College Weekend Preview: May 7-9

Meaningful Matchup
Texas Christian at New Mexico
TCU and New Mexico have finished as the top two teams in the Mountain West Conference standings each of the last two seasons, and in all likelihood they’re going to finish as the top two teams in the league again this year. With three weeks to go, the Horned Frogs have assumed their customary spot in first place at 14-3, two games ahead of the Lobos (12-5).

“We’ve been in this situation every year I’ve been here, where now it’s pretty much us and TCU battling for the championship at the end of the year,” third-year New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham said. “(Coach) Jim Schlossnagle has done such a great job at TCU, and I really admire the job that he’s done there, and I’m glad he’s there. If you want to be a boxer, go fight Mike Tyson and it’ll make you better. They’re as good a team as there is in the country.”

Top 25 Schedule
(1) Virginia, (3) Arizona State off

(2) Texas at Kansas State

(4) Florida at Alabama

(5) Florida State at Boston College

(6) South Carolina at Kentucky

Winthrop at (7) Coastal Carolina

(8) Texas Christian at New Mexico

(9) Louisville at Georgetown

UC Riverside at (10) Cal State Fullerton

(14) Arkansas at (11) Mississippi

(12) UCLA at Washington

Barry (Fla.) at (13) Miami

(15) Oregon at Oregon State

Savannah State at (16) Virginia Tech

Illinois-Chicago at (17) Georgia Tech

(18) Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State (in Tulsa/Oklahoma City)

Mississippi State at (19) Auburn

Cincinnati at (20) Connecticut

(21) California at Washington State

(22) San Diego at Portland

Cal State Bakersfield at (23) Arizona

Vanderbilt at (24) Louisiana State

(25) Rice at Marshall

Indeed, the eighth-ranked Frogs have proven to be one of the nation’s elite teams and the class of the Mountain West; they have swept three straight conference series and four straight series overall. TCU has regional hosting ambitions, but it is battling the Ratings Percentage Index, where the Frogs ranked 16th in the NCAA’s latest official report, with four games left on the schedule against Air Force (No. 260) and three against Cal State Bakersfield (180).

That makes the next four games—against New Mexico (34) and Texas State (35)—critical.

“The next four games are all really, really important,” Schlossnagle said. “To me, we still have to solidify ourselves as a good seed in a regional and hopefully to host. So it’s a big series for both of us. What coach Birmingham’s done a phenomenal job of is, he’s created a persona for his program. No disrespect to anybody that was there beforehand, but coach Birmingham came in and he’s colorful and not afraid to say what’s on his mind, and his kids rally around that. They can really hit—really hit—and they have a great approach that they never vary from.”

Schlossnagle said the Lobos do a great job of using the spacious right-center-field gap at Isotopes Park, where they play their home games.

“That’s what most hitting coaches try to get their teams to do, but I think he does a better job of getting his guys to do that than any coach in the country,” Schlossnagle said. “So you’ve got to pitch to that and defend that part of the field. And they’re just flat difficult to strike out, so you do have to play defense on that side of the field against a righthanded hitter, because they’re going to flare balls to that side with two strikes.”

The Lobos have a deep lineup filled with tough outs, and they rank fifth nationally in batting (.356). They’re not a big home run-hitting team, but they rank sixth in the country in doubles (128), illustrating Schlossnagle’s point about their approach.

The lineup does have a couple of power threats in junior catcher Rafael Neda (.375/.437/.642 with 10 homers and 54 RBIs) and senior first baseman Justin Howard (.449/.498/.707 with nine homers and 56 RBIs). In keeping with New Mexico’s philosophy, Howard is the second-toughest player to strike out in the MWC. Howard hit just .308 after transferring from Navarro (Texas) JC last year, but his maturation at the plate has been a key part of his emergence as one of the nation’s top hitters this year.

“I thought he had a lot of talent, but there were a couple of things in his approach that he did in junior college, and he didn’t want to get rid of it,” Birmingham said. “He was a shoulder-sitter with a bar on the back side, and he didn’t use his hands enough for me. He wasn’t aggressive enough for me; good hitters are aggressive with a good approach. So coming into this year, he decided, ‘I’ve never been drafted, I’ve never had a scout talk to me, so this is it. This is the time to decide whether I’m going with it or not.’ He became more aggressive, which first and foremost he needed to do, and then he needed to use his hands better and get inside the ball the right way. He’s turned into as good a hitter as I’ve seen throughout the country.”

