either Brett Hambright or Aaron Jones. With 36 runs batted in last season, Jones was the team leader in that category.

Ryon Healy’s .320 average and four home runs were tops for the team in 2011 in both categories and the sophomore-to-be also posted a respectable 4.15 ERA in three mound appearances.

With so many players stepping into featured roles for the first time, the newcomers will have to fill in around them quickly if the Ducks hope to finish in the upper half of the expanded conference.

Colorado doesn’t field a team, so only Utah will be joining the new Pac-12 circuit.

The startling news last spring that California program had fallen victim to budgetary constraints was happily resolved when successful fundraising efforts kept the program alive.

But in an ever-changing conference, what must this year’s Oregon group do that last year’s couldn’t?

“I think the biggest part is believing,” said Altobelli.

“The real glaring weakness last year was we didn’t finish games,” said Horton. “We didn’t finish games from a defensive standpoint or from the bullpen. Having no victories when trailing after six innings is mind boggling to me. You would think something would accidentally happen where the other team would cave in.  Our record was 5-12 in one-run games, you look back on that and that’s a huge reason why we weren’t in postseason play and why we finished so low in the conference.”

So what does the Ducks’ skipper suggest to remedy last season’s ills?

“Mental toughness and consistency,” Horton said. “Hopefully, we can show a little more mental toughness and grind out some victories. The Pac-12 is one of the elite conferences in the country. You are going to have to grind out some victories if you are going to be competitive.”

— Rick Morgan for EDN

Below (courtesy of Oregon Media Services) is a list of the incoming players:

Porter Clayton, 6-3, 185, LHP/1B, Idaho Falls, Idaho/Bonneville HS
The top-ranked player (No. 46 nationally) in the state of Idaho according to Perfect Game Crosschecker …was a 2010 Under Armour All-American…played for the Washington Nationals in the 2010 Area Code Games…was the 2010 All-Area Player of the Year…participated in the 2010 USA Baseball Tournament of Stars and was chosen as an alternate for the 18U USA Baseball roster…was a two-time 4A High Country League First Team selection…helped the Bees to a 25-6 record last season with a 10-1 record on the mound and 0.42 ERA…recorded 135 strikeouts and just 34 walks…at the plate batted .417 with five home runs.

Billy Flamion, 6-1, 180, OF/LHP, Modesto, Calif./Central Catholic HS
Currently ranked as the No. 4 recruit (No. 15 nationally) in the state of California according to PerfectGame Crosschecker…Baseball America ranked Flamion at No. 18 in the nation in the publication’s evaluation of the 2011 senior class…following his junior season in 2010, was named to the MaxPreps California All-State Second Team…was also named to the Cal-Hi Sports Small Schools All-State Team…during the summer of 2010 played in the Aflac All-American High School Classic in San Diego at Petco Park…in the game, went 1-for 3 with a single and RBI for the West…also played for Milwaukee Brewers White Roster in the 2010 Area Code Games…was named to the Modesto Bee All-Stanislaus District First Team after batting .465 with 34 runs, 37 RBIs, eight doubles, seven home runs, 20 stolen bases, a .538 on-base percentage and an .826 slugging percentage his junior season…on the mound in 2010 posted a 9-2 record with a 2.76 ERA…on the mound as a sophomore in 2009 was 13-2 with a 2.03 ERA…as a freshman in 2008 batted .441 with six home runs and 40 RBIs…a two-sport standout at Central Catholic, as a wide receiver on the football field, Flamion recently helped the Raiders to the second round of the 2010 CIF Sac-Joaquin Division IV playoffs…was second on the team with 33 receptions and 705 yards, while also scoring seven touchdowns and averaging 58.8 receiving yards per game…in 2009 helped Central Catholic to a 11-2 record and Western League title with an undefeated record of 5-0 on the gridiron.

