Houston reloads pitching staff

Somewhere near the end of the 2008 regular season, the Cougars experienced a growth spurt that transcended any previous progressions.

From there, things only got better for a once-inconsistent ballclub that many probably figured was headed nowhere.

The Cougars made a miraculous run in the Conference USA Tournament, where they won five of six games to claim their first conference tournament title since 2000. This momentum carried over to the College Station Regional, where they fell one win short of advancing to a NCAA super regional.

Flash forward to 2009, and the Cougars are without four key players who carried the offense last season. They have to break in three new starting infielders, including two freshmen, and two new starting outfielders.

The Cougars, however, are intent on not letting a few adjustments stunt their growth.

Coming off a 42-24 record and the program’s second postseason appearance in the last three seasons, UH enters the preseason with 16 returning lettermen, including three position starters.

The Cougars, who open their season against Kansas State at 6:30 p.m. Friday t Cougar Field, are confident that a much more experienced pitching staff, plus an infusion of talented recruits, will allow them to pick up where they left off last season.

‘We came together as a team at the end of the year and got on a hot streak, and we now know what it takes to win,’ shortstop Blake Kelso said. ‘We’ve got all of our pitchers back, and that’s a big part of making it deep into the regionals and super regionals and going to (the College World Series in) Omaha, (Neb.) I think we’re as ready as ever to make it back.’

Early indications are that pitching will be the team’s strong point this season. Southpaw Wes Musick and right-hander Chase Dempsay are expected to again lead the way.
Musick was the ace of the 2008 starting rotation, going 8-4 with a 4.35 ERA and a team-high 87 strikeouts, and will be the Friday starter this season.

Dempsay, who began last season as a starter before being moved to the bullpen, returns as closer after going 8-3 with a team-leading 2.53 ERA and 11 saves in 33 appearances (one start).

Right-handers Jared Ray and John Touchton and left-handers Ty Stuckey and Donnie Joseph will be in the mix to compete for spots in the rotation with newcomers such as talented freshman Michael Goodnight.

Right-hander Chris Wright and left-handers Jimmy Raviele Matt Taylor will be used out of the bullpen.

‘On paper, we have a pretty good slew of pitching,’ head coach Rayner Noble said. ‘I think what we’ve got to do is just get out there, start competing and see who’s going to be consistent.’

Kelso, catcher Chris Wallace and center fielder Zak Presley are the three returning position starters. Freshmen Taylor White and Codey Morehouse will start the season at second and third base, respectively, with Dempsay and Stuckey expected to rotate at first base. Caleb Ramsey and junior transfer William Kankel will start in left field and right field, respectively.

The Cougars’ offense took a major hit with the departure of infielders Jimmy Cesario, Ryan Lormand and Bryan Pounds and outfielder Jake Stewart, who each hit .326 or higher and drove in at least 41 RBIs last season. Noble, however, expects the returning players and newcomers to fill the void.

Musick hopes this year’s team can somehow put it all together and make another postseason run.

‘Having gone to regional play and making it to the championship game, we know what kind of team chemistry it takes to get there,’ he said.

‘We’re just going to build upon that and, hopefully, make it to a super regional and advance to Omaha this year.

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