Birmingham believes he can develop hitters, so he allocates many of his scholarship resources to pitching. He said there was just one pitcher on the staff who could throw above 90 mph when he arrived at New Mexico after the 2007 season, and now there are nine, led by senior righthander Willy Kesler (4-1, 3.63) and junior lefty Kenny Toves (4-1, 3.38).

“Velocity doesn’t teach you how to pitch, but it helps,” Birmingham said. “Now we have to continue to teach kids how to pitch, gain confidence—all the things that make pitchability a big deal. They used to use the excuse that it was high altitude here, which I refuse to do. If you can pitch, you can pitch. So our pitching is my biggest focus. If this team had a team ERA of 4.5, we’d already be a shoo-in for the regionals.”

Regardless, New Mexico is in strong position to earn its first regional berth in nearly five decades. The RPI Needs Report at says the Lobos just need to finish just 5-4 down the stretch to finish in the top 45 in the RPI, which is solid at-large footing. A series win this weekend would make New Mexico an ironclad lock.

“I’ve just got to not panic, because this program has not been there since 1962,” Birmingham said. “I’ve got a picture of the ’62 regional team right next to my computer on my desk—I look at it every day.”

New Mexico will have its work cut out for it this weekend against a TCU team that leads the conference in ERA (3.76) and fielding percentage (.970) and ranks second in scoring (8.7 runs per game, just a tick behind New Mexico’s 8.8 average).

The Frogs have a rock-solid weekend rotation that boasts three power pitchers: freshman lefty Matt Purke (8-0, 4.10), sophomore righty Kyle Winkler 97-0, 3.69) and junior righty Steven Maxwell (7-0, 2.61). Their deep, talented bullpen has been anchored by hard-throwing sophomore righty Kaleb Merck (2-1, 1.31) and crafty senior righty Tyler Lockwood (5-2, 1.91), and they’re getting a further boost soon with the return of senior righty Eric Marshall from a back injury. Marshall racked up nine saves as the closer a year ago.

“Our starting pitching’s been good, and with exception of the fifth game last week versus Baylor, we’ve pitched really well and played good defense,” Schlossnagle said. “We’ve played well for about a month now.”

Early in the season, defense was a concern for the Frogs, but a few lineup shifts have made a big difference. Jantzen Witte was installed at third base, where he is a superb defender, and Aaron Schultz moved from the hot corner to center field. Fleet-footed veteran Brance Rivera took over in right field and Josh Elander (a catcher by trade) moved to DH. Now the Frogs have an athletic group of outfielders that covers plenty of ground, and the infield is even stronger.

Texas Christian has no discernable weaknesses, and it must be considered the favorite to win the MWC regular-season and conference tournament championships. But this time around, New Mexico has positioned itself so that it does not need the automatic bid to break through to regionals. And maybe in a few weeks, Birmingham can replace that photo on his desk of the 1962 regional team with a shot of the 2010 regional team.

Marquee Mound Matchup
Kyle Blair vs. Zach Varce
The biggest series on the West Coast this weekend will take place in the state of Oregon, but it won’t be the Civil War between the Ducks and the slumping Beavers. Portland plays host to San Diego in a series that will go a long way toward deciding who wins the West Coast Conference.

The WCC does not have a conference tournament and did away with its best-of-three championship series, so the regular-season title is critical—especially for the Pilots, who likely won’t have a strong enough RPI to earn an at-large bid. Portland enters this weekend at 11-1 in the league, just a game behind 12-0 USD, the preseason favorite. This is a series between two quality pitching staffs, and the tone will be set Friday, when junior righthanders Blair (San Diego) and Varce (Portland) face off.

“It’s just a marquee Friday matchup,” San Diego coach Rich Hill said. “I don’t know if it’s (Anthony) Ranaudo-(Drew) Pomeranz-esque, but it’s two guys that can really mix, that are extremely competitive, and that’s why they’re starting on Fridays. Both guys want to put the team on their backs and have that type of personality.”

Both Blair and Varce are aggressive strikeout pitchers, and they rank second and third in the WCC in strikeouts per nine innings (11.13 for Blair, 10.36 for Varce). Blair has had dominant stretches throughout his collegiate career, but he’s having his most consistent season as a junior, going 6-3, 3.26 with 82 strikeouts and 25 walks in 66 innings.

