Over almost four decades as a college baseball coach, Stetson’s Pete Dunn has seen just about everything the sport has to offer.
But, over all those games and all those seasons, the Hatters’ newly elected Hall of Fame skipper has never had a team as young and inexperienced as the one he will field this year.
There is a chance the Hatters could have as many as seven new players in the lineup on opening day. Of the two returning players, only senior Mitchel Brennan – who is slated to be the starter in right field but could see time as the designated hitter and at first base – has been a regular starter in the past.
Sophomore catcher Garrett Rusini, who started just nine game last year, is the next most experienced player. The other seven positions will be manned by first-year players or are simply too close to call between newcomers and returners.
The biggest upside to having all those new faces is the fact that Stetson’s incoming recruiting class was ranked as one of the best in the nation for 2013.
“In my 33 years as head coach, I can never remember having a team this young,” Dunn said. “We have 16 new players, 12 of them are freshmen. I don’t think we have ever had that many freshmen.”
Obviously, with so many first year players, the challenge for the Stetson coaching staff is much different.
“The big thing we did, throughout the fall and this spring, is focus on teaching the game,” Dunn said. “When you have a veteran team, they already have your philosophy down and they understand how to play at the highest level.
“With this team, there are a lot of very good high school players, but Division I baseball is a different game. We have to get these young guys’ feet under them as early as possible. We have to find a way to shorten the learning curve.”
Dunn said part of the process is understanding that there will be some growing pains along the way.
“Freshmen are going to make mental mistakes, it’s inevitable,” Dunn said. “We’ve got to try to minimize those as much as we can. We’ll accept the fact that they’re freshmen to start the season, but they can’t play like freshmen all year.”
While the Hatters will be young offensively and in the field, the young players will have some veterans to lean on in the pitching staff. Chief among those veteran hurlers are seniors Joe Dye and Kurt Schluter. They, along with Brennan, will be charged with serving as extra coaches for the young team. That is part of being selected as team captains.
“That’s where the leadership of our club has to come from,” Dunn said. “We feel good about giving leadership of our pitching staff to Kurt and Joe. Both of those guys understand what it takes on the mound and they will have to help us teach the young guys.”
While the Stetson coaches feel good about the team’s starting pitching, and Dye is a proven performer in the bullpen, the rest of the bull pen roles are to be determined as the season progresses.
“The major difference for us will be at the back end of games,” pitching coach Chris Roberts said. “We had an established bull pen last year with defined roles. The strength this year will be at the front end with our starters. We just don’t yet know enough about the back end, although we do know there is talent.”
With all of the new faces on the team, the Hatters have a schedule that is built to help the youngsters build their college baseball IQ without the stress of leaving home very often. With the exception of two games at national power Florida State in mid-March, the Hatters will play 27 games in Volusia County before a 10-game road trip in April.
“We were fortunate because most of our games are scheduled two or three years out,” Dunn said. “As it turned out, we still had openings for this year a year ago and knew that we needed to play at home to help all of these young players shorten the learning curve and build confidence.
“There is really no way to know if playing so many home games will help.”
Because of all the young players and new faces on the roster, not much was expected from the Hatters in the preseason Atlantic Sun coaches voting. Stetson was picked to finish sixth in the league race.
Hatter fans will remember a similar situation in 2011 when Stetson was picked to finish sixth in the league. All that team did was win a conference title and push the eventual national champion in NCAA Regional play.
“I have no problem with us being picked sixth because it shows that we have a lot of work to do,” Dunn said. “Florida Gulf Coast and Mercer have very good players returning and deserve to be where they are (tied for first). USC Upstate, with Gaither Bumgardner, the A-Sun Player of the Year, returning is another good team, as is Kennesaw State and North Florida. I think the year Jacksonville had last year was an aberration and they and Lipscomb will be better. Northern Kentucky is new to the league, but I expect them to have a competitive team as well.
“It is probably a testimony to our program and the success we have had that we were even picked to finish sixth. The thing we have to do is keep our heads above water and learn how to win. If we can do that early, when we get to conference games we can play with confidence.”
With so many young players, building confidence will be the main focus for the Stetson coaches this year. If they are successful, then the potential for the Hatters is as limitless as the inevitable approach of a new spring.