Scott Heineman, 5-9, 185, RHP/INF, Pacific Palisades, Calif./Crespi Carmelite HS
As a junior in 2010, batted .304 with 24 hits, 23 runs scored, 15 RBIs, five doubles, one triple, 12 walks and a .402 on-base percentage…saw limited time on the mound as a junior as he was recovering from an injury…helped the Celts to the 2010 Mission League title and 2009 CIF championship…was teammates with current Oregon freshman Ryon Healy….according to Perfect Game Crosschecker is the 34th-ranked player in the state of California in the 2011 class.

Sam Johnson, 6-0, 180, RHP, Beaverton, Ore./Westview HS
The-top ranked player (No. 130 nationally) in the state of Oregon according to PerfectGame Crosschecker…is a two-time 6A All-State second team selection…in the summer of 2010, played for the Washington Nationals in the Area Code Games with fellow signees Spencer O’Neil and Cole Wiper as well as 2011 freshman-to-be Porter Clayton…played for Westview in the 2010 Summer League and was 11-0 on the mound with one save, tossing a total of 66 and 2/3 innings…recorded 95 strikeouts and held opposing batters to a .104 average…at the plate hit .459 with 11 doubles, one triple, eight home runs, 47 RBIs, 35 runs scored and 21 walks…during his junior season at Westview helped the Wildcats to the OSAA 6A quarterfinals…finished 2010 with a 7-3 record on the mound and one save…tossed a total of 65 and 1/3 innings, while striking out 65 and holding opposing batters to a .171 average…at the plate batted .319 with 10 doubles, one triple, two home runs, 13 runs scored and 22 RBIs…as a sophomore was the 2009 Metro League Pitcher of the Year and helped the Wildcats to the 2009 Metro League championship.

Joe Mello, 5-11, 175, SS, Dublin, Calif./Dublin HS
A two-time Diablo Foothill Athletic League First Team selection…is entering his fourth-year as shortstop on the varsity squad…helped lead the Gaels to the 2010 Division II playoffs, batting .485 with a .697 slugging percentage, .551 on-base percentage, 24 RBIs and 16 runs scored…as a junior in 2009, batted .344 with a .547 slugging percentage, 21 runs scored, 16 RBIs, and three triples…ranked No. 56 in the state of California by PerfectGame Crosschecker.

Spencer O’Neil, 6-4, 190, OF, Kennewick, Wash./Southridge HS
The third-ranked player in the state of Washington (No. 147 nationally) according to Perfect Game Crosschecker…played in both 2009 and 2010 for the Washington Nationals in the Area Code Games… for three consecutive seasons was named Baseball Northwest’s 2011 Class top prospect in the state of Washington…participated in the 2010 Perfect Game National Showcase and the 2009 World Wood Bat World Championship with the Kansas City Royals…as a junior in 2010 was named to the Washington State Baseball Coaches Association Class 4A Second Team and 4A Columbia Basin League First Team….was also a 2010 First Team All-Area outfielder and second team all-conference pitcher…was named the Suns’ 2010 Team MVP after hitting .480 on the season with an .867 slugging percentage, a .583 on-base percentage, nine doubles, six home runs, and 32 RBIs…on the mound maintained a 1.91 ERA…in 2009 was named first team all-conference.

Jake Reed, 6-2, 190, RHP/INF, La Mesa, Calif./Helix HS
A two-sport athlete for the Highlanders, plays both football and baseball at Helix…was a 2010 Grossmont Hills League first team selection following his junior season on the diamond….at the plate tallied 33 RBIs, and on the mound managed a 2.24 ERA and 90 strikeouts…helped the Highlanders reach the Division II championship game with back-to-back game-winning hits in the playoffs, including a walk-off two run homer that broke a 4-4 tie and advanced Helix to the championship game…was a Union-Tribune All-Academic Team selection…rated the No. 35 player in the state according to PerfectGame Crosschecker…on the football field as a senior in 2010 has helped Helix to the CIF San Diego Section Division II semifinals and Grossmont Hills League championship with an 11-0 record as the team’s kicker…entered his senior season having converted 7-of-10 field goals and 65-of-78 PATs in his career…in 2009 as a quarterback for Helix, passed for 1,691 yards with 15 touchdowns.