“Kyle’s fastball command has really improved,” Hill said. “He’s got a devastating curveball and slider, but I think the biggest thing with him is fastball command and stamina. He’s just much more in shape, and his durability and stamina have really picked up. His physical conditioning has been awesome.”

San Diego’s talented staff has benefited lately from better infield defense thanks to the return of shortstop Zach Walters from a dislocated thumb. Walters has been a stabilizing force, and Chris Engell has settled in at third base after starting the year at second. Engell has also come on strong in conference play, hitting .441. The Toreros are hitting .373 as a team in 12 conference games, led by red-hot senior outfielder James Meador (.519/.526/.808 with three homers and 21 RBIs).

USD’s offensive surge has made life easier for the pitching staff, and it will make life more difficult for Varce. Portland’s ace enters the weekend 5-1, 3.08 with 84 strikeouts and 19 walks in 73 innings. Varce worked mostly in the bullpen last year before making 11 starts in the Northwoods League last summer. He racked up 105 strikeouts in 75 innings and posted a 1.93 ERA in the NWL, and he has emerged as one of the top pitchers in the West this spring.

“I think it’s a combination of getting older and being more experienced—it not being his first barbecue anymore, he kind of knows what to expect,” Portland coach Chris Sperry said of Varce. “The success that he enjoyed with us last year and carrying into his summer season gave him a lot of confidence, and I don’t think there’s a substitute for that. He pitches at 88-91, and he’ll go get 93 once in a while. By a scout’s standards, it’s probably an average fastball at best, but he throws a very good curveball and an excellent slider, and he’ll use a split-finger, so he’s got four pitches he can use, and he’ll use them pretty much any time. He’s been so effective throwing strikes, and hitters can’t sit on any pitch because he’s been so effective with all of them. Hitters are constantly off-balance.”

Under The Radar
Since the start of the 2008 season, Canisius has racked up more wins (107) than any team in the Northeast. Manhattan is tied for fourth (90).

The Golden Griffins and Jaspers have emerged as the most consistent programs in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, finishing as the top two teams in the standings each of the last two years, though neither teams won the conference tournament either season. They look like the two best teams in the MAAC again this year; Canisius leads the league at 13-2 heading into this weekend’s home showdown against Manhattan, which is tied for second at 10-5.

“There’s three weekends to go, but in my mind I kind of think this weekend will clear the road for first place,” Canisius coach Mike McRae said.

Canisius already has reached the 30-win plateau for the third straight season. Prior to that stretch, the Griffs had never won 30 games in a season.

“It’s something the guys are proud of, something I’m proud of, especially if you think about where the program was,” McRae said. “The kids work awfully hard.  The big dance has eluded us, and that’s how we see the goal.”

Canisius looked poised to break through to regionals for the first time ever last year, with a veteran team led by mashing senior infielders Kevin Mahoney and Kevin Mailloux. That duo was among the 10 seniors Canisius had to replace heading into this year, but the Griffs have not missed a beat.

Junior infielder Steve McQuail (.378/.453/.727 with 15 home runs and 62 RBIs) has emerged as the new anchor of the offense. McQuail opened eyes last summer in the Valley League, where he led all of summer baseball with 16 home runs and ranked as the circuit’s No. 5 prospect.

“He’s got pretty legit power,” McRae said. “He struggled early, but lately he’s come on. I just think he put a little too much pressure on himself. He came in with high hopes, high expectations, and I think he tried to do too much, too fast. But then he just let his abilities take over.”

McQuail has plenty of support in the lineup from senior Ian Choy (.388/.512/.541) and junior Brian Burton (.345/.420/.642 with 13 homers), among others. Senior outfielder/righthander Shayne Willson (.335/.411/.559 with nine homers; 1-0, 3.27 with four saves) has provided power and a calming presence at the back of the bullpen, where his solid slider and lively fastball make him tough.

And the rotation has kept the Griffs in most games. Lefthander Shane Davis (6-3, 4.50) has won 27 games in his career and has lost just two conference games in three years. Senior lefty Mike Goemans (4-3, 4.95) is a workhorse behind him, and senior righty Chris Cox (4-2, 3.91) has pitched well since stepping into the rotation midway through the year. McRae said Cox exemplifies the resilient nature of his team.

