Talk to Charlie Migl about his 2001 NCAA Championship squad and a big smile always comes across his face. Not because of vanity, but because of the way that group of young men came together, put aside their differences and did something no other St. Mary’s University baseball team had ever done.
Six years later he is hoping that he sees some of the same qualities in the 2007 version of the Rattlers, that he had seen in his 2001 team.
“There are some similarities between the teams,” Migl admitted reluctantly. “You have to have players who are willing to sacrifice their personal goals for that of the team. And the guys on the (2001) team were able to do that. I think this year’s team has that as well.”
“Last year we had some players who didn’t accept that and we lost some games we shouldn’t have because of it. We just missed out on the postseason. You have to have discipline to succeed in this game.”
Last year’s Rattler squad went 36-18 overall, finishing just two games out of first place in the Heartland Conference. The Rattlers return eight field starters from last season and the top three starting pitchers. Fundamentally the Rattlers look to be very sound, as they led the Heartland Conference in fielding with a .957 percentage, making just over one error per game. At the plate they hit .312, averaging 7.4 runs per game, while posting a solid 4.47 ERA.
On the mound, the Rattlers return their four top pitchers from 2006. Caleb Staudt became the Rattlers number one pitcher after going 9-1 with a 3.16 ERA, seven complete games and 82 strikeouts in 91.0 innings of work. His size (6’4″) and arm strength have scouts looking at him for the next level.
Zach Kucera posted the lowest ERA on the staff in 2006 with a 1.91, to go along with his 7-3 record. Tommy Vrzal had the second most appearances on the team in 2006, but looks to stay mainly in a starting role this year. Brandon Lippe was 6-3 last season with a 3.91 ERA and four complete games. His 71.1 innings of work was second most on the team behind only Staudt.
“We feel like we have depth on the mound, which is key,” Migl said. “We’re pretty set with Caleb and Zach as our top two, but we’re still seeing how the rest pan out.”
Also in the fight for time on the mound this season will be Danny Cantu, Frank Flores, Brandon Key, Andrew Vincent, Scott Shimek and Michael Villarreal. Cantu and Flores are both transfers from Laredo Community College who were impressive during fall practice. Key comes to St. Mary’s from Alvin Community College. Vincent went 2-1 last season in limited action, making nine appearances, including three starts. Shimek also saw limited action as a freshman, but should get more opportunities this season. Villarreal was a member of the team in 2006, but did not see game action.
One thing that isn’t keeping Migl up at nights is wondering who will start in the field. With eight of nine starters back, he has confidence in that area.
Ray Camacho, a four-year starter, returns at second base. Camacho hit .307 with 13 doubles and 44 runs scored last season.
“Ray is the type of guy who can hit well, but his strength is his defensive play,” Migl said.
Ryan Femath, an All-Heartland pick, is back at shortstop after a strong first season as the Rattlers leadoff hitter. In addition to getting on base consistently with a .335 average, he showed tremendous pop, smacking a team-high nine homeruns, while scoring 61 runs and stealing 16 bases. In addition to his skills on the mound, Cantu will back up Femath and Camacho in the middle infield.
“Ryan has an outstanding arm and glove,” Migl said. “He just needs to develop consistency with his glove. He’s going to be an outstanding player for us.”
Jason Davila moves from third base to first base this season. Davila hit .314 with 11 doubles and 37 runs scored last season.
“He’s definitely steady and knows his role on the team,” Migl said.
Cody Pyle will return behind the plate after his best season to date with the Rattlers. He hit .299 last season and was even stronger in the field, posting a .984 fielding percentage at the backstop.
“Cody is a two-year starter who possesses outstanding power,” Migl said. “He does a great job and is a real leader on the field.”
The lone newcomer in the infield is Ricky Gonzalez, a transfer from San Jacinto Junior College. Gonzalez will take over at third. Backing him up at third, as well as serving as a backup at first base is Jonathon Cisneros, a freshman from San Antonio.
“Ricky has a great arm and glove,” Migl said. “He has power and hopefully can drive in some runs at the bottom of the order.”
“Cisneros has a strong bat,” Migl said. “Once he learns the college game he should be an outstanding player for us.”
In the outfield, 2006 Heartland Conference Freshman of the Year Michael Brzezinski leads the way. He led the Rattlers with a .405 average, 19 doubles, 38 RBI, 50 runs scored and 15 stolen bases last season. But it was his clutch hitting that Migl remembers best.
“He was the most clutch hitter we had on the team last season,” Migl recalled. “He’s fast, smart, and works hard every day to become a better outfielder. I expect that he will continue to get better and better over the rest of his time here.”
Joining Brzezinski in the outfield is Michael Pawelek, who hit .258 with 25 RBI and 31 runs scored last season.
“I’m looking for Mike to have a breakout year this season,” Migl said. “Last season he did the job, but was trying to knock off the rust after sitting out 2005 with an injury.”
Jason Anderson is coming off a disappointing 2006 season, but Migl feels that Anderson’s strong work ethic and ability will lead to a bounce-back year in 2007.
“He had a disappointing season in 2006, but has worked very hard during the offseason and I hope it pays off for him,” Migl said.
Three players will compete for playing time in the outfield behind the preseason starters: Nate Wilson, Cory Thompson and Bobby Freeman. Wilson is the most experienced with three years on the team. Thompson, a red-shirt freshman from San Antonio, sat out 2006 is hoping to bounce back strong this season. Freeman was also injured last season, but was strong in his first two seasons with the team, batting .323 in 85 games.
“Nate works hard and has really improved during his time with the team,” Migl said. “He brings a lot to the table as a hitter and base runner.”
“Both Cory and Bobby have been trying to knock the rust off this fall and are guys that will see time this spring. They should push the starters.”
The Heartland Conference
With the team in place, there is the challenge of competing in the Heartland Conference. Last season saw a three-team race that came down to the final weekend of the season. St. Mary’s cross-town rival, the University of the Incarnate Word, came out on top with a 30-10 record, one game up on St. Edward’s University with a 29-11 mark and two games ahead of the Rattlers, who had a 28-12 mark, despite winning five of eight against UIW last season.
“We came out on top against Incarnate Word last season, but St. Edward’s just had our number,” Migl said. But with both UIW and SEU losing significant players from their 2006 squads, the time may be at hand for the Rattlers to return to the top of the Heartland Conference for the first time since the 2002 season. Just how good this team is won’t take long to find out, as they will face Abilene Christian (preseason #17) and Texas A&M-Kingsville to start the season.