High Expectations

Jan. 24, 2003

by Josh Griffin, Sports Editor
The Santa Clara

To call baseball Head Coach Mark O'Brien energetic is like calling Albert Einstein intelligent, Bill Gates rich or Joe Millionaire the best reality TV show ever. O'Brien begins his second season as head coach this Saturday, continuing his rebuilding plan - which, among other things, is built upon the energy of the coaching staff.

"When I walk into weights with [a Starbucks cup], our players go, 'Uh oh, he's on it again,'" O'Brien said. "They get a little excited."

O'Brien feels that not only was he blessed with a high energy level genetically, but he also believes that he himself has helped it thrive.

"You can teach yourself energy," said O'Brien. "I'm a firm believer in that, and I'm a firm believer that a lot of the most successful people in our world and history have been very energetic. I like my players to be energetic as well."

While his players may have yet to attain the energy level of their leader, they have certainly helped to begin the turnaround of the baseball program. Last year's 25-30 record may not appear impressive at first glance, but it remains the best record the team has achieved since the late-'90s.

"We won the most games last year in four or five years," said O'Brien. "Believe me, we are not proud of how many that was, but the fact of the matter is that we have to keep building on that, and eventually get where we need to go."

The question of "where we need to go" is an intriguing one, but rest assured that O'Brien and his charges have aspirations to reach the highest level of collegiate baseball competition - the College World Series. This year, however, the focus is on winning the West Coast Conference, in spite of being voted fourth overall in a preseason poll.

"This is hands down the best team since I've been here," said senior catcher Jim Wallace, who finished last year with 12 homeruns and 44 RBIs.

"We were picked to finish fourth in the conference, and second in the Coastal Division. But, none of the other teams have the recruits that we have, and considering the guys the other teams lost, we can win the conference."

While the team cannot be happy with the preseason WCC prognostications, they refuse to say that they feel slighted by the snub.

"By and large, we don't use low expectations as bulletin board material," said sophomore pitcher Anthony Rea. "We feel that we need to prove to ourselves and everyone else that we deserve to be upset about [the predictions]."

The strength of the 2003 team is the pitching staff, led by three upperclassmen lefthanders - senior Joe Diefenderfer, senior Matt Travis and junior John Redmond - who will get most of the starting nods. The bullpen is dynamic and provides the team depth that it did not have last year, when they lost countless games in the waning moments.

"This year, everyone will be fresh, and hopefully no one will get overused out of the bullpen," said Wallace. "That will help everyone throw to their potential."

Working out of the pen will be freshman pitcher Patrick Overholt and incumbent junior Chad Fillinger, who will receive most of the late inning opportunities along with Rea, junior Patrick McBride and freshman Andrew Slorp. Sophomore Vanderbilt transfer Scott Shapiro, a hard thrower as well as a solid hitter, will try to work into the rotation, thereby breaking a string of three left-handers for a three-game weekend series.

"When Obie recruited me to come here, he said he knew that there were other schools, but that I should give Santa Clara a chance. It came down to the school of my dreams, or the coach of my dreams, and that choice was easy."
Freshman pitcher Scott Lonergan

"I feel tremendously good about the depth of our pitching staff," said O'Brien. "Night and day - I'm not saying we'll be better, I'm just telling you we'll have more arms to go to."

As for the starting lineup, the team will be loaded with seniors and freshmen. Wallace, the most accomplished returning power bat, will bat in the cleanup hole, and junior second baseman A.J. LaBarbera will fall in the three hole.

"A.J. LaBarbera had an outstanding season last year, especially after we moved him over to second," O'Brien said.

Senior outfielder Jack Headley, who was disappointed in his junior season coming off two remarkable years, will bat second and play in centerfield. At first base, a sophomore right/left platoon of Shawn Epidendio and Arizona transfer Will Thompson will split time once Thompson bounces back from a slight oblique injury. Sophomore leftfielder Ryan Chiarelli will get time at the lead off spot, particularly against right-handed starters.

The remaining three offensive spots, including the entire left side of the infield will be freshmen. Shortstop Michael Lange and third baseman Michael Thompson, who stands 6 feet 4 inches and weighs 225 pounds, are both known for their impressive glove work.

"[Lange] is a fantastic defensive player," said O'Brien. "Basically his instructions have been to catch everything and just get it over to first. We've told him 'You don't necessarily have to have your best offensive year, that's okay, we need you to play good defense.'"

Thompson is equally impressive on defense and will have the chance to bat anywhere from third to fifth. Freshman Jason Matteucci will bounce between left and right field, playing in left against left-handed starters to make room for sophomore outfielder Ryan Pierpont.

Beyond 2003, the Broncos appear to be in good hands. O'Brien, referred to as "Obie" by his players, has no intentions of leaving the school. Obie is a product of the south Bay area and has family and friends in the area. Furthermore, he wants to see the path that he has started the Bronco program down.

"Quite honestly, I haven't thought about going anywhere else because we haven't accomplished anything here yet, and my job is to get this program to where it needs to be," he said.

Keeping O'Brien around means keeping around one of the nation's top recruiters, who in his two years at Stanford specialized in - among other things - recruiting.

"After his first year here, we are now able to see and feel the impact of his true talent, which is recruiting," said Wallace. "This freshman class is awesome, and next year's class is even better."

"When I talk to recruits, I talk about a vision of being a part of our efforts to get to the College World Series," said O'Brien. "Basically, for the rest of your life, you can remember that you were one of those guys that helped build that school in that situation."

Freshman pitcher Scott Lonergan, who has known Obie since he was a 12-year-old participant at Stanford baseball camp, says that O'Brien's recruiting ability is unparalleled. Lonergan, recovering currently from a blood clot in his shoulder, turned down an offer to Stanford to follow Obie to Santa Clara. In the end, he realized that Stanford was the school of his dreams mainly because of O'Brien.

"When Obie recruited me to come here, he said he knew that there were other schools, but that I should give Santa Clara a chance," said Lonergan. "It came down to the school of my dreams, or the coach of my dreams, and that choice was easy."

When O'Brien is through with Santa Clara, the choice Lonergan made may not be a choice at all.

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