Feb. 27, 2002
The successes of any season can never be strictly measured in terms of wins and losses. While the world of sports remains a "bottom-line" industry, victories can be recorded in many ways, not solely relegated to the outcome of specific competitions.
The importance of those daily battles are significantly heightened during the first few years of any coaching regime. Talk to any veteran mentor and they will insist the result of those early skirmishes go a long way toward shaping the long-term success of any program.
That's why Army head coach Joe Sottolano can look back at last season with a great deal of encouragement. At first glance, a 17-27-1 record on the heels of a magical season that resulted in Army's first-ever NCAA Tournament bid, could be viewed a disappointment. But while the third-year skipper will never be satisfied with substandard performance on the field, he was very satisfied with the dynamics that began to permeate his club off it.
"We are definitely building this program," Sottolano is quick to stress. "We are building from a very strong foundation. Our main focus last year was the climate of the program. As a coaching staff, we wanted to instill our approach to the game in our players. We wanted them to understand the proper way to go about doing things on a daily basis, the work ethic it takes to be a champion. It is our belief that the mindset must be right before you can have a legitimate program.
"I believe we accomplished that last year. I am not concerned about having one successful season. My focus is on building a successful program," he continues. "I wouldn't trade any amount of wins for the things that we were able to put in place. There were definitely a lot of positives to be taken from last year, despite our record. In my mind, last season was a huge success."
In many ways, last year was a "catch-up" season for Sottolano, who accepted the reins as Army's interim head coach three weeks into the 2000 campaign. Due to the timing of his appointment, Sottolano was never truly able to implement his personal coaching style and philosophy until the "interim" label was removed later that summer.
"We spent a great deal of last offseason working with the players on their approach to the game," Sottolano states. "That will pay big dividends in the long run. We talk about winning championships daily, but more importantly, we talk about what it takes to win those championships. This year, we've been able to raise our expectation levels. I think we're on the fast track toward reaching some of those expectations."
With no fewer than 12 seniors complementing an influx of talented freshmen, it's plain to see why Sottolano remains so optimistic about his club's fortunes this season.
"Our senior class has been dominant the last four years, both in terms of numbers and in terms of ability," Sottolano explains. "They've done a tremendous job of bringing along the younger players in the program. This group is very mindful of the legacy it would like to leave behind.
"We could never underestimate the value of their experience. This group of seniors has accomplished an awful lot during its time together. They know what it takes to win a championship and would like nothing better than to win another Patriot League title before they graduate. The biggest unknown factor is how quickly the freshmen will mature, how much we can expect to receive from the younger players in our program. We brought in 11 very talented freshmen, many of whom we expect to develop into impact players. It will be interesting to see just how quickly they produce at this level."
The source of Sottolano's deepest concern lies in the pitching staff, an overhauled unit that features five new faces. While senior team co-captain Brian Elliott and impressive sophomore Wes Bumgardner return to anchor the starting staff, two of those skilled plebes will be counted on to shoulder regular turns in the Patriot League weekend rotation. Freshmen will also be relied upon to shoulder critical short and middle relief roles in Army's re-tooled bullpen, with only Mike Erwin, Justin Swanson and Zach Watkins returning to the fold.
"One through 10, this could be the most talented pitching staff that we've had during my time at West Point," Sottolano states. "Any one of the five freshmen could compete for a starting job. They are all talented enough to win a spot in the rotation. It's just a matter of who will step forward and display confidence in their ability. The depth is strong, but the experience is shy. Because of that we expect great competition to take place throughout the year."
Great competition is also expected in the infield where All-Patriot League performer Miguel Gastellum and steady senior co-captain Josh Minney return at second base and third base, respectively. Senior Michael Cooper, who started the majority of last season at first base and has also logged quality time at third base in the past, inherits the top job at shortstop, while promising freshmen Walker Gorham and Schuyler Williamson expect to battle for the lead role at first base. Another newcomer, Nate Stone, could challenge for playing time at third base, a move that would shift Minney's productive bat to the designated hitter's spot.
"In addition to the pitching staff, the key to our success this spring will be our ability to play solid defense," Sottolano offers. "We must play good infield defense and receive consistent performances from our positional players. That will remain an area of focus for our club."
Sottolano harbors no similar concerns in the outfield, where all three starters from last year's club return. The group includes all-conference left fielder Kyle Kalkwarf, high-ceiling center fielder Josh Holden and defensive standout Josh Rizzo in right, providing the Black Knights with one of their finest defensive outfields in history.
