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Newcomers should spark BU in second Division I season
Four junior college transfers will make immediate impact

After absorbing the expected hard knocks in the program’s inaugural Division I season last spring, BU head coach Tim Sinicki hit the recruiting trail and hit it hard. Sinicki, entering his 11th campaign at Binghamton, landed a half-dozen recruits – each of whom will play a big role in the 2003 edition of the Bearcats. With the influx of four marquis junior college transfers, Sinicki has significantly bolstered his team’s offense and defense, and has potentially held the line on a pitching staff that was one of the best in the America East in 2002.

“This is certainly our best recruiting class during my tenure here,” said Sinicki, who credits full-time assistant coach Mike Collins with much of the success.

“Especially in terms of the immediacy of their contributions. We instantly have much more depth in the lineup, and now have shored up the defense, which I believe kept us out of the conference tournament last year.”

Not that last spring’s squad was a pushover. The Bearcats held their own in the America East until going 0-6 against the top two programs – Maine and Vermont – late in the season. Before that, BU took three of four against Hartford and split against tournament teams Stony Brook and Northeastern. During the team’s 17-34 campaign, six of BU’s 12 conference defeats were by either one or two runs, and 10 more non-conference defeats were by that same narrow margin.

Despite a pitching staff that held down a 4.83 earned run average (3rd in AE), the team was hampered by frequent defensive miscues and a lack of timely hitting across the lineup. Sinicki addressed those two areas in the off-season, and BU faithful may be treated to the best overall team in program history this spring.

INFIELD

This unit centers around junior first baseman and team captain Jamie Boyer, who has put together two outstanding collegiate seasons, and remains the team’s premier hitter. Last season, the six-foot left-hander hit .323 with 50 hits in the two spot, and earned America East all-star honors after leading BU in five offensive categories.

“Jamie has worked extremely hard to become the best pure hitter on our team,” Sinicki said. “He is a tough Division I out. This year, he’ll also benefit from better protection in the lineup.”

The primary protection comes in the form of junior third baseman Jay Balback – perhaps Sinicki’s most prized recruit. A gifted athlete who starred two years for Delaware Technical Community College, Balback will likely bat third, and will provide a steady glove at third. In 2001, Balback batted .405 with 71 RBI, leading his team to a 40-5 record and NJCAA Division II championship.

“Sure Jay is very talented ... the most talented third baseman in the history of the program,” Sinicki said. “But Jay is also a winner. He brings a positive attitude and a tremendous work ethic which has become contagious throughout the team.”

Freshman Justin Smucker will be counted on to stabilize a middle infield that was particularly suspect last spring. A standout shortstop for Lancaster Mennonite High in Pennsylvania, Smucker is expected to move over to second base for his first collegiate season. Junior Matt Caputo, who started 39 games in 2002, will also see time.

At shortstop, sophomore Brian Lindsay returns to a starting role, and has impressed the coaching staff with his strength gains in the off-season. Classmate Shawn Collyer, who made 24 starts last season, will compete for time at both short and second.

The quartet of middle infielders is expected to bump up BU’s fielding percentage, which ranked last in the conference last spring (.939).

Senior transfer Dusty Edwards, who can play every infield position, will also add depth.
“No question our defense hurt us last season,” Sinicki said. “It was our goal to improve in this area, and I honestly believe that we’ve addressed that situation.”

OUTFIELD

This is a strong returning unit that is elevated even more with the addition of junior college transfer Joe Costello. A powerful hitter who played two years for Cumberland County College in New Jersey, Costello is expected to bat clean-up and start in left field. Last spring, he led the nation in hitting (.500) and earned NJCAA Division III All-America honors. Costello ranked fifth in the country in RBI with 60, and possesses power to all fields. The offensive combination of Balback and Costello should provide a big boost to a BU lineup that ranked last in the America East in average, home runs and RBI.

“Physically, Joe is the strongest young man we’ve ever had in the program,” Sinicki said. “He has the ability to drive the ball to all fields with power.”

Senior right fielder Tony Berube returned to his hometown and produced an outstanding campaign in 2002. In his first season at Binghamton, Berube led the Bearcats in hits (53), doubles (16) and runs scored (31), and was the team’s emotional spark. This season, Sinicki will move him from third to the leadoff spot, where his bat and speed should “set the table” for the middle of the lineup.

