(Photo: Dominic Cotroneo/WCSN)
In the words of head coach Tracy Smith, the best thing about freshman is they become sophomores.
The freshman on the team might be able to attest to that fact more so than anybody.
In the past, players such as Colby Woodmansee, Brian Serven and David Greer all took the biggest steps in their development during their sophomore year. This season, the roster boasts numerous players who could help extend that trend.
Last season, the freshman hitters who recorded at-bats – Andrew Snow, Ryan Lillard, Andrew Shaps and Coltin Gerhart – combined to bat for a .263 average with just 30 RBI, 14 fewer than team-leader Colby Woodmansee had on the season.
Snow, however, would be the outlier of the group – the second baseman batted .300 last year and started in 40 games, knocking in 24.
Snow struggled throughout summer ball and the slow start has carried over into the past couple of weeks of practice.
“It’s a game of failures, so I guess I took that as a learning experience,” Snow said. “I went into the summer with the wrong mindset, it catches you, at that level you can’t do that.”
Smith has also acknowledged the struggles, and in an already thin infield, he’s hoping Snow can right the ship in time for Opening Day.
“Most freshman when they come in they’re in this mode of ‘impress, impress, impress,’ rather than just play,” Smith said. “I think he’s out here, you know, ‘I’m going to play.’ Although for some athletes that’s good and some athletes that’s bad, some you need to stay in that mode of impress because it keeps your game sharp.”
“I like that he’s comfortable in how he plays the game, but we do need a little more consistency out of him,” he said.
Despite the uncertainty, Snow didn’t deal with a problem most of the freshman last year had to deal with, that being a lack of playing time.
The most drastic turn-around this season will be that of Shaps, who went from a seldom-used bullpen pitcher with seven appearances and just six at-bats with no hits, to being Smith’s projected starter in the outfield, as well as the incumbent to Ryan Burr’s role as the closer.
“It doesn’t scare me or anything,” Shaps said. “I like to play every day, so that’s something that I really jumped at the opportunity to do. I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t like to sit on the bench. I like to be out there in the action every single day, so if I get to do both of those things I’m definitely up to the challenge.”
Shaps, like most collegiate freshman, saw limited action in his freshman year, which is exactly what he found to be the most challenging aspect of his first year with the program.
“It was a humbling experience,” Shaps said. “Honestly I’m glad that freshman year is over with and I can go forward with what I learned from that.”
For Shaps, he will enter the crucible that will be playing two positions, that being said, his progression will be predicated off of a trial by fire approach.
“I can’t be scared,” Shaps said.
Joining Shaps in the outfield conversation is Gerhart, who has had to skip out on fall ball due to football the past two seasons.
With a full season under his belt, however, Smith is already seeing improvements.
“Strength-wise he’s a lot stronger, so I think that helps his game,” Smith said. “He’s throwing much better this year, much better. That was something for me that was the most noticeable jump.”
Gerhart was last season’s Opening Day left field starter, but only accumulated six more starts by the end of the season.
In 24 appearances, Gerhart totaled six hits in 33 at-bats.
The biggest struggle he found was related to the little time he comparatively had to get himself reacquainted with live pitching.
“I had little time compared to everyone else,” Gerhart said. “I think that was the biggest factor.”
In Lillard’s case, his offseason was cut short by an ankle injury he suffered in the Cal State Fullerton regional game.
The biggest lesson he learned his freshman year via limited playing time–the importance of mental reps–still benefited him throughout his recovery.
“I think I just basically kind of became a student of the game and started studying hitting a little bit more,” Lillard said. “Talking to Skip about approach and stuff, and it paid off this fall.”
Lillard batted .233 in 26 games last season, including five starts. With the injury now behind him, he said he’s ready to get back to work.
“I’ve been working on all facets of my game really, I don’t really want to focus on a specific one,” Lillard said. “I mean I’d like to hit better this year; I think if I would’ve hit a little bit better last year I would’ve been in the lineup a little more.”
This season, the stage is set for another year of sophomore breakouts. While last season’s performances were huge, this year’s young roster suggests that this team needs one of its returning, now more experienced sophomores to break out more than ever.