Michigan’s new head baseball coach, Rich Maloney, will have the chance to fulfill the legacy left behind by Ray Fisher and Dan Lund, the first two Michigan coaches to win baseball national championships, in 1953 and 1962, respectively.
Maloney has coached several extraordinary players such as Bryan Bullington, who was the first pick of the 2002 Major League Draft. But, the question that lies before him now is if he can implement that success with this year’s Michigan ball club.
“Losing breeds losing and winning breeds winning,” Maloney said. “These kids haven’t won anything yet. They haven’t even been above .500. We need to build up their psyche, because they’re capable of doing better then they have. I believe in these kids, and with hard work, they can do amazing things. If we truly play as a team, then I believe that we’ll have the best season that we possibly can.”
Over the past few seasons, Michigan has struggled to remain near the .500 mark, and has not been a factor in the Big Ten. Last year’s horrific season was capped off with the firing of coach Chris Harrison and the team’s exclusion from the Big Ten Tournament. But this year the coaches and players are extremely optimistic.
“Coping isn’t the word to use while describing our experience with the coaching changes,” senior first baseman Mike Sokol said. “Everyone is happy for the change. Things are going in the right direction for the program, which starts with the coaching staff. They have done a tremendous job proclaiming their passion for Michigan and baseball in general.”
The Wolverines will spend spring break in Savannah, Ga. while they face an abundance of talented teams. They will encounter Armstrong Atlantic State on Feb. 21, but their greatest test will come on the second day of combat against Baseball America’s No.1-ranked Georgia Tech.
At this moment, Michigan feels like it is doing an excellent job in preparing for its upcoming games. But facing an exceptionally tough schedule in the beginning of the season may hurt the overall team unity.
“We just hope to go down (to Georgia, Florida and California) and play hard,” senior third baseman Brock Koman said. “Keeping it together as a team is one of toughest things to do. Our main focus is to win the Big Ten Tournament. We want to get in that tournament and win it.”
To go as far as winning the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan must have all of its young guns in place and ready to fire.
Michigan’s only returning starting pitcher from last year, junior righthander Jim Brauer, is expected to be the arm that will lead Michigan to a winning season. Brauer is a vital part in the Wolverines success as a ball club and to the success of the other pitchers on the team.
“Jimmy Brauer has the chance to be an elite pitcher,” Maloney said. “He is picked right now by Baseball America as the 61st prospect in the country. He has the makings of a top-notch pitcher, and he should have a professional future. In his two previous years, he has shown signs of stardom, but now he has to take it to the next level.”
Brauer was hyped last year, but did not live up to his expectations with a 4-5 record and an era of 5.06.
Other noteworthy names are Koman, a Colorado native, and Sokol, from Indiana. Koman is coming off a great offensive season in which he led the team in batting average at .361. Sokol is also an advanced hitting prospect, coming in as the team’s third most offensive threat with an average of .325.
“We have Brock Koman, who I believe is one of the best hitters I ever coached,” Maloney said. “He’s a pure hitter, and he has had a wonderful career here at Michigan. He has been voted by his teammates as MVP a couple different times, and he’s an outstanding player, I’m expecting big things from Brock this year. We also have Mike Sokol, who has hit very well during the time that he has played. He really stepped it up in the fall, and I just think he is an excellent hitter.”
Junior catcher Jake Fox is also a vital piece to the makeup of this Michigan team. Leading the team in homeruns with 11 and coming in second in batting average with .331 last season, Fox’s offensive performance will be a key component to the team’s success.
Although Michigan has been labeled as a fine offensive team, the Wolverines need to improve on other areas of their game.
“A weakness in our team is that we don’t have any team speed,” Maloney said. “We just don’t have team speed. Hopefully we’ll be able to hit and run some, and we’ve been working hard on the squeeze play. I love small ball, and by doing the little things, we’ll win more games.”
Despite Michigan’s constant strive to become one of the dominant teams in the nation, the Wolverines need to focus more on their Big Ten accomplishments over what lies before them in the upcoming weeks.
“That’s the farthest thing from my mind,” Sokol said, regarding the possibility of receiving honors from the Big Ten. “Those things are good to have, but I would rather give them away just for a Big Ten championship. That is the goal. Hopefully this doesn’t happen, but I would take hitting .100 and winning the Big Ten championship rather than individual achievements.”