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Revved-up baseball team opens this week with six games in Texas

The Bates baseball team hopes Noah Lynd '11 can approach the numbers he accumulated in his breakout 2010 season. (File photo)

LEWISTON, Maine -- Though it's become an annual occurence, it never fails to surprise when the Bates baseball team opens its season in late February, with spring in Maine seemingly so distant.

Not so for the actual team members, however. Says first-year head coach Mike Leonard, "I can't tell you how excited they are for the season to start. They just can't wait to get going and build on the success they had last year."

Just a week after its first practice inside the Gray Cage, the team opens the 2011 season tomorrow, Feb. 22, with a doubleheader at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, beginning at 6 p.m. Central time. The team stays in Texas for the bulk of the week to play six games in all, taking advantage of Bates' unusually early mid-term break, a function of the College's academic schedule, which features a Short Term in May following the second semester. Bates plays a game at the University of Texas at Dallas on Wednesday at 2 p.m., followed Thursday by a game at Dallas Christian College at 3 p.m. The Bobcats wrap up the trip on Saturday with a doubleheader at the University of Dallas, beginning at noon. No other NESCAC team plays a game that counts until March 6. By March 12, Bates will have played nine games before eight fellow NESCAC teams have played a single game.

Bates' first home game at Leahey Field, decked out with a new scoreboard and permanent outfield fence, is scheduled for April 8 against Bowdoin, the 17th game on Bates' 33-game slate.

"I think [the early start] will allow us to jell quicker, to develop team chemistry and have us play together as a group," said Leonard, a former Boston Red Sox minor leaguer and All-Big East catcher at the University of Connecticut who was appointed to his position at Bates in November 2010. "It's important for us to take advantage of our spring break, to get the most out of our season."

Expectations are sure to be high for a team that returns the vast majority of starters from last year's record campaign, when the Bobcats set team records in many hitting, pitching, baserunning and fielding categories, while blowing past the old team record for wins (18) in finishing 25-11.

The Bobcats have a pair of stalwart pitchers returning in senior Paul Chiampa (Pembroke, Mass.) and junior Karl Alexander (Cambridge, Mass.). Alexander was 5-2 with a team-best 3.22 ERA and two complete games. Chiampa led the team in innings (64.0) and went 5-3 with a 3.94 ERA. Lynd (2-0, 3.50 ERA) and sophomore Michael Spinosa (Charlottesville, Va.; 0-1, 6.27 ERA) may also be regular starters on the mound. Sophomores Pat Siebenlist (Gaithersburg, Md.) and Mike Antonellis (Sudbury, Mass.) are likely to see innings out of the bullpen.

Eight regular starters from last year are back, including three seniors who earned all-conference recognition last year in 1B/P Noah Lynd (Meriden, N.H.), OF Chris Burke (North Andover, Mass.) and C/OF/DH Jake Simon (Waterford, Conn.). Lynd stood out, becoming the first Bobcat ever to reach double digits in home runs by blasting a conference-best 15 round-trippers on the year, to go with a .398 batting average, 44 RBIs and a .912 slugging percentage. Lynd set team single-season records in homers, RBIs, slugging, total bases and extra-base hits, all after posting a mere one home run and six RBIs as a sophomore in 2009. Burke was a second-time All-NESCAC awardee, after hitting .385 with four homers, 38 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. Simon set the team record for runs in a season last year, with 43, and also hit .358 with 8 homers and 36 RBIs, while drawing a team-high 27 walks.

Senior Noah Burke (Appleton, Maine) is one of a few other returners who probably could have been tabbed All-NESCAC as well. The second baseman was named to the Jewish Sports Review's All-America team, after batting .379, fourth best on the team, with one home run, 22 runs batted in, a team-record 15 doubles and 12 stolen bases on 13 attempts. Burke was also exceptional when playing defense, committing only two errors and for a sparkling .987 fielding percentage while helping to turn 19 double plays.

Senior center fielder Pat Murphy (Cape Elizabeth, Maine), one of two team captains along with Chris Burke, continued to perform at an elite level defensively in 2010, rating a perfect 1.000 in fielding percentage on 89 chances. Murphy also was successful on 19 out of 20 steal attempts, hit .339 and slugged at a .461 percentage.

Yet another senior every-day player, C/DH Gordy Webb (Bangor, Maine) also returns from his finest campaign, after hitting .370, slugging .521, driving in 32 runs and playing outstanding defense (.980).

Junior 3B Mike Ciummei (Acton, Mass.), who hit .362 in the first half of last season, is healthy again and will compete for the starting job at the hot corner. Sophomore Ryan Sonberg (Windsor, Conn.) is competing to be Bates' everyday shortstop, following the graduation of All-NESCAC player Tom Beaton '10. Senior OF Rich Velotta (Fairfield, Conn.), who hit .320 last year, and sophomore 1B Kevin McGregor (Randolph, N.J.), who hit .346, also figure to compete for at-bats and playing time.

A strong group of first-year players will add immediate depth, particularly to Bates' pitching staff. Tom Baroni (Mt. Kisco, N.Y.), Andrew Bradley (New Canaan, Conn.) and Dean Bonneau (Amherst, Mass.) all have the potential to contribute immediately on the mound, as does rookie IF/OF Griffin Tewksbury (Concord, N.H.) on the field.

While there is plenty of excitement for the team, there will also be urgency for the Bobcats to make the NESCAC Championship for the first time, a feat that eluded Bates by one game last year. Only the top two teams from the NESCAC East Division, which also includes Trinity, Tufts, Bowdoin and Colby, make the field, but that will be the No. 1 goal of what might be the program's best senior class to date.