RIVERSIDE, Calif.—With a slew of new faces and a strong core of upperclassmen, the UC Riverside baseball team is optimistic about the season ahead.
"People will enjoy watching the style of play we have," head coach Troy Percival said. "We've never had as much speed as we do right now. Our outfield speed is going to be incredible. You are going to see a lot of diving plays and guys who can defend."
Due to that kind of speed, you can expect to see a lot of hit and runs, and steals to really keep the defense on their toes. However, guys in the middle of the order, including Dean Miller, Matt Hardy, and Yeager Taylor can hit for power.
"Offensively, we're more fun to watch then we have ever been," Percival said. "We have guys in the middle of the lineup who can hit home runs at will and guys around them that can run."
The team begins its season on an exciting note, facing off against Nebraska for a four-game series at home beginning on Feb. 15. Big West play begins on March 29 against UC Davis. The team also plays conference powerhouses Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine at home.
"You always look to conference," Percival said. "That is where our toughest games are. When you look at Long Beach and Fullerton, Santa Barbara and Irvine, you don't have a weekend break anywhere."
Last year, the team had a 19-33 record and went 7-17 in conference, but picked up a few impressive victories. The team got an 8-1 win over Nebraska on Feb. 17, a 4-2 win over Cal State Fullerton on May 13, and a 7-1 win over UC Irvine on May 19.
The team is dealing with injuries to some of its most important student-athletes to begin the season, but it gives the underclassmen and transfers an opportunity to step up and become leaders.
"The kids have been pretty resilient," Percival said. "I haven't heard them complain about missing guys. We are going to play as hard as we can."
One of the key new additions to the team is local product Damien Sanchez, who went to JW North High School. He will be the team's starting shortstop as a freshman.
"He's probably as talented as any of them, but just young," Percival said. "Skills wise he'll make the plays. It's huge for him to get experience."
The Highlanders also have a young core of freshmen catchers. Alec Arnone will start the season behind the plate. However, Jacob Shanks and Taylor Juline will get their fair share of playing time.
It can take a while for pitchers and catchers to get comfortable with each other, so Percival and the rest of his coaching staff made a concerted effort to play a ton of intrasquad games for that very reason.
"It wasn't easy in the beginning, but now the guys are starting to mesh," Percival said. "We played more than in the past for that very reason."
The infield will be led by senior first baseman Yeager Taylor, with Nick Kafer at second base, and Nathan Webb at third base. The outfield will be led by junior Travis Bohall in center field, along with Ari Gerber and Cole Pofek splitting time in left field and Dylan Orick and Hardy in right.
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