“He basically suffered from some performance anxiety issues in the past,” McRae said. “Guys didn’t like to play him in practices because he had good stuff, but in a game environment he would get rattled and the ball would go off the backstop—he just couldn’t throw strikes in games. I think we eased him into it this year, and he’s been very solid for us.”

Paul Hoilman, 1b, East Tennessee State
Hoilman is on a season-long tear for the surging Buccaneers, so the big numbers he has put up recently are nothing special by his standards, but they are impressive nonetheless. During his current eight-game hitting streak, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound junior is hitting .452 (14-for-31) with four home runs, 14 runs scored and 13 RBIs. His second home run of Wednesday’s 12-4 win against Wofford gave him 162 total bases, breaking Nathan Cope’s ETSU single-season record. He leads the nation in total bases, slugging (.905) and OPS (1.459); ranks second in batting (.458) and RBIs (67); third in home runs (19); and fifth in on-base percentage (.554).

Enough numbers for you? Well, there is more to Hoilman than numbers.

“He is a tremendous story,” ETSU coach Tony Skole said. “First and foremost, the young man is a 4.0 student as a pre-med/math major. He’s already scored high enough on his MCAT scores to get into probably any medical school he wants, and he’s just a junior. He’s obviously a wonderful young man off the field, and he’s a tremendous leader in the clubhouse and around our campus. He plays inside the game, always trying to look for an advantage, always trying to give himself an opportunity to succeed at the plate. He’s got tremendous strike-zone discipline, he’s just very aggressive in the strike zone.”

Hoilman has been an impact slugger since he set foot on campus—he hit .353 with nine homers as a freshman, then .380 with 17 homers and 66 RBIs as a sophomore. But while his power production has increased every year, he has not sold out for power. On the contrary, his approach continues to mature. He posted a 26-50 walk-strikeout mark as a freshman, then improved to 40-49 BB-K as a sophomore. This year, he has 38 walks and 28 strikeouts in 179 at-bats.

“It’s something we circled at the beginning of the year—we wanted him to strike out less and walk a little more,” Skole said. “He’s a slugger, no doubt, but he probably makes the best two-strike adjustments of anybody on our team. It doesn’t take away from his power numbers even though he’s got two strikes. And it’s funny, we’ll have a bunt competition at the end of some of our practices, and I’ll never ask him to bunt in a game, but he’s always the first guy picked for those bunt competitions. And if his team loses, he’s really disappointed.”

Hoilman hit eight home runs in 124 at-bats for North Adams in the New England Collegiate League last summer, but scouts are still trying to determine how his swing will translate to wood bats in pro ball. But Skole is convinced his bat will play at the next level because of his ability to make adjustments. He also has helped his stock by improving his defense at first base, where he is fielding at a .989 clip.

“He’s got a really good arm, and really good feet over there,” Skole said. “He’s really improved over there—he’s really raised his game defensively as well. As proud as I’m sure he is of his numbers, I think he’s even more proud of how he’s improved defensively.”

Hoilman’s big bat has helped carry the Buccaneers to a 26-18 record. After sweeping Stetson last weekend, they improved to 14-7 in the league and climbed to second place in the standings. ETSU trails first-place Florida Gulf Coast by three games heading into this weekend’s showdown between the two teams in Fort Myers.

“We’re very excited,” Skole said. “We haven’t really been in this position in a long time, and that’s sort of what you work hard for—to give yourself an opportunity for these last few weekends to mean something.”

Louisiana State
It has been 28 years since the last time LSU was swept in back-to-back Southeastern Conference series. Needless to say, there was plenty of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing in Baton Rouge after the Tigers were swept at Florida this past weekend, running their losing streak to seven games. And it was a load off when they snapped their skid with a win against Southeastern Louisiana on Tuesday.

“It was good to win a game,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “I told the players after the game that I almost felt they were going to dogpile on the mound. (First baseman) Blake Dean looked like he wanted to put the ball in the trophy case next to the national championship trophy.”

Mainieri acknowledged that he has detected the panic and frustration of LSU fans, who demand nothing less than a national title every season. “There’s only one thing worse than criticism: apathy,” he said. “Given a choice, I’d much rather have people care.”

Still, it’s amazing how quickly people forget about LSU’s 32-6 start, the second-best start through 38 games in LSU’s illustrious history. So what went wrong?

