Baseball looking for luck, skill
Given the circumstances surrounding the UH baseball team’s wild finish last season, it may have been easy to somewhat overlook the standout job done by head coach Rayner Noble.
Noble, now entering his 15th season as the Cougars’ coach, has seen much better campaigns than last year’s 42-24 finish and trip to the College Station Regional, where they were eliminated in the championship round by Texas A&M. After all, he has three NCAA super regional appearances, eight NCAA regional berths, three Conference USA regular-season titles and three C-USA tournament championships to his credit.
Still, Noble may have delivered his best coaching performance last season. Moreover, it came at a time when both he and the program were under some fire.
Noble might have to dig into his bag of magic tricks again this season, considering most of the team’s best players from a year ago have moved on to professional baseball and other avenues of life.
But after last season, surely anything’s possible, right?
Before last season, the Cougars made only one NCAA Tournament appearance in the last four seasons. Recruiting was kind of stagnant, and fans were growing restless.
To make matters worse, the Cougars were without the services of senior right-hander Ricky Hargrove, who missed most of the season with a shoulder injury. Pitchers Barry Laird and Dereck Cloeren were also lost for the season. Additionally the team had to deal with not having first baseman David Murphy, who was diagnosed with cancer in the fall.
This meant Noble had to rely on a lot of freshman and sophomore arms – a move that didn’t always produce desired results. Had it not been for a strong offense, the Cougars would have been in even more trouble.
The Cougars went on to win five of six games in the C-USA tournament to take both the league crown and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament
But what about those batters who were largely responsible for keeping the team afloat? Well, they are no longer around.
More arms, fewer bats
Infielders Bryan Pounds (.354 batting average, 10 homers, 67 RBIs) and Ryan Lormand (.330, 59 RBIs, 29 stolen bases) and outfielder Jake Stewart (.332, 14 homers, 53 RBIs) all ran out of eligibility.
Jimmy Cesario (.326, nine homers, 41 RBIs) had one year of eligibility remaining, but had a great summer at the Cape Cod League and decided to sign a professional contract with the Colorado Rockies.
Noble will be hard pressed to replace those bats, but the pitching situation isn’t as bad as it was last year.
Junior left-hander Wes Musick returns as the ace of the rotation after passing up a shot at professional baseball. Sophomore right-hander Chase Dempsey could be a force as either a starter or closer. Juniors John Touchton and Donnie Joseph could provide a boost to the bullpen.
Perhaps sophomores Jared Ray and Ty Stuckey will be much better after their up -and-down freshman season. And there’s no telling which of this year’s freshmen will step up as Musick did two years ago and as Dempsay did last season.
With the departures of Pounds, Lormand, Stewart and Cesario, freshman shortstop Blake Kelso, junior outfielder Zak Presley and junior catcher Chris Wallace are the top returning batters. The Cougars are hoping that some others will quickly emerge.
Hope? The Cougars hoped for the best last season and received it. Perhaps, their hope will be rewarded again this season.