Bears Lock Up Top Class

Baylor's class has impact players all over the diamond





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When Mark McCormick and Ryan Lamotta arrived on Baylor’s campus as the jewels of a promising 2002 recruiting class, Bears coach Steve Smith felt like he got the players he wanted out of the state of Texas for the first time.

“Then we went through a couple years there coming off the basketball stuff that really, really hurt us in the state,” Smith said. “There was so much negative publicity around basketball, it really did affect us in-state.”

He’s referring, of course, to the 2003 murder of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson and the subsequent misconduct and resignation of basketball coach Dave Bliss. Smith and his baseball program had nothing to do with any of that, yet they suffered on the recruiting trail from the PR fallout.

But it turns out the Baylor coaching staff was right to believe its 2002 class was a harbinger of good things to come for the baseball program. Three years later, that class played a crucial role in Baylor’s first trip to the College World Series since 1978. All of a sudden, the Bears found themselves out of basketball’s dark shadow.

“I always wondered if we got to Omaha what kind of impact it would have on recruiting, and it had a big one,” Smith said. “And it couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Added recruiting coordinator Mitch Thompson: “It was quite a time, because we’d make an offer to a kid and he’d accept it. We didn’t lose a single kid that we offered.”

Now Baylor is harvesting the fruits of that 2005 CWS run and the ensuing recruiting boon. With four elite recruits and a number of other potential high-impact players, Baylor’s 2006 haul ranks as the nation’s best.

Unique In The Big 12

Many scouts considered premium bats Aaron Miller and Dustin Dickerson top-two-rounds talents in the 2006 draft, but they slipped to the 11th and 15th rounds because of their strong commitments. Both should both emerge as middle-of-the-order threats for Baylor, quite possibly as soon as this spring. Miller figures to take over the right-field job in 2007, while Dickerson will see time at first base or left field. Infielders Shaver Hansen and Raynor Campbell and catcher Gregg Glime will all have a chance to win starting jobs as well.

The Bears also have a pair of the best freshman arms in the country in righthanders Kendal Volz and Shawn Tolleson. Volz, a 6-foot-4 horse with a 92-94 mph fastball, a plus slider and a solid changeup, is likely ticketed for Baylor’s weekend rotation right away. Tolleson, who was generating first- or second-round buzz as a junior in high school, doesn’t figure to start pitching for the Bears until April or May, because he’s recovering from early-March Tommy John surgery. When healthy, Tolleson showed a sinking fastball that touches 94 mph and a devastating slider, ingredients that should cement his place alongside Volz in the first two slots in Baylor’s rotation in the coming years. Righthanders Willie Kempf, Craig Fritsch and Ryan Jenkins all have quality stuff and should be impact pitchers for Baylor as well.

Tolleson’s surgery turned out to be one in a series of factors that led to Baylor’s banner class arriving in Waco almost entirely intact. Major league clubs passed on Tolleson in the draft because of his injured elbow and bonus demands. Volz, a high school middle linebacker, was dinged up just enough on the football field that no team was willing to give him the potential seven-figure bonus it would have taken to buy him out of his commitment. Dickerson, a local kid out of Waco’s Midway High, loves being at home near friends and family and wasn’t yet ready to give that up. And Miller was the No. 5 student in his Channelview (Texas) High class of about 700, making an education at a private university particularly appealing.

Baylor’s status as the lone private school in the Big 12 Conference puts it in a unique position to attract academic-minded players. The only other private baseball power in Texas is Rice, which draws largely from the Houston area, leaving Baylor as the major private school option in central Texas. Of course, competing for players against less expensive public schools has its challenges.

“I think it’s a tough deal when your cost of attendance is twice what anybody else’s is,” Smith said. “But if you’re going to be a private school, you might as well be the only one. That is a niche, no doubt, and we don’t have to share it with anyone.”

And in its 10th year in the Big 12, Baylor has brought in a watershed recruiting class that proves a private school can sustain success against all the conference’s public heavyweights. Now the Bears’ big challenge will be bringing in another strong class behind this one.

“What’s interesting, we are so young, and everybody’s using that against us,” Smith said. “People are asking (recruits) the question, ‘Where are you going to play (at Baylor)?’ We’re trying to make sure we sign four or five quality players to mix with these guys we’ve got. There’s enough players out there, in this state in particular, we’ll eventually land a really good group.”

It’s hard to doubt that.

Beavers, Tar Heels Reload

The decisive game of the 2006 College World Series was more than a dramatic conclusion to the season for North Carolina and Oregon State. It was a moment three years in the making. The critical building blocks that led UNC and OSU to that moment were all on display that one day in Omaha: Daniel Bard and Andrew Miller both pitched for the Tar Heels, and Jonah Nickerson, Dallas Buck and Kevin Gunderson all took the mound for the Beavers. And when Gunderson recorded the final out, those five pitchers, the collective foundations for a pair of championship teams, were gone.

It’s a testament to what those players helped build that UNC and Oregon State will survive and prosper without them.

Like Baylor, the Beavers were able to build off the momentum of their 2005 CWS trip when they recruited the class that is now charged with helping replace the departed Nickerson, Buck, Gunderson, and five starting position players. Oregon State recruiting coordinator Dan Spencer said the Omaha run was particularly effective in helping the Beavers secure junior college commitments like first baseman Jordan Lennerton, center fielder Chris Hopkins and third baseman Drew George, all of whom figure to step into vacancies and earn starting jobs.