The root of the slump is on the mound. First-team preseason All-America righthander Anthony Ranaudo has taken longer than expected to round into form after missing most of the first half with a stress reaction near his elbow, and he has been hit hard each of the last two weeks against Mississippi and Florida. And LSU has not gotten consistent work behind him in the rotation from the likes of Chris Matulis, Austin Ross and Joey Bourgeois.

“It’s been a little bit of an enigma,” Mainieri said. “I didn’t expect to have the best pitching staff in the country, but with the way it started with Ranaudo with his injury, he just hasn’t really found his groove yet. But I thought somebody would evolve as a No. 2 starter, and that’s really hurt us. We’ve got some decent No. 3 starters, but we don’t have a No. 2, like Louis Coleman was last year.”

Mainieri, Baseball America’s 2009 College Coach of the Year, has shown a knack for pushing exactly the right buttons to get his team going in his LSU tenure, and last weekend he attempted a patented Mainieri shakeup, giving star closer Matty Ott his first career start on Sunday.

The move did not work. Ott gave up nine runs on eight hits over 3 2/3 innings, and the Gators cruised to a 13-6 win.

“Matty is definitely going back to the bullpen,” Mainieri said. “Fifty percent of the people wanted me to start him, and 50 percent wanted me to leave him where he is. I just thought it was the right thing to do, to see if he could do it. We had fallen behind in both of the first two games, so I thought if we fall into a big hole early in the third game, it would mean Matty Ott would not have thrown meaningful innings the entire weekend. I don’t regret doing it—a lot of people wanted it inside the dugout as well as outside. But he’ll go back to the role (where) he’s been so successful.”

On Tuesday, Mainieri used Ranaudo for an inning of relief against Southeastern, and he said the ace looked good, reaching 95-96 mph. He’ll start again on Friday assuming he does not need an extra day of rest following his 21-pitch outing Tuesday. Righthander Austin Ross will start Sunday, and Mainieri will try to mix and match on Saturday.

“We’re just struggling a little bit and trying to find the right combinations,” Mainieri said. “I’m a big believer that as a coach you have to know your players, and you can’t ask for more than a player is capable of giving you. So we’ll try to take some pressure off those guys and see if we can get through a weekend.”

Mainieri said he knows the Tigers have put themselves behind the eight-ball in the race to host a regional. But he also knows a lot can change in the SEC in three weeks. Other teams are certain to face tough stretches in their schedule like the back-to-back road series at Ole Miss and Florida that derailed the Tigers.

“I knew it was going to be a tough stretch,” Mainieri said. “I didn’t imagine we’d go 0-7, but I also knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Now I think the kids have it in proper perspective. We battled as hard as we could; it didn’t work out. I told them when we got back, ‘Normally you’ve got two seasons: a regular season and a postseason.’ I said, ‘I’m sneaking another season in there: an 11-game season between now and the conference tournament. As far as I’m concerned, we’re 1-0 in this 11-game season.’

“We still can accomplish something significant in these last 11 games. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that we could still host a regional. Or we can go on the road and win a regional. We just need to regroup.”

The road doesn’t get much easier; LSU (now 11-10 in the SEC) hosts Vanderbilt (10-9) this weekend in a critical series.

Stat of the Week
Penn State’s single-season home run record, set by Dave Simononis in 1978 and tied last weekend by junior catcher Ben Heath. Heath tied the record with two home runs Sunday, helping Penn State complete a sweep of Michigan State. The Nittany Lions have won back-to-back series against early Big Ten leaders Ohio State and Michigan State to climb to 7-8 in the conference.

Heath has been a revelation since assuming an everyday role for Penn State this spring. He was limited by a pulled quad muscle last year and split time even when healthy, starting just 26 games on the season. But Nittany Lions coach Robbie Wine said Heath worked hard over the offseason on becoming more flexible and starting the season in top playing shape. He got off to a strong start and has kept hitting; he enters this weekend’s series against Iowa hitting .383/.457/.772 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs.

“What Ben Heath’s doing, playing every day behind the plate and putting up that kind of batting average and power—it reminds me of what Josh Fields did when I was at Oklahoma State,” Wine said. “He can even go opposite field—it’s not just pull power, it’s gap-to-gap. He’s a strong kid, and he’s loosened up. He’s got that quick bat speed now.”

