By Walter Villa
MIAMI—The gap between the baseball programs at Miami and Boston College is as wide as the Hurricanes’ four national championships since 1982 and the Eagles failing to reach the College World Series since 1967.
But the gap is shrinking.
That’s not a knock on the ‘Canes, who have reached the regionals an NCAA-record 35 straight years. They have made it to the CWS 22 times, winning it all in 1982, 1985, 1999 and 2001. And Miami is ranked 10th in the heading into 2008.
It’s just that the NCAA’s new, compacted schedule gives BC—the northernmost school in the Atlantic Coast Conference—more of a chance to compete with Miami, which is at the other end of the conference’s geography.
“We will never be able to do anything about the (cold) weather,” BC coach Mik Aoki said. “But in many other areas, we feel we are making major strides.”
Getting Up To Speed
The Eagles and Hurricanes—forever linked by the “Hail Flutie” play in football—will open their conference baseball schedules against each other on March 7 in Miami. BC will have played 10 games by then, compared to seven for Miami.
“In past years, Miami would have started by about Feb. 1 and had a bigger advantage against Northern teams,” Aoki said. “This year, we will be on spring break in Florida by Feb. 27, and we will just stay down there playing games and getting acclimated to the heat and humidity.”
The Eagles will play 11 games during their Florida trip, including an exhibition against the Boston Red Sox. In addition, the Eagles will play Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Notre Dame, Lehigh, St. Bonaventure and Mount Saint Mary’s before finishing with three games against Miami.
But it’s not just the new schedule. The other areas where the Eagles are catching up include scholarships, recruiting and facilities.
Prior to joining the ACC, the Eagles awarded only three scholarships per year. Since joining the conference, they have increased their scholarships by two-to-three per year and figure to be at the NCAA limit of 11.7 by 2009.
The increased scholarships have had a major impact on recruiting.
“Our philosophy is to keep the best players in the New England area,” said Aoki, who has 15 kids from the Eagles’ home state of Massachusetts. “But Florida is also important to us. We have five kids from Florida.”
Aoki said that the “final piece of the puzzle” is BC’s new baseball stadium, which is expected to be completed in time for the 2010 season. The stadium, which will hold up to 2,500 fans, will be built across the street from the main campus at a cost of about $25 million.
“The stadium will be lighted and have coaches’ offices, equipment rooms, video rooms,” Aoki said. “It will hold its own with any college stadium in the country.”
Still In The Sun
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, have their own stadium project. Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, who signed with UM out of high school but turned pro just before enrolling, donated $3.9 million to his almost-alma mater a couple of years ago.
The renovation of what is now known as Mark Light Field at Alex Rodriguez Park has been completed in stages, with the final touches set for the 2008 offseason.
Coach Jim Morris, who has led the Hurricanes to 14 straight NCAA regionals, doesn’t think the new, compacted schedule will neutralize UM’s advantage as a warm-weather baseball school.
“The sun is still shining, and we’re still taking ground balls,” Morris said. “You just need to have more pitching depth. But pitching is always the name of the game.”
Morris said the ‘Canes will use a five-man rotation this season.
“Other teams might throw their ace at us in midweek games because we’re Miami,” Morris said. “But we are going to use our top three starters on the weekend and our No. 4 and No. 5 guys in the midweek games.”
Morris said that his challenge of winning national titles has gotten much tougher since Miami entered the ACC in 2005.
“Being an independent was more conducive to winning,” Morris admitted. “We played many more home games as an independent. We played a tough schedule, but we selected the teams.
“Now, with the ACC, the added travel takes a toll on the players. And the conference is so very tough. A couple of years ago, we finished fifth in the ACC but fourth in the College World Series.
“But overall, the ACC is great for our athletic program. It’s a great fit athletically and academically.”
Aoki is in agreement with Morris when it comes to the ACC.
“The ACC,” Aoki said, “is the top conference in America.”
And it’s getting tighter and more hotly contested every year.
Walter Villa is a freelance writer in Miami.