Tommy Thorpe, 6-0, 165, LHP/OF, Vancouver, Wash./Evergreen HS
Named to the Washington State Baseball Coaches Association Class 4A All-State First Team…was named the 2010 4A Greater St. Helens League Player of the Year and first team all-league after finishing his junior season 9-3 on the mound…pitched a total of 66 innings in 14 appearances, maintaining a 1.92 ERA and fanning 87 while also tallying one save…received the Scholar Athlete Award and the T.O.D.A.Y Foundation Outstanding Achievement Award.

Mitchell Walding, 6-3, 190, SS, Lodi, Calif./St. Mary’s of Stockton
A two-sport star plays both football and baseball at St. Mary’s of Stockton…the starting shortstop for the Rams, was a major contributor on last year’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division I Championship squad, defeating Elk Grove High School in a two-game sweep by the scores of 10-7 and 20-13, and winning St. Mary’s its first title since 1982…in the championship series scored five runs, drove in two runs and hit two doubles…as a junior in 2010, led the Rams and the Tri-City League in batting average (.486) and on-base percentage (.585)…also scored a team-high 46 runs, adding 12 doubles, two triples, 27 RBIs, 24 walks and 53 hits…helped the Rams to a 28-7 record and unbeaten mark of 10-0 for the Tri-City League championship…the Rams were ranked fifth in the state according to MaxPreps.com…was named first team all-league…in 2010 as a senior on the football field, quarterbacked the Rams to the semifinals of the Sac Joaquin Section Division II playoffs as St. Mary’s finished the year with an 11-2 record and Tri-City League championship…this season has passed for 2,505 yards and averaged 202.8 yards per game in the air…has thrown for 20 touchdowns…has rushed for five touchdowns and 326 yards.

Thomas Walker, 6-1, 200, 3B, Long Beach, Calif./Long Beach Poly HS
Named to CIF Southern Section Division I Second Team after batting an area-best .526, while adding 40 hits and 28 RBIs as a junior in 2010…was a first team all-Moore League selection after leading the league with six home runs, an .895 slugging percentage and a .575 on-base percentage…also scored 28 runs and added eight doubles…participated in the 2010 USA Baseball Tournament of Stars.

Cole Wiper, 6-4, 180, RHP, Bellevue, Wash./Newport HS
Considered the No. 2-ranked recruit in the state of Washington (No. 111 nationally) according to PerfectGame Crosschecker… Baseball America ranked Wiper at No. 75 in the nation in the publication’s evaluation of the 2011 senior class…was invited to the 18U USA Baseball tryouts…in the summer of 2010, played for the Washington Nationals in the Area Code Games with fellow signees Spencer O’Neil and Sam Johnson as well as 2011 freshman-to-be Porter Clayton….was 2-0 on the mound his junior season in four appearances and two starts…maintained a 0.88 ERA in 16 total innings while striking out 15…tossed one five-inning no-hitter and held opposing batters to .088 average…in the spring of 2010 was named to the Perfect Game USA Third Team Preseason HS Underclassman All American team.

Jordan Spencer, 6-1, 230, LHP/1B, Beaverton HS
Plans join Ducks as walk-on for 2011-12 … as a junior, named Metro League Player of the Year and one of three underclassmen to be named first-team all-state at the 6A level, helping Beaverton to the Metro League title … hit .446 with 22 home runs in 56 games combined for high school and summer club team … born in Eugene.

Dylan Ruggeroli, 6-4, 205, SS/3B, Tucson, Ariz/Sabino HS
Plans to join Ducks as a walk-on for 2011-12. … hit .329 as a junior, with 16 RBIs and 24 runs in 29 games.

Eric Sapp, 6-2, 190, OF/3B, San Diego/Cathedral Catholic HS
Plans to join Ducks as a walk-on for 2011-12 … as a junior, earned all- league honors both in baseball and football, winning a CIF champoinship in football, and losing in the championship game for baseball. … hit .390 with three home runs and eight stolen bases for prep team as a junior.

stephanie schneiderman photo courtsey of Stephanie Schneiderman FB page
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