"Defensively, we have the ability to field one of the finest outfields in the 10 years that I've been at the Academy," Sottolano contends. "Kyle Kalkwarf and Josh Rizzo are two of the best corner outfielders that I've seen, and Josh Holden can chase down a lot of balls in the gaps. With Jason Meloy as an outstanding defensive replacement, this outfield will keep our club in a lot of games. It will be difficult for opponents to hit balls in the alleys."
Army is equally established behind the plate, where veteran Brandon Boyce returns to his familiar starting role for the third consecutive season. He is joined by Williamson, who boasts a tremendous amount of natural ability, and Travis Dent, last year's top backup at the position.
"Our lineup could be a lot of fun to watch this year-from top to bottom," Sottolano adds. "We play an aggressive style of baseball and gear our philosophy toward shifting pressure to our opponent. Our players love to play that way. We want to make things happen, to constantly place runners in scoring position. We always look to put heat on the defense.
"The chemistry of this club is very strong. Our seniors deserve a lot of credit for creating that type of atmosphere. We talk about winning championships, but we don't focus on it. If we have the proper focus and take the right approach to practice every day, the result will yield success on the field. We sell the fact that we will win a championship, that we will go to the NCAA Tournament, that we will win in the NCAA Tournament in the future."
With the talent Sottolano and his staff have assembled, and a strong coaching philosophy solidly set in place, those lofty goals could be realized sooner than one might think.
Much of Army's success this season will be dictated by the defensive play of its infield. In fact, head coach Joe Sottolano states that if the Black Knights receive consistent play from the infield, "we will have a very strong season."
Slick-fielding senior Miguel Gastellum (.376, 32 R, 31 SB, 20 RBI) anchors the group, returning to his starting position at second base for the fourth consecutive season. Gastellum fashioned a "breakout" season last spring, ranking among conference leaders in batting average (5th), base hits (3rd), stolen bases (1st) and stolen base percentage (1st) en route to a second team All-Patriot League citation. A catalyst for the Black Knights' offense at either end of the batting order, Gastellum blossomed into one of the league's premier offensive weapons a year ago. He will be asked to provide defensive stability to a group that could feature two freshmen and another player in new surroundings.
"Miguel Gastellum has worked hard to become a fine player," Sottolano expresses. "He brings a lot of tools to the playing field. With his good approach to hitting and excellent footspeed, Miguel can be a very productive player for us once again this year."
Senior team co-captain Josh Minney (.317, 39 R, 29 RBI) enters his final season as the starter at third base, bringing a wealth of passion and game experience to every fray. A native of Eugene, Ore., Minney has spent the bulk of the past two seasons at third base, despite entering the collegiate ranks as a second baseman by trade. One of the league's top run-producers, he boasts tremendous leadership skills and will be counted on to add stability and veteran presence. Minney will serve as the top backup to Gastellum at second base and fill the designated hitter's role should freshman Nate Stone emerge as a viable contender for playing time at third base.
"Josh Minney is a very consistent ballplayer," Sottolano says. "He knows our system well, has bought into it and is a great leader for us on the field."
Stone, meanwhile, is a gifted athlete with tremendous range around the "hot corner." He displayed flashes of brilliance with both the glove and bat during fall workouts and could push for a starting berth this spring.
Senior Michael Cooper (.287, 15 R, 12 RBI) has proven to be a valuable commodity since his arrival as a freshman, shouldering significant responsibilities at both infield corner positions the past three years. After spending last season as the Black Knights' starting first baseman, the Jacksonville, Fla., native shifts to shortstop this spring, helping to fill the void created by the graduation of all-league performer Buddy Gengler. Cooper possesses soft hands and excellent range, and is expected to respond nicely to the move to his natural position. Classmate Greg Sirko (.367, 10 R , 7 RBI) slots in as the backup at shortstop, another veteran long in game experience. Sirko emerged as a legitimate offensive threat a year ago and promises to receive plenty of plate appearances between the designated hitter and shortstop spots.
"As long as Michael Cooper makes the routine plays, he will be a very solid shortstop for us," Sottolano states. "He understands the game and is looking at this as a great opportunity. Every year there are a couple of players that exceed expectations. I wouldn't be surprised if Michael is one of those guys this year."
