MINNEAPOLIS – Head coach John Anderson sat down with GopherSports.com ahead of the season to give his thoughts on the squad he will send out on the field Friday when Gopher Baseball opens its 130th campaign against Georgia Tech.
“I was impressed with the work that went in on their own when no one was watching,” Anderson said of the team’s five-week stretch before official practices opened up last week. “They made a commitment and continued to work. It’s obvious that was a lot of internal motivation from each and every one of them.”
The Gophers resumed full-squad workouts back on Jan. 26, receiving just 21 days together before embarking on their first road trip, and Anderson has continued to see the necessary work ethic on the practice field, in the weight room, and in team meetings.
“I’m a strong believer through my career that if the leader of a team is the team itself, then you have something special. They have needed very little direction from the coaching staff in terms of their daily effort, and that tells me that they’re holding each other accountable and responsible for a standard that has been a part of this program for a long time.”
A VETERAN LINE-UP
In terms of leaders on the field, a young Gophers squad – with 16 of its 33 players in their first or second season with the program, including 10 pitchers in that group – will be led by a group of talented veteran position players and six seniors: outfielder Alex Boxwell, infielders Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson, and Luke Pettersen, and relief pitchers Fred Manke and Jackson Rose. Coffey and Hanson boast 2017 All-Big Ten honors on their resumes, as does junior catcher Cole McDevitt, Minnesota’s lone returning First Team selection from a year ago.
“[Cole] has improved substantially, just in terms of calling the game, receiving, blocking, throwing, and understanding different pitchers. I have been impressed with the work that he has put in here,” Anderson said. “Our catching situation is better than it was a year ago. Eli Wilson is substantially better. Jordan Kozicky will be our third guy, and I won’t hesitate to put him back there. Compared to where we were a year ago, based on what I’ve seen in practice, we are substantially better.”
Kozicky landed on the Big Ten’s All Freshman Team in his rookie season as a utility player and figures to be an integral part of the Gophers’ everyday line-up while moving around the diamond on the infield, outfield, and backing up at catcher. “A year ago, we didn’t know where Kozicky was going to play,” said Anderson. “Now, I don’t see us playing a game without him some place in the line-up.”
Kozicky’s versatility will allow Anderson some flexibility in his line-up. Minnesota practiced players around the diamond during the fall (click here for more), including Coffey at first base, Hanson seeing some time in the outfield, and McDevitt and Wilson on the infield.
“We have a veteran position player on our team, so unless we have injuries or performance struggles, I don’t know how much movement there will be, but we have prepared ourselves for injury by being able to reshuffle the deck if need be,” said Anderson. “You’re going to see a lot of the core group of juniors and seniors. They’re talented and experienced, and that surely should turn out well for us.”
Along with the seniors and Kozicky, Minnesota will also see a lot of juniors Ben Mezzenga, an outfielder, and Terrin Vavra, an infielder. Vavra, who battled a back injury through much of his career with the Gophers (click here for more), finally has a clean bill of health. Mezzenga, along with Boxwell, can play anywhere on the outfield. The designated hitter role will be primarily filled by Eduardo Estrada Jr. batting from the left side and Riley Smith batting from the right.
“There’s another guy, Eddie, who is substantially better than he was a year ago in terms of his approach and his plan. I’ve seen too much consistency in his approach and how he’s handled adversity and failure, and I think we are reaching the end of the roller coaster that has affected his performance here,” said Anderson. “Riley can really contribute when he gets an opportunity as a right-handed hitter against some tough left-handed pitching.”
Other young players who could see at-bats early this season are infielders Jack Wassel and Jacob Hitz and outfielder Easton Bertrand. Rookie Max Meyer will be a contributor for Minnesota at the plate as well as on the mound. Last month, Perfect Game named him its Preseason Big Ten Freshman of the Year (click here for more).
A MOUND OF POTENTIAL
As for the rest of the pitching staff, Anderson is optimistic about the strides they have taken this offseason as well. Despite bidding farewell to seven of the 15 players to take the mound a season ago, including the team’s top three hurlers Brian Glowicki, Lucas Gilbreath, and Tim Shannon, who all found themselves in the minor leagues this past summer, the team returns talent both in the starting staff and relief corps who will take on expanded roles in the new year.
“I don’t think we are at a point today that I can tell you exactly how it is going to play out,” said Anderson. “If you look at what we’ve seen in practice, Reggie Meyer is going to fill in one of those slots as a starter, as well as Nick Lackney. Sam Thoresen, the freshman, had a tremendous fall and winter. He has performed at a level that I didn’t know.”
Along with those three, Minnesota does return Brett Schulze, who tossed 70.1 innings a season ago to the tune of a 5.50 ERA. Jeff Fasching hopes he will take up more innings after injuries sidelined him after just six appearances last season.
“Schulze has been pitching with some confidence and swagger. Fasching is a redshirt junior and it is his time. We recruited him because we thought he could pitch at this level and we are starting to see that,” said Anderson. “Jake Stevenson, over the summer lost 30 pounds and has committed himself to being in better shape. He and Jackson Rose have both taken a different path, but they are guys I think are key because they are more experienced. We are going to need those two guys to step up and contribute as we bring the freshman class along.”
According to Anderson, Meyer figures to fit into a key role in the Gopher bullpen in addition to seeing at-bats as a designated hitter. Minnesota also has two other rookie righties in Joshua Culliver and Patrick Fredrickson and three freshman southpaws in Ryan Duffy, Bubba Horton, and Danny Kapala. Second-year pitching coach Ty McDevitt has embraced the opportunity to mentor the young staff. (click here for more).
“All of these freshmen are going to have to contribute for us, but I’ve been impressed with the daily effort,” said Anderson. “They’re learning how to control the game, what it takes to pitch at this level, and how to get Division I hitters out. They’ve really come to practice every day with a willingness to take in as much information as possible in order to learn and grow.”
A LOOK AHEAD
The Gophers ranked among the teams receiving votes in both the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper and USA Today Coaches’ Preseason Polls. Minnesota will match up with No. 4 TCU, No. 14 UCLA, Arizona (R.V.), Nebraska (R.V.), St. John’s (R.V.), and Georgia Tech (R.V.) during the regular season. Highlights on the schedule include the 2018 home opener Feb. 27 against North Dakota State at U.S. Bank Stadium, the DQ Classic/Big Ten-Pac 12 Challenge from Mar. 2-4, the Big Ten-opening series March 23-25 at Nebraska, the Siebert Field openers on April 6-8 against Penn State, and a key series with Iowa on April 20-22 at home. For more information on the team’s 2018 opponents, check out the Offseason Outlook series (1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10) or the schedule reveal from last fall (here).
The Gophers open the season this Friday, Feb. 16 on the road at Georgia Tech at 4 p.m. ET in Atlanta, Georgia.
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