Before the Olympics arrive, BYU's baseball team will be in action as its season begins on Jan. 24 with a three-game series at Texas Tech.
One player can't replace the nation's winningest pitcher. Then again, third-year BYU Coach Vance Law has his other three first-team all-conference players returning to defend the Mountain West title.
"I am encouraged by the talent pool which keeps rising," says Law, who was MWC Coach of the Year last season. "If we can mesh that talent and have players continue to accept their roles, we can have another outstanding year."
Gone from last year's 38-22 championship squad is All-American pitcher Nate Fernley. Back are juniors Matt Carson and the Hawai'ian tandem of Kainoa Obrey and Doug Jackson. Joining them are some veteran pitchers like Jeff Stone and a couple of sluggers who have recently returned from Church missions.
David Jensen, was in Argentina the past two seasons, but was a Freshman All-American first baseman at BYU when he batted .368 with 23 doubles in 1999. Joining Jensen is sophomore Ranger Wiens, a returned missionary from Hawaii, via the University of Nevada. Wiens will fill the vacancy at shortstop, while redshirt Han Yi gets the nod at second base.
Jensen will start at first and Obrey (.381 with 20 doubles) will be at third. Not to be forgotten is summer league All-American catcher Lars Birkeland, a senior.
Carson and Jackson are joined by junior speedster Cameron Coughlan in the outfield. Carson ( .335, 70 RBI, 18 homers) has twice been a part of the USA Team trials and may have the strongest arm of any rightfielder in college, with a bat to match.
"Matt has been the team leader since his freshman year and we anticipate him having a great season again anchoring the middle of our lineup," says Law. "He has an above-average, major-league arm."
Jackson (.370 eight triples) moves from left to centerfield and has the speed and bat which defy his 5-7 stature. Coughlan (six triples and 14 stolen bases), also a junior speedster, moves from second base to left field.
Transfer Jake Stubblefield, the defensive player of the Scenic West junior college conference, has a potent bat at designated hitter. Another transfer, Mike Weingarten from UVSC, backs up at catcher.
Stone, a senior southpaw, is six wins shy of the school career record with his 26-11 mark. However, Fernley's 16-3 record last season will be missed now that he has graduated and pitching for the Cleveland Indians organization. Keeping pace with Fernley last season was Ryan Adams, who had a 5-1 record before injuring his hand.
"I like our depth on our pitching staff, particularly the sophomores who got a lot of experience last season," says Law.
Adams is now healthy and is joined by fellow senior reliever Matt Ward (four saves). However, veteran lefty James Ray (three saves) will miss part of the season because of surgery for a ruptured disk in his neck.
Sophomores Scott Koffman (3-1), Jeff Mousser (3-0) and flame-thrower Jake Chrisman (a basketball player who stands 6-8 and throws 94 mph) and transfer hurlers Tyler Dabo and Jason Garcia give needed depth. Another sophomore, Curt Rodriguez, could be ready by mid-season after a mission and surgery or could redshirt.
Joining Rodriguez, Wiens and Jensen as players returning from missions are Rob Itri (pitcher-infielder), Paul Jacinto (pitcher), Kevin Bills (third base) and Adam Wilkes (catcher). Freshmen Clayton Carson and Ryan Chambers and walk-ons Kirk Williamson, Ryan Thurgood, Jeff Pugmire, and Brian Nielsen join Dabo, Garcia, Stubblefield, Weingarten and Wiens as newcomers to the squad, while Sam Fernley returns after a semester absence.
Gone from last year's team are mission departures in freshman All-America pitcher Justin Su'a (serving in Nicaragua), Jeff Hiestand (serving in Colorado), Brad Hales (serving in Spain) and Jeff Stearman (serving in Perth, Australia).
The schedule for the first full year in Miller Park is complemented by a three-game season opener at Texas Tech, a 10-game California trip which includes NCAA runner-up Stanford, a six-game trip in Hawai'i, a three-game series at Washington, and a two-game series at Notre Dame.
Additionally, the Cougars host the MWC Tournament on May 22-25.