Baseball enters the 2019 campaign looking to win the Atlantic 10 tournament for the first time since 2015 after falling in the quarterfinals to George Washington last May.
“Goals never change,” coach Shawn Stiffler said. “The standards and expectations are to put ourselves in an opportunity for postseason play and have an opportunity to win a championship. That never changes, that’s going to be year-in and year-out.”
The Rams return 19 players from last season’s squad, including sophomore utility player Hogan Brown.
In his freshman season, Brown led the team with a .356 batting average and an on-base percentage of .451. He was named to Collegiate Baseball Newspaper’s Freshman All-American team. Brown was also recognized within the A-10, named to the Second Team All-Conference squad and to the All-Rookie Team.
“We need him to continue to progress,” Stiffler said of Brown. “He came onto the scene and had a good year and I wouldn’t say that we didn’t expect it, but it certainly was a nice surprise. Now this year the tough part is we expect that out of him, we need that out of him.”
The Black and Gold return to the Diamond this season with two pitchers who carried the bulk of the workload as starters last season — junior right-handed pitchers Connor Gillespie and Sam Ryan.
Gillespie was the workhorse for the Rams last season, making 18 starts and throwing 73.2 innings. He had a 2.57 ERA with a team leading 97 strikeouts and only 20 walks.
Ryan appeared in 19 contests, making 11 starts for the Rams last season. He tossed 63 innings with a 4.14 ERA and 68 strikeouts.
The Rams will be missing the right arm of Sean Thompson this season on the mound, as he signed with the Chicago White Sox after graduating last year. He threw a team-high 82 innings, striking out 79, walking 27 and and sporting an ERA of 3.03 last season.
Thompson made 13 appearances and nine starts last summer for the rookie level Arizona League White Sox. He tossed 36.2 innings, walking seven and fanning 31 batters.
VCU welcomes 15 new recruits to the roster this season including 10 players out of high school and five junior college transfers.
Stiffler said junior right-handed pitcher Justin Sorokowski “will step in right away” and have a significant role on the team. He also said that freshman right-handed pitcher Evan Chenier and freshman left-handed pitcher Jaden Griffin “stepped in right away and showed great poise.”
Sorokowski, a Mechanicsville native, transferred from Tallahassee Community College and had a 2.35 season ERA for the Eagles. He struck out 80 batters in only 65 innings pitched.
Most of the recruiting class this year is homegrown, as nine of the 15 recruits hail from the Commonwealth.
Junior infielder and Chantilly native Brett Norwood has already caught the eye of Stiffler after transferring from South Florida State College.
“On the offensive side, we’ve had several newcomers really impress me,” Stiffler said. “Norwood has done a great job and I think he will be a catalyst at the top of our lineup, as well as [junior outfielder] Brandon Henson. He is going to be a powerful bat and a guy on the basepaths. He’s going to provide speed and power in our lineup.”
Norwood hit .338 with 27 RBI and six home runs at SFSC. Henson transferred from Sinclair Community College and hit .388 with 19 doubles, eight triples and 10 home runs last season at the community college level.
Stiffler is in his seventh season at the helm on Boulevard, after a 34-25 season last year. It was the first season since 2013 that VCU did not have 35 wins or more under Stiffler’s tutelage.
“Each team has to find its own way to win and that’s the first thing this team needs to figure out,” Stiffler said. “We have to figure out how we are going to become a winning baseball team and see where that takes us.”
The Rams will be back in action for the 2019 season Feb. 15 on the road against the 2016 National Champions Coastal Carolina at 4 p.m. VCU’s home opener at the Diamond is Feb. 26 as they host Maryland at 3 p.m.
Noah Fleischman Staff Writer