Throw in freshmen like second baseman Joey Wong (who should take over a starting job as well), catcher Ryan Ortiz, righthanders Jorge Reyes and Chad Nading and lefthander Blake Keitzman, and the Beavers have a top-20 national class that should make an impact in 2007 and, perhaps more importantly, 2008.

Oregon State probably won’t need to call on its newcomers to fill gaps in the weekend rotation right away, because returnees Mike Stutz, Daniel Turpen and Joe Patterson should have that covered. But the defending national champions’ top five arms are four draftable juniors who could all sign and a senior, so this freshman class will be called upon as a bridge in 2008. And the Beavers are now finding their title gives them even more currency on the recruiting trail, which should allow them to keep their success going.

“You know how that is, it’s a double-edged sword, because it gets you in the home of some of those high-end high school kids that will be second- or third-round kids,” Spencer said. “You’re trying to get commitments out of some of those but at same time trying to get the base of Northwest kids who will be very good and who we’ll keep.”

North Carolina’s situation is different for a number of reasons. For one thing, the Tar Heels return eight starters from a potent offense, making them serious contenders again this year no matter how their pitching shakes out. They don’t need their incoming recruiting class to fill as many immediate voids as Oregon State.

And though UNC did not have a CWS appearance to build upon when recruiting this class a year ago, it still secured a haul that ranks among the 10 best in the nation. Righthander Alex White, who also could play some infield, headlines a deep class. White is a premium arm who figures to slide into UNC’s weekend rotation along with senior Robert Woodard and sophomore Luke Putkonen. Polished lefties Rob Catapano and Matt Petiton are ready to pitch right away and could compete with White for a weekend spot, start in midweek or pitch in relief. Dustin Ackley, Drew Poulk and Tim Fedroff will push for playing time in UNC’s crowded outfield and should be significant impact players down the road. And second baseman Kyle Seager has a chance to wrest away a starting job.

It’s a class that cushions the loss of Miller and Bard and provides the Tar Heels with some long-term security in the wake of their CWS run.

“I think we’re deeper both on the mound and in position players,” North Carolina recruiting coordinator Chad Holbrook said. “We don’t have the headline guys in Miller and Bard, but we don’t have to hold our breath every time somebody has a tender arm or a tight hamstring. I think this class will enable our program not to miss a beat.”

AROUND THE NATION

• For the first time in four years, Cal State Fullerton will be without Justin Turner, Blake Davis, Brett Pill and Danny Dorn, its top four hitters from 2006. That group went to Omaha three times in four years and helped the Titans to the 2004 national title. Their graduations combined with the departures of pitching stalwarts Lauren Gagnier, Ryan Paul and Vinnie Pestano leave the Titans in the unfamiliar position of having to rely on freshmen next spring. Fortunately for Fullerton, its recruiting class is one of the best on the West Coast, featuring star-caliber position players in outfielder Khris Davis and shortstop Nathan Bridges. Those two, along with second baseman Corey Jones, will be thrust into immediate service. Righthander Michael Morrison has power stuff and should vie for a rotation job, and stocky righty Travis Kelly’s bulldog mentality could make him an important piece at the back of Fullerton’s bullpen.

“The hard thing to replace is the experience—Dorn and Turner started for four years here,” Titans recruiting coordinator Jason Gill said. “Talent-wise, this class is fine. This is my third class since I took over recruiting, and it’s by far the best class I’ve brought in.”

• Baseball America’s recruiting class rankings do not take into consideration transfers from four-year colleges, who are not supposed to be recruited like freshmen and junior college transfers are. But if we had considered four-year transfers, two Louisiana schools would have gotten a significant boost.

Tulane brought in a small class of high-impact players, led by righthander Preston Claiborne, lefty Aaron Loup and outfielder Ryan Scott. But the Green Wave’s most significant newcomer might be righthander Shooter Hunt, a transfer from Virginia who ranked as the No. 9 prospect in the Cape Cod League this summer thanks to an explosive low-90s fastball and plus curveball.

Rival LSU added the No. 10 prospect in the Cape League, lefthander Charlie Forbush, a transfer from Division III St. Joseph’s in Maine. Forbush showed a good fastball that touched 93-94 mph in the Cape, in addition to a curveball that can be above average. Forbush and lefthander Blake Martin, a transfer from Birmingham-Southern, bolster a solid group of newcomers that includes outfielder Jared Mitchell, a receiver on LSU’s football team, and righthander Jared Bradford.

Interestingly, neither Hunt nor Forbush rates as the top transfer from the Cape League prospects list. That honor goes to fifth-ranked third baseman Matt Mangini, who jumped from North Carolina State to Oklahoma State.

• San Diego State also got a major boost from four-year transfers--five of them, in fact. Outfielder Brandon Glover joins the Aztecs from Texas A&M, lefthander Donnie Hume and infielder Brandon Decker arrive from Long Beach State, infielder Joe Spiers jumps from Hawaii and catcher Frank LoNigro moves south from Fresno State. Those players augment an Aztecs class that was already built around quality juco transfers Aaron Brady, Steven Hirschfeld and Cameron Johnson, among others. The large class will be asked to plug gaps all over the field, as San Diego State lost eight starting position players, as well as ace righthander Justin Masterson.

• The highest-drafted player to bypass the professional ranks for college ball is Seton Hall righthander Sean Black, a second-round pick of the Nationals out of Lenape (N.J.) High. Black, a converted shortstop who rocketed up draft boards this spring with a fastball that touches 95 and a power curveball, is part of a Seton Hall class that rates as the best in the Northeast.