A new look permeates BYU's coaching staff, team, playing field, conference, and games in new territory.
Former major-league Vance Law and his assistant Dave Eldredge guide their alma mater on a field whose pushed back fences (345-385-400-385-345) will challenge several new Cougars in the first year of the Mountain West Conference. And the Cougars will play for the first time in history east of the Mississippi during the regular season in a three-game series at Alabama.
"The league is uncharted territory, so I'm optimistic based on what I've seen of our team," said Law, who feels he and Eldredge have gained the team's trust very quickly. "Our strength is our depth, our pitching, and our solid, mature leadership. Everyone on our team has something to offer."
Leading the new players are two transfers who helped teams last year to the NCAA playoffs, several junior college transfers, and some talented freshmen.
Nick Day, a senior transfer from Stanford, is a veteran of two College World Series. The 6-2 Day will see lots of playing time at outfield and shortstop. James Ray, a junior lefty, helped pitch Jacksonville University to an NCAA berth and will be in the Cougar starting rotation.
"Nick is an outstanding hitter with good experience," says Law. "He is already well-respected by his teammates here. He'll be in our lineup somewhere."
"James is a crafty left-hander who gets people out. We expect him to win a lot of big games for us."
Among the top Juco transfers is junior Nate Fernley whose wicked slider netted him 134 strikeouts last season at Long Beach City College. Another interesting pitcher is Jahseam George from the Virgin Islands, who stands 6-4.
"We want Fernley to have the ball a lot, so he may have to be a swing pitcher," says Law.
Leading the freshmen corps is Matt Carson who turned down a pro offer and has an arm rivaling Law's former pro teammate Andre Dawson. He will likely start in right field. Another top frosh is Kainoa Obrey, a Hawai'i player of the year, who looks to start at third base.
"The biggest surprise to me is seeing how Matt can swing the bat at this level," says Law. "He is very solid and will be a real special player.
"Kainoa brings us another threat of power."
Cougars Michael Davies and Michael Wirrick will start at new positions, catcher and first base, respectively. Davies was primarily a DH last season, while Wirrick was a rightfielder. Wirrick and JC transfer Ty Haguewood have been surprisingly good at first base.
Centerfielder Shane Belliston and righthander Micah Mangrum are the most experienced of the BYU veterans.
Newly-returned missionary Jeff Stone is hoping to return to the form which helped the lefty to an 11-1 record, 1996 Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year, and Freshman All-America honors before his service in Korea.
Joining Ray, Fernley, George, Stone and Mangrum in the pitching corps are seniors Todd Crump, Rusty Gray, Sean Noorda, Jordan Opdahl, and Matt Rex, another newly-returned missionary, Shawn Hancock, and freshmen Tyler Heid and Bryce Searle.
"We expect Mangrum and Noorda to step forward and be the senior leaders on the hill," says Law. "They could start as could Ray, Stone, or Opdahl."
Journeymen expected to contribute this season are Nate Mathis who is playing very well at second base, Nick Green and redshirt David Rock in the outfield. Craig Peterson will also contribute in the outfield and at first base.
Other newcomers who figure in the lineup are freshman speedster Cameron Coughlan and Douglas Jackson in the outfield; transfers Seth King who is improving at shortstop, Tyler Perry who has shown tenaciousness at third, and Aaron Whitley in the outfield.
Freshman Casey Cloward and redshirt freshman Steve Snow will back up Davies at catcher.
The new conference schedule calls for home-and-home three-game series with the other five league baseball members, culminating with each team competing in the Mountain West Tournament at Las Vegas during mid-May.
"My goal is to win the league," says Law. "People may think we were down last year, but I don't see that.
"We'll find out where we stand with our first nine games being against top competition," says Law. "If we are .500 against good competition, we'll have a good measuring stick.."
That schedule will force the Cougars to grow up fast with quite a few young players on the squad.
"We'll throw them in the fire real quick. We have motivated players who are willing to work hard, change, and be coached.
"We hope to carry on the tradition that Coach (Gary) Pullins and Coach (Glen) Tuckett have established with the commitment to upgrade facilities and to make this a sport that is self-sufficient so people in the community will want to support it just like football and basketball."