Highly regarded freshmen Walker Gorham and Schyuler Williamson will battle for playing time at first base, assuring at least one rookie in the starting infield cast. Both players are impressive physical specimens and boast a great deal of natural ability. While Gorham injects a valuable left-handed power source into the lineup, Williamson drives the ball well from the right side. Sophomore Wes Bumgardner could also see time at first base when not on the pitching mound. He lends a tremendous amount of athleticism to the position and could be used as a valuable late-inning defensive replacement when called upon. Versatile newcomer Scott Komaromy could also be employed in a utility role, showcasing the ability to handle duties at second base or third.
"Our infield depth is greater than it's been at any time that I've been here," Sottolano mentions. "We are very young, but very talented. If our freshmen progress, this could be an excellent group of players."
Bolstered by the return of all three starters, including Patriot League Player of the Year candidate Kyle Kalkwarf (.338, 17 2B, 4 HR, 37 RBI), Army could feature one of the finest outfields on the East Coast.
Following a slow start, Kalkwarf closed his junior season on a tear, ranking among conference leaders in runs batted in (5th) and total bases (4th). A dangerous offensive performer with the ability to drive the ball to all fields, Kalkwarf produces runs in bunches, witnessed by last season's torrid 13-game season-ending stretch in which he batted .535 with 11 doubles, 17 runs scored and 22 runs batted in. The San Antonio, Texas, native can be a devastating presence in the middle of Army's batting order and is poised to shoulder a heavy offensive burden following a first team All-Patriot League citing a year ago.
"There is no doubt that Kyle Kalkwarf will have a big year for us," head coach Joe Sottolano predicts. "He is a hard-nosed player who loves to compete. Kyle will be a key component in our offensive attack, working out of the 'three-' or 'four-hole.'"
Joining Kalkwarf in the Black Knights' starting outfield are junior center fielder Josh Holden (.329, 38 R, 23 SB, 2 HR, 20 RBI) and senior right fielder Josh Rizzo (.263, 21 R, 1 HR, 16 RBI).
Holden authored an impressive debut season for the Black Knights, splitting time between baseball and spring football practice. Army's second-leading rusher this fall, Holden boasts tremendous athleticism and a world of potential on the diamond. The Hudson, Ohio, native possesses outstanding speed, firmly cementing the Black Knights' defense up the middle from his center field position. Offensively, Holden emerged as one of the Patriot League's most dangerous leadoff hitters last spring, flashing the ability to drive line drives to the gaps and a keen base-stealing prowess.
Rizzo rounds out the veteran trio, coming off a fine junior season that saw him solidify his spot among the lead cast. Solid fundamentally in all aspects of the game, Rizzo is a tremendous defender who roams right field with a vengeance. He boasts the speed and quickness to cut balls off before reaching the alleys, regularly denying runners an extra base. He also features one of the strongest outfield arms in the conference, providing Army a feared weapon from the deep reaches in right.
"Holden is a pure athlete, while Rizzo is a complete ballplayer," Sottolano says. "These two players, along with Kalkwarf, give us the ability to be very strong defensively in the outfield."
Sottolano will have a tremendous amount of flexibility in reserve thanks to the presence of speedy freshman Jason Meloy, steady seniors Dominic Trippodo (.271, 1 HR, 26 RBI) and Kyle Norton (.217), and hard-hitting plebe Jason Mulligan. Meloy is a versatile athlete with the ability to fill all three outfield positions. He enters the season as the top defensive backup at all three spots. Trippodo and Norton, meanwhile, have logged quality playing time in right field and left field, respectively, in the past and could return to those positions if needed.
The lefty-swinging reserves lend a strong veteran presence to the Black Knights' improved bench and should see additional plate appearances while working out of the designated hitter's role.
"I am very pleased with the way the outfield is shaping up," Sottolano insists. "We have three very talented players holding down the starting jobs and some excellent backups waiting in the wings. I feel very comfortable knowing that we have experienced players like Dominic Trippodo and Kyle Norton on our bench. That provides us with the opportunity to make a lot of moves late in games. This could be the best overall depth we've had in the outfield in many years."
Army has radically improved its depth at the catching position as well, returning three-year starter Brandon Boyce (.314, 2 HR, 23 RBI) behind the plate, while adding promising freshman Schuyler Williamson to the mix.
Boyce has improved his overall game considerably the past three years, blossoming into one of the Patriot's top all-around backstops. A steady offensive performer with a proven ability to produce in the clutch, Boyce should serve as a settling influence to the Black Knights' youthful pitching corps.
"While we expect great things from Brandon offensively, we really need him to focus on aiding in the development of our young pitchers," Sottolano states. "The most important thing he can do for us this year is to make those around him better. We need him to become a mentor this season."
