Anticipation is high for the 2001 BYU season with a new 2,300-seat baseball stadium for second-year coach Vance Law.
A blend of talented newcomers join key veterans returning from the 29-29 season, which generated a third-place finish in the inaugural year of the Mountain West Conference. All positions return with experience.
"We have a fine nucleus of returning players and need to have some support from our newcomers," says Law.
Foremost among the veterans are junior southpaw pitcher Jeff Stone and Freshman All-American Matt Carson, an outfielder. Stone is 11 games shy of becoming the career record-holder in wins after seasons of 11-1 and 10-5. Carson was invited to the USA Baseball National Team tryouts and had a team-high 19-game hitting streak mid-season last year. His freshman campaign helped him earn MWC Freshman of the Year and second team All-MWC.
Other key returning veterans include second team All-MWC shortstop Seth King, right handed sidearmer, Nate Fernley and third baseman, Kainoa Obrey, who was selected as an honorable-mention freshman All-American.
King, who was named as a Tri-captain, received MWC Player of the Week honors last season for his performance at Air Force and Fernley, also a Tri-captain, received MWC Pitcher of the week honors when he shut down then first place New Mexico in Provo. Obrey led BYU in homeruns last season and hit a memorable game-winning shot at San Diego State in a key conference win.
Among the impressive newcomers are junior college transfer Lars Birkeland and walk-on freshman Jeff Hiestand. Birkeland is a catcher from Saddleback J.C. who has just returned from an LDS mission.
"He (Birkeland) receives the ball very well and has shown last fall that he can handle the bat as well," says Law.
Hiestand was a recruited athlete who decided to turn down offers and come to BYU. He is a strong left-handed hitter that is a tough out. He could work his way into the everyday lineup. Seven young pitchers signed this fall and will battle for a chance to break into the pitching rotation. Namely, freshman Jeff Stearman out of Palm Springs and Sam Fernley (younger brother to Nate), have been impressive.
A position-by-position outlook shows how this year's team should stack up when the Cougars open up with the Arizona Wildcats in February.
The pitching staff could be the Cougars' biggest question mark in 2001. While Fernley and Stone should shine and returning southpaw starter, James Ray, will be scrappy on the mound, the success of the pitching staff will stem from the progress of an inexperienced, young group. Rounding out the pitching corps are transfer Ryan Adams, who pitched his freshman year at BYU before transferring to UVSC last year; returned missionaries Brandon Boothe (6-9, 265) and Tom Doxey; sophomore Shawn Hancock (younger brother of former BYU quarterback Ryan Hancock), and seven freshmen. The rookies include: Scott Koffmann (Salt Lake City); Jeff Mousser (Tempe, AZ); Brad Nelson (Cary, N.C.); Justin Su'a (Torrance, CA), who is son of former Cougar baseball All-American Murphy Su'a; Sam Fernley (Long Beach, CA); Stearman; and Jacob Chrisman (Provo), a two-sport athlete who plays hoops for the Cougars as well.
The battery mate behind the plate will come down to who establishes himself defensively. Birkeland recovered quickly from his mission, but junior two-year letterman, Michael Davies will battle for a lot of playing time. Davies' bat could help him find his way in the lineup as a DH as well. Sophomore Steven Snow has a great work ethic but less playing experience. Snow will battle Hiestand for backup responsibilities.
The 2001 BYU infield returns with experience at all positions. Obrey will man the hot-corner and is expected to have a big year. He will be backed up by Su'a, who is also an infielder. The other hot corner will be a battle between senior Ty Haguewood and junior Michael Wirrick. Haguewood showed some good pop in his bat last year while Wirrick was hurt most of the season. Both have potential to hit their way into the lineup. The middle infield will be solid with King at short. He will be backed up by freshman Brad Hales out of Spanish Fork. King's keystone combination partner is still up for grabs.
"Cameron Coughlan had a huge fall at the plate, and has worked hard over the summer to improve defensively. He has even improved his already great speed," says Law. "Tyler Perry has also shown consistency both at the plate and in the field," adds Law. "Those two are battling for that job."
They will be backed by freshman Han Yi, a high school teammate of Su'a who will provide ample help up the middle.
Tri-captain and seasoned veteran, Shane Belliston returns for his senior campaign in centerfield after being the starter the last two years. He will be expected to be a "table-setter" at the top of the lineup. Carson continues to turn heads with his potent bat and his major-league arm at right field. Left field will be a battle. Senior Aaron Whitley was impressive last year at times, but was slowed by injuries. Sophomore Doug Jackson showed promising skills last season and he can also play center. They will be pushed by sophomore transfer, Tim Law (son of Coach Law), who is anxious to play again after returning from a mission last summer.
"We are very optimistic about this year and I hope we play as well as I think we are capable," says Law.