Heath’s improved flexibility has made him a better catcher as well, and Wine lauds his ability to call games and take charge on the field. He said Heath’s arm is “100 times better than last year—last year he was just muscle bound.” One American League scout said Heath is not a finished product behind the plate, but he has shown enough potential to be drafted in the top eight to 10 rounds.

“He’s still a little bit raw behind the plate, but he has an average arm,” the scout said. “He still has some work to do receiving—he often reaches for the outside pitch instead of shifting his body. His hands are soft enough, and he knows how to frame, it’s just the finer points of catching he’s still working on.”

But Heath has proven a quick study.

“He’s a great kid, a student of the game, he pays attention, he’s a hard worker,” Wine said.

Scouting Report
The Citadel at College of Charleston
First place in the Southern Conference is on the line this weekend, as The Citadel travels across town to face College of Charleston. The Bulldogs dropped a series to Samford last week but are still 17-4 in the SoCon and have a 1 1/2-game lead over second-place CofC (17-7). This series is a contrast in styles. The Citadel’s strength is on the mound, where it is led by junior righthander Asher Wojciechowski, whose 102 strikeouts rank third in the nation. College of Charleston is the highest-scoring team in the offensive SoCon, averaging 9.1 runs per game (13th in the nation). The Cougars also have power arms on the mound, as evidenced by their 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings (most in the conference and 14th in the nation).

Three other SoCon coaches offered their thoughts on the Bulldogs and Cougars, and we combined them into one scouting report.

“Citadel is better this year than (it was) last year, even though they lost all those guys. Their team is different. Last year they kind of waited back on offense and waited for (Sonny) Meade, (Richard) Jones and (Chris) McGuiness to do what they needed offensively. They play more to their ballpark now. Everybody knows this is an offensive league and last year they were more power-oriented. This year, they don’t have those boppers, but they have more athleticism, they are better on defense. I wouldn’t say they have prospects in the field, but they might just be better. I love (Nick) Orvin, love his approach and his energy, and I really liked (Bryan) Altman, I’ve liked him ever since he’s been there. Those guys are grinders and good athletes, and they can hit and defend and do a lot of things to help you win.

“The separator for them is Asher. He’s definitely the best player and the best prospect in the league. His velocity is up because he’s throwing his fastball more. He’s always had a great slider, but his fastball is so much better and that makes his slider better. We had him up to 96 in the eighth inning and I know we’re not the only team he’s done that against. The rest of their staff is solid, they have a lot of good college pitchers, but they really follow his lead. He has basically been a win for them every Friday, and he goes deep every Friday, so he just makes such a difference for their team. (Michael) Clevenger is the next guy, he’ll probably take over Fridays for them next year, his secondary stuff was inconsistent, but his velocity was solid and he hit a lot of 92s against us.”

“College of Charleston really stands out for their arms. (Rob) Kral, their catcher, has a hard time, he’s not a great receiver, but he can really hit. He’s probably their best hitter. That whole team swings the bat, but I think they have the best arms in the league; they have outstanding pitching. We saw a lot of 90-92 mph readings, but they were hittable. Kevin Decker is pretty solid, he was very firm against us and I think he was the best starter they have.

“Heath Hembree, their closer, creates a lot of energy for them, but he also creates a lot of energy for the other team. He was 95-97 against us and I’m sure he’ll go good in the draft. But it was fairly straight, and there’s not a lot of deception. The slider wasn’t great against us, so our hitters weren’t afraid to face him, they were energetic against him. His fastball has some life, but he’ll make mistakes with it.”

In The Dugout
Mike Olt, 3b, Connecticut
Olt, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior, has played a big part in Connecticut’s push to end its 15-year NCAA tournament drought. The Huskies had a 22-game winning streak snapped last week, and they are 35-9 overall, and 14-3 in the Big East, putting them in first place by a half-game over Louisville. On April 12, UConn broke into the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time ever, and they have been ranked for each of the last four weeks. They enter this weekend’s series against Cincinnati as the No. 20 team in the nation. Olt, the centerpiece of the lineup, is hitting .339/.398/.646 with 14 home runs and 55 RBIs in 189 at-bats. The No. 1 prospect in the New England Collegiate League after his standout freshman year in 2008, Olt projects as a third- or fourth-round pick this June, according to the scuttlebutt in the Northeast. But right now, Olt and the Huskies have their eyes set on the Big East crown.

