Boston College, Duke Working To Climb ACC Ladder

Just 10 miles from Duke's Coombs Field, Boshamer Stadium is undergoing renovations that will make it one of the best facilities in the Southeast, as well as the home to a North Carolina program that has reached the College World Series Finals two straight years.

There are two other Atlantic Coast Conference teams within a 90-minute drive from Durham that went to regionals last year, and other conference foes like Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech and Clemson are so steeped in tradition that it seems a waste of time to entertain even fantastical notions of  the Blue Devils or other teams at the wrong end of the ACC power structure ever leveling the playing field.

But quietly, teams like Duke and Boston College are making progress.

In head coach Sean McNally's second season, Duke finished at 29-25, its first above-.500 record since 1998. The Blue Devils finished just 6-24 in ACC play, but by putting senior ace Tony Bajoczky in the Saturday starter role, they came up with wins against powerhouses Georgia Tech, Florida State, Virginia and North Carolina on consecutive Saturdays.

Duke pitching coach Sean Snedeker said the Devils might employ that same strategy this year, potentially moving last year's closer, sophomore righthander Michael Seander, to the Saturday slot. Sophomore righty Alex Hassan would likely assume the Friday starter job, and freshman righty Grant Monroe is another strong candidate to pitch on weekends thanks to an 86-90 mph fastball and good command of a three-pitch mix.

The Devils are also starting to see dividends on the recruiting trail. Brian Litwin, a senior from Hickory, N.C., who was playing for the Dirtbags team in at the World Wood Bat Association fall championship in Jupiter, Fla., is a projectable, athletic outfielder with good bat speed. He said he considered three other North Carolina schools but decided on Duke. McNally and Snedeker both have experience in professional ball, and Litwin said that was appealing.

"The academic side of it was a big part of it, and the coaching was another big part," Litwin said. "I just thought it was a place where I would improve as a baseball player. I want to be part of building the program."

Step By Step

Snedeker said a facility upgrade could be in the works for the Blue Devils in the next couple of years, and Boston College is breaking ground in the spring on a new facility across the street from its current park. The Eagles face a unique challenge as the lone Northern school in a conference full of warm-weather juggernauts. BC has finished with an overall record above .500 in each of its first two seasons in the ACC after leaving the Big East, but their cumulative conference mark is just 17-43.

"The first two years, we were playing in the ACC with a Big East lineup," Boston College recruiting coordinator Joe Hastings said. "When you go from the middle of the pack in the Big East to the best conference in the country, there's going to be an adjustment period."

The Eagles had four or fewer scholarships at their disposal during their days in the Big East, but by 2009 they will be fully funded. That will coincide with the opening of their new facility.

In the meantime, the 2008 Eagles will be young, with 13 freshmen on a 26-man roster.

Righthander Terry Doyle is back for his senior year, and this time the Eagles plan to keep him as a rotation anchor rather than move him back and forth from the bullpen, a practice that kept Doyle from getting into a set routine last season, Hastings said. Junior righty Dan Houston had a good summer in the Coastal Plain League and will bring his hard fastball and good curve to the rotation or the closer role. Three freshmen will vie for other starting spots, with hard-throwing Kevin Moran emerging this fall as a pleasant surprise thanks to his much-improved breaking ball.

The infield will be chock full of freshmen, with Garrett Smith manning shortstop, Mickey Wiswall at one of the corners and Matt Hamlet at second base. That means 2008 will be a learning process, but the Eagles will be a dangerous, experienced bunch by the time the new stadium opens and new funds arrive in 2009.

No one said catching the ACC's elite could be done overnight.