Freshman Phenoms Bring Baseball Surprise Season

After losing 11 of its top seniors following the 2005 California Collegiate Athletic Association title game, the UCSD baseball team seemed poised for a disappointing season in 2006. Losing key players like Keith Hernandez and Shlomo Lipetz made a repeat visit to the CCAA championship unlikely. Though the Tritons couldn’t repeat their title this year, as UCSD lost in the second round of the CCAA tournament to Cal State Dominguez Hills, the development of players like junior David Morehead and sophomore Scott Clement coupled with the addition of some spectacular freshmen made the UCSD baseball team into a formidable force this year.

Danai Leininger/Guardian
Although departing senior closer Ryan Leake will be missed, UCSD should have a formidable closer in freshman Trevor Decker, who is waiting in the wings to assume the responsibility.

When Cal State Dominguez Hills secured the 11-9 victory to advance to the CCAA title game, the Tritons ended their season with an overall record of 35-24, a solid finish considering the challenge head coach Dan O’Brien faced in molding a dedicated team out of a couple of skilled veterans and a group of inexperienced youngsters.

“I think the success of our freshman class has a lot to do with our senior leadership this year,” O’Brien said. “The assistant coaches did a good job of teaching the game the way we like it to be played to our freshmen and letting our freshmen watch our seniors do it the way they’ve been doing it for years. It was a great combination.”

One of the veterans O’Brien was able to rely on was Morehead (catcher), who batted .280 with 12 home runs and 41 RBIs. Morehead also led the team in doubles, with 19, and added 13 steals on the basepaths.

Sophomore Scott Clement, though only in his second year with the club, was another experienced hitter put in the middle of the Triton lineup, and he made the most of his opportunities, batting .349 and leading the team in home runs and RBIs, with 15 and 56, respectively.

While the likes of Clement, Morehead and senior outfielder David Gomez provided veteran leadership in the lineup, O’Brien was filling out rosters in the beginning of the season with players no one had heard of. People like CCAA Freshman of the Year Garrett Imeson and freshman Matt Cantele were suddenly thrown on the field in the hopes that they could replace the loss of stars like Hernandez and Brad Beltz. Not only did Imeson and Cantele make people forget about last season’s losses, but they became household names and will be staples in UCSD’s lineup for years to come.

“Those two guys were invaluable to our success and to our team,” O’Brien said. “Without those two, and a lot of other freshmen, we don’t have the kind of year that we did.”

Imeson, a second baseman from Stockton, Calif., played in all 59 games this season, tied for most on the team and led the team in batting average, going 74-for-203 for a .365 stat. He also tallied five triples, drove in 35 runs and swiped 12 bases. According to teammates, he was the all-around player the Tritons needed to make it as far as they did this year.

“[Imeson] doesn’t give away at-bats,” O’Brien said. “As a freshman, I thought he was one of our offensive leaders and he showed everyone else, regardless of where he was hitting in the count, that he just flat out competes and he had a lot of success because of that.”

While Imeson provided the Tritons with speed and on-base security at the top of the order, another freshman, Cantele, carried a surprisingly big bat for a first-year collegiate player. Cantele came from a promising baseball high school in Saint Francis in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and his natural talent was evident since the beginning of the season, when he was banging deep fly balls over the right field fence at Triton Baseball Stadium.

After the initial surprise of witnessing such a young player dominate formidable CCAA pitching, Cantele’s home runs became standard, as he hit a walk-off home run, a couple of go-ahead homers and some game-tying dingers. By season’s end, Cantele had tallied 14 long balls, second on the team only to Clement. He also led the team in slugging percentage with an impressive mark of .683, batted .289 and drove in 35 runs.

“I’m most proud of how coachable Matt Cantele was,” O’Brien said. “From the very beginning when he got here, he has taken everything we’ve given him and applied it to his game. And I think his willingness to listen and to be coachable was key to his success.”

It took more than power for the Tritons to make the playoffs, and just like the combination of young and old players on offense proved successful, UCSD’s pitching staff was anchored by veteran pitchers like senior T.C. Geach, and inexperienced but talented freshmen like Trevor Decker and Jon Durket.

“It was really surprising to see the freshmen step up and take over really big roles, especially the starting roles,” Geach said. “It’s a long season and it’s difficult to go from a high school season to a college season and play four games in a weekend. So, basically the seniors just kept them focused — off the field stuff, academics and keeping them grounded through the long series. They had the talent, so I didn’t have to help them with their game at all.”

Decker and Durket were first and second, respectively, on the Tritons in ERA. Decker appeared in 23 games, starting eight, and went 7-6 with a 3.69 ERA and 38 strikeouts compared to only eight walks. Durket appeared in fewer games than Decker, but was still effective in his 10 appearances. He only pitched 26.1 innings, but his 3.76 ERA is a sign that he will be reliable as a starter or a reliever next year, just like Decker.

“He’s obviously good enough to be a starter,” O’Brien said. “But a lot of times you want to put your most resilient arms in the bullpen. And Trevor is exactly that. We’ll make our decision based on the best interest of the team.”

Whatever O’Brien decides to do with his pitchers next year, the staff should be as good or better compared to this year, when the team’s ERA was 5.22, versus the 5.66 of UCSD’s opponents.

O’Brien is excited for the opportunity to bring next year’s team on the field and have the chance to see how his freshmen players have developed during the offseason. And if Cantele and Decker are just the first of many talented freshmen to come through the UCSD baseball program, then O’Brien can expect more pleasant surprises next year.