Congratulations on all of your success this year. I imagine this has been a fun season for you guys.

It’s been quite the rollercoaster. It’s been an awesome experience to get on a win streak like we had. It’s been a great ride.

It’s not easy to win 22 games in a row. How special must that vibe have been when the team was playing with so much confidence and energy?

I think in the beginning part of the streak, I don’t think anyone really knew what was going on. We were locked in, everyone was having fun with it. Then when it got to a 15-20-game winning streak, it kind of got (publicized) a little bit, then it became even more fun because it was something that hadn’t been done in UConn baseball history. We didn’t think about it too much, but it’s something that was good to be a part of.

This team did enter the season with some expectations. Did you think coming into the season that you guys had a real shot to get to regionals?

I think this year, out of the past couple years, we thought would be our chance to make a run at it. The thing is we just didn’t know if pitching-wise we’d be able to fill in for the guys we lost, and we lost outfielder Pete Fatse, which was a big loss. But I don’t think anybody is too surprised that we’re in a good situation to be in a regional. I think that’s the best part of this team, is being a small Northeast school that has the confidence to play with the big teams. I think right now we’re in a good spot, if we keep doing what we’re doing. We have three big weekend series left against Cincinnati, South Florida and Seton Hall. It’s obviously going to be a big challenge—Big East games are always tough.

Louisville has been the best team in the Big East the last few years, but you guys have played them tough, and right now you’re actually looking down at them in the standings. How much did you guys want to get the better of those guys after the way last year ended?

Going into the fall, we all still had a bitter taste in our mouth after we lost to them in the (Big East tournament) championships. We were determined to get ready and be on top of the standings in the Big East. We know we’re going to play them in the Big East tournament, and it’ll be a big challenge. They’re definitely one of our biggest rivals, and they have a lot of arms and a lot of hitting. We’ll see what happens.

Right now, you guys have a real shot at not only making a regional but potentially hosting one, down in Norwich. What would that mean for this program?

That would be a lot of fun. There’s a lot of fans that are coming to our games now, and they’re really enjoying it. For them, it would be a great opportunity to bring their families out and watch some postseason baseball. It would be a surreal experience. Hopefully if we can just stay focused down the stretch we can do that.

You have been a big part of this program’s rise. As a native of Connecticut, did you always want to go to UConn?

My whole junior year, I kind of made up my mind that I wanted to go down South, but then push came to shove and I started shying away from making visits. My older brother went to UConn, so I saw how they ran the program, and it became a pretty easy decision.

So your brother Brad played a big role in getting you to UConn?

He had the inside scoop on everything, and knowing he was going to be there for his senior year and guide me through the transition from high school to college, telling me what to expect, was something that I needed. I think that had a big role in it. He never forced me to make the decision to go to UConn, but I think he did a great job leading me in that direction.

You had such a great freshman year, and a breakout summer in the NECBL, but then you struggled a bit last year and missed 22 games with injury, and you had to make the transition from shortstop to third base in the middle of the season. How trying was that season?

Last year was a tough season for me. Being hurt, I couldn’t even do rehab for my injury—it was just me sitting around. I sprained my ankle in one of the winter workouts, and I kind of never had a chance to really give it some rest. It wasn’t hurt enough for me to sit out, just something that nagged me every game, and it kind of hindered me on the basepaths, so I had to feel that day in and day out. Then I got hit by a pitch on my wrist (on April 1 against Boston College). I was fine that day, and we had a game against Seton Hall that weekend, and I had to come out. It was an inside fastball, I took a swing at it, and it was something with the bruising that allowed my tendons to twist over. I got really lucky I didn’t tear anything and was able to rest it for six weeks. So last season was a real struggle, but this summer was great. I went to the Cape (Cod League) and worked my way back to the swing of things. I loved every minute of it.

You got off to kind of a slow start to this season, but it seems like you’ve really come on strong lately. What’s been the difference?

I think the biggest change from the beginning of the year to now is just my confidence level. I really wasn’t comfortable in the box the first part of the season, I was feeling some things out, I was getting out of my routine. Of late, I made an adjustment with my stance to cut down on my strikeouts, getting my confidence back. I had a wide stance at the beginning of the year, so I shortened it up, and I’m keeping my hands real simple, not doing much with my hands, keeping them real still. It has helped me stay on a flat plane—no more pop-ups, and I’m making solid contact.