NCAA-bound Navy leaves 2001 behind

Mids are looking ahead this time

Richmond next

College Baseball

May 28, 2002|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

It wasn't as if the Navy baseball team needed any additional incentive after its wasted opportunity in 2001, but one was around - unavoidable, in fact - all season long.

After winning the Patriot League regular season to earn the home-field edge in last year's tournament championship, the Mids were dismissed by Bucknell in two straight games in the best-of-three series.

Second-year coach Steve Whitmyer laminated the lineup card from that final day and strategically displayed it on the corkboard inside Fitzgerald Clubhouse as a constant reminder. There's not a player on the team who can't recite the last game's disappointing final score: Bucknell 6, Navy 2.

"Every day before we go out to the field, it's right there, so everybody has to take a look at it. Everybody remembers. It kind of puts a sick feeling in your stomach to know you got that close and couldn't pull it off," said sophomore pitcher Andy Froistad, who earned first-team All-Patriot League honors with a 5-1 record and 2.19 ERA. "That was enough for all of us to get out there and work that much harder so the same thing doesn't happen again."

Lesson learned.

Navy (22-23) enjoyed a late-season surge to capture its eighth regular-season title in 10 years and then left no questions in the league tournament with an impressive two-game sweep of Lehigh for an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. Winners of five straight games and 13 of their past 17, the third-seeded Mids will take on second-seeded Richmond in Winston-Salem, N.C., in a regional opener Friday.

It's Navy's first national tournament appearance since 1999.

"I think the philosophy we've taken is that if we can battle through the early season and try to get better every month, then hopefully when we get to the end of April and May, we're playing really good baseball. I know that our guys feel very confident that we are playing as well as we've had all year, so it's all played out how we've wanted it to," said Whitmyer, who was named Patriot League Coach of the Year. "We understand that we're matched up against one of the top seeds, but our guys are excited about the opportunity and looking forward to the challenge."

Pitching has been Navy's season-long mainstay.

None of the top three starters - Froistad and juniors Matt Foster and Rich McDevitt - is overpowering, but each is smart, aggressive and throws strikes early in the count to challenge batters. Senior closer Bryan Koehler, a first-team All-Patriot League performer, has gone 5-1 with four saves in 21 appearances.

"They're all challenging guys, and that makes all the difference in the world. When you get ahead of guys, then you can just start working different things after that," said senior catcher David Woolsey.

The Midshipmen are batting only .251 as a team, relying on timely hitting and manufacturing runs. There was, however, no shortage of offense against Lehigh in the conference tournament. The Midshipmen piled up 13 hits in both games, winning 5-3 and 11-7.

Foster earned the win in the first game and then supplied much of the offense in the second, going 4-for-4 with a grand slam and a Patriot League tournament-record six RBIs.

"I think the difference this year was we didn't hype it up as much. We said it's just another game, another day and let's go out there and play ball," said Foster, the tournament Most Valuable Player. "When things come together like that, it's a great feeling. I'm glad because that was the first week my dad was able to come this whole season, so he was here to see it. It was just a great weekend overall for all of us."

With everything else that goes on as students at the Naval Academy, the Mids' practice time is more limited than other teams', so Whitmyer must make the most of each practice hour. He's quick to credit the strong senior leadership for helping the team stay the course after some injuries and tough early losses.

Woolsey has been the glue behind the plate, outfielder John Cocca (.278, 29 runs) was a second-team All-Patriot League choice and pitcher Brian Pennell has helped bring along the younger arms.

"We've gone into every single game this year focused on that day, and if they hadn't done that, we might have dug ourselves into a hole that they mentally couldn't have gotten out of," Whitmyer said. "So I think these guys are mentally tough kids, and the seniors have taken things seriously when they needed to and are relishing this time right now."

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