Junior T.J. Kowalchuk is back patrolling center field, and Sinicki feels his continued improvement will go a long way in determining the team’s success in 2003.

“We have big expectations for T.J. this season,” Sinicki said. “He had a great summer in the Great Lakes Collegiate League, and shows great potential.”

Kowalchuk, who will likely bat fifth in the order, tied for second on the team with 50 hits last spring. More importantly, he raised his average 83 points from his freshman campaign, finishing third on the team at .313.

Senior Tom Cummings, a three-year veteran, and much-improved sophomore David Lewin will also see time in the outfield and at the designated hitter spot, respectively.

PITCHING

Pitching was the strength of the 2002 BU team, but in order to maintain that edge, Sinicki must replace his top two starters. Graduated are workhorses David Eagan and Greg Sousa, who logged a combined 160 innings in 28 starts, and won 10 games between them.

The job of replacing that pair belongs to junior college transfers J.D. Brink and Mark Messina. Brink is a hard-throwing right-hander who went 18-3 in two seasons for Cecil Community College in Maryland. He has touched the low 90s on the radar gun, and is expected to inherit the No. 1 role.

Messina, who throws in the mid- to upper-80s, was the number one starter and two-year standout for Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y. :ast season, he earned Region III all-star honors.

“Both J.D. and Mark have the ability to be successful Division I pitchers,” Sinicki said. “J.D. can overpower hitters with his fastball, while Mark has the uncanny ability to throw all his pitches for strikes at any time in the count.”

Returning starters Jacob Thiel and Mike Weglinski should occupy the number three and four starting roles. Thiel, a senior who also doubles as a designated hitter, made 10 starts and posted a 5.64 earned run average in 2002.

Weglinski, meanwhile, produced an outstanding freshman season, earning two wins and two saves, and posting a 4.40 ERA.

Other solid options include 6-foot-5 junior Josh Fuerst, sophomores Tom Gaube and Johnmin Hickey, and talented freshman Chris Shores. Gaube, a converted infielder from high school, allowed just one earned in his first 14.2 collegiate innings, and continues to improve with every outing.

Out of the bullpen, Sinicki will again turn to lefty Phil Artonio, the program’s all-time saves leader. The 6-foot-4 senior posted a 2.89 ERA in 2002, and tied for second in the conference with five saves.

CATCHING

Veteran catcher Kyle Loucks begins his final collegiate campaign having started 114 of 118 games in his first three seasons. Loucks, who batted .296 with 23 RBI last year, will likely bat fifth or sixth, and will again handle the bulk of the catching load.

Behind him, sophomore Chris Darling and freshman John Hark are available. Hark is an all-county athlete from Ramapo High School in New Jersey, while Darling is also a capable pitcher who might see time on the mound as well.

SCHEDULE

The 56-game slate begins with a daunting 23 straight games on the road, where the Bearcats will play three games against ACC member Maryland, along with a two-game set against a Georgia Southern team that advanced to the NCAA tournament a year ago. In addition, BU will see strong programs in East Tennessee State and Charleston Southern among others.

Up North, BU will see solid programs in Lehigh, St. Bonaventure and Le Moyne – each of whom advanced to its conference post-season tournament in 2002.

The 24-game conference slate begins at home on April 5-6, when the Bearcats will host Hartford.

OUTLOOK

With the program’s first year of Division I in the rear view mirror, Sinicki is hopeful his upgraded lineup can battle through the typically difficult early-season trip south, and hit stride in time for conference play.

Unpolished play, particularly defensively, was costly in BU’s 6-16 start last spring. Fourteen times in those initial 22 games, the Bearcats committed two or more errors, and in all, the team committed three or more miscues in 15 games – though none occurred in the final three weeks of the season.

“All in all, I think we are a stronger team than a year ago,” Sinicki said. “We’ve got more offensive depth, and we’ve also improved our defense.”

After going 8-12 and placing fifth in the team’s first season of conference play a year ago, Sinicki feels his team can only gain from that experience.

“Now we know the quality of the conference, and know what to expect,” he said. “Our players realize that you need to battle every game. From top to bottom, the America East is very competitive, and I think we have a better sense of how well you have to play to win.

“We expect to be more competitive, and our goal is to earn a top-four position in the conference and play in the post-season tournament.”

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