Boyce will be relied upon to provide that same sort of guidance to Williamson, a highly skilled prospect hailing from the talent-rich state of Florida. The heir apparent to Boyce's starting job, Williamson boasts a strong, accurate throwing arm, coupled with a lightening-quick release. He will work to refine his defensive abilities as Boyce's top understudy this spring and could split time behind the plate during Patriot League weekends. A polished offensive performer, Williamson could receive additional playing time at first base, adding another power bat to Army's lineup. Sophomores Travis Dent and Eric Bailey will battle for playing time behind the lead duo, with Dent lending a left-handed hitting option off the bench.
"We appear to be very solid at catcher," Sottolano says. "We feel that Brandon Boyce has improved a great deal since last spring and is ready to put together a complete season. He could be one of the top receivers in the Patriot League. We also feel very good about our depth with Schuyler Williamson pushing Boyce throughout the offseason. Williamson has the potential to be an outstanding player at Army over the next several years. We feel very fortunate to have those two players in our program simultaneously."
"The depth is strong, but the experience is shy."
That is how head coach Joe Sottolano succinctly summarizes his revamped pitching staff entering the spring. While two of the top four starters and the top reliever from last year's club return to the Black Knights' hurling stable, Sottolano will carry five freshmen pitchers on his roster this spring.
Senior team co-captain Brian Elliott (3-5, 7.52 ERA) and talented sophomore Wes Bumgardner (5-3, 4.06 ERA) are expected to form one of the Patriot League's premier starting tandems. Both players have displayed the ability to dominate opposing batters, providing the Black Knights with excellent quality at the top-end of their weekend pitching rotation.
A durable performer with a lively right arm, Elliott has logged at least 45.0 innings each of the last three seasons. He will be counted on to shoulder the same type of workload in his final go-around, attempting to help fill the void created by the graduation loss of standout righty Buck Adams, last year's conference pitcher of the year.
Bumgardner burst on the West Point scene with a flourish last spring, winning five of his first six decisions while sporting an earned run average below 3.00 much of the season. A late-season slump skewed those numbers, but Bumgardner firmly established himself as one of the conference's rising young pitching stars.
"Wes and Brian will take on the top two spots in our pitching rotation," Sottolano explains. "Wes continues to push Brian for the No. 1 spot, making for excellent competition between the two. I feel very confident that those two players give us the chance to win every time they take the mound."
For the second straight year, the third and fourth spots in Army's pitching rotation will be filled by freshmen.
Strapping right-hander Wade Greenlee appears poised to fill in behind Elliott and Bumgardner, providing Sottolano with another power arm at the front of the rotation. Greenlee, a backup tight end on Army's football team, boasts a broad physical frame to complement a hard-riding fastball. His ceiling rests extremely high and could emerge as a legitimate force during his rookie campaign.
Competition for the critical No. 4 spot in the weekend rotation will be heated with four talented newcomers battling for the final slot. Rookie right-handers Justin Kashner, Dan Cappello and Josh Birenbaum, along with heady southpaw Scott Bramble will take aim at filling the vacancy. All four players possess the physical skills necessary to positively impact Army's fortunes, and all four will be given the opportunity to do so immediately.
"The fourth position in our rotation is going to be a key component to the success of our season," Sottolano stresses. "All four freshmen are talented enough to win the job. It's going to be a matter of which one of them steps forward and displays confidence in their ability."
The bullpen is fortified by the return of rubber-armed left-hander Mike Erwin (2-3, 3 SV, 4.62 ERA), a tested late-game stopper who has filled a myriad of roles during his time spent in the "Black, Gold, and Gray." The senior southpaw has displayed a propensity to perform well under pressure and owns the intestinal fortitude to close out games. He projects as one of the conference's top relief pitchers once again this season.
"If Mike Erwin throws strikes, that will take a lot of pressure off the younger pitchers," Sottolano says. "Mike seems very focused this year. He has done a great job of taking the freshmen under his wing. When Mike throws strikes, he can be very effective."
In addition to the freshmen listed above, Sottolano can turn to sophomore right-hander Justin Swanson (1-0, 5.40 ERA) and senior Zach Watkins (35.1 IP) during the middle innings in order to help bridge the gap to Erwin. Swanson proved to be a workhorse during his plebe campaign, logging 26.2 innings across 14 appearances. The Johnsburg, Ill., native is a hard-nosed competitor who always wants the ball and should continue to deliver excellent insurance out of the bullpen. Watkins will look to regain the form of his promising freshman season after struggling the past two years.