It's time for the University of Maryland Baltimore County baseball team to ante up as it opens East Coast Conference play against Hofstra today with a doubleheader at Catonsville Community College.
"It's our first opportunity to play for higher stakes, and I like that. Now, we'll see how the players respond to it," said John Jancuska, UMBC's 14-year coach, pointing out that this is the first year the school has been eligible for ECC competition.
"In the past, our goal was to be the best Division I team in Maryland. Now, as is the case with the other conference teams, our goal is to finish among the top four and make the ECC tournament.
"We have played all those schools in the last two, three years, so we know the level of competition. Right now, I think we're good enough."
The two will play a single game tomorrow at UMBC.
Towson State also will be home to start conference action with a three-game weekend series against Central Connecticut State, beginning with a doubleheader today.
Although UMBC has featured a potent offense in recent years (batting averages of .314 and .326 the past two seasons), Jancuska expects this team to be better balanced, with speed and defense compensating for some lost power.
Sophomore catcher Bob Mumma, who led the team in every batting category last year, is the most prominent holdover. A dean's list student in economics as well as a freshman All-America selection, he hit .329 and set a single-season school record with 14 home runs that helped contribute to 45 RBI, 43 hits, .709 slugging percentage, and .449 on-base percentage.
Aside from Mumma, off to another terrific start with a .419 batting average and five home runs, Greg Elliott, a sophomore transfer from Seton Hall, and sophomore John Burns have been consistent at a high level. Elliott is hitting .415, with a team-high 18 RBI and four homers, and Burns is at .395. Sophomore Andy Coleman has four homers and 12 RBI.
There are only three seniors on the squad, but there is a strong nucleus of experienced players on offense and defense. Still, most of them are young. "Every game, we'll have five or six freshman and sophomore starters," Jancuska said.
Perhaps the team's most important game in an 8-4 start was its 3-0 loss to Villanova on Sunday, when two Wildcats pitchers struck out nine and allowed six hits. "We saw the best pitching we've seen in a long time, and it helped identify our weaknesses at the plate," the UMBC coach said. "It was also beneficial, because we'll see good pitching in our conference games."
UMBC's best pitcher has been St. Mary's transfer Trevor Buckley, who has had three sharp outings. Craig Grasser and Bryan Raino also have turned in encouraging pitching performances, with the latter outstanding against Villanova. However, expected leader Kevin Alarie and Steve Koennel have arm and shoulder miseries.
Jancuska sees mental toughness as the key to the team's success. "We're scheduled to play 50 games in 60 days," he said. "We can compete physically, but we have to find out if we can do it mentally, being sharp day after day, game after game."