Before Rich Maloney’s arrival as head coach this season, the Michigan baseball team held a shoddy 69-92-1 mark in the new millennium. During this three-year period, the Wolverines chalked up a 34-49 conference record en route to eighth, sixth and eighth place finishes in Big Ten play. Basically, a once proud program that tore through the ’80s with a record of 465-146-1 (142-37 Big Ten) – while winning eight conference championships – had fallen to relative obscurity in the Big Ten.
Maloney made it clear early in his inaugural season that each game’s outcome did not matter to him, he just wanted his team to “get after it.”
And “get after it” they did.
Michigan finished 30-27 overall – its best record since 1999 – and earned a third place finish in conference standings with a 16-14 Big Ten mark.
Throughout the season, Maloney credited Michigan’s success to the team’s “never say die” attitude.
“We’re not going to back down to whoever we play,” Maloney said earlier this season. “We’re going to expect to be the best.”
This cavalier mindset was evident in the Wolverines’ 12 come-from-behind victories this year. Michigan’s feisty approach was also apparent when it defeated Midwest powerhouse Notre Dame and took a home series from Ohio State (the Buckeyes’ first home-series loss since 1997) in one week.
At the plate, Michigan rode its senior leadership throughout the season. The trio of Brock Koman (.368, 55 RBIs), Gino Lollio (.329, 58 runs), and Mike Sokol (.340, 38 runs) paced the Michigan offense on a daily basis.
Senior Tim Leveque was paramount on the mound, giving Maloney a steady reliever with a 3.68 ERA.
Although these seniors were vital to Michigan’s success this year and will be missed in 2004, Maloney did a stellar job developing a lot of the young talent, namely pitching. Of Michigan’s 11 hurlers who made appearances this year, all but one (Leveque) will be available for service next season. This young staff was beat up a bit this year, but with players like Drew Taylor (9-1, 3.97 ERA) and Phil Tognetti (6-5, 3.76 ERA) returning, the Wolverines should be solid on the mound in 2004.
Michigan also returns many position players next year. Jake Fox had a monster junior season, hitting .357 and leading the team in homeruns (15) and RBIs (67). Besides Fox, the Wolverines will boast five other players in 2004 with at least 20 starts under their belts.
All in all, under the tutelage of Maloney, the program is headed in the right direction. In seven years at Ball State (1996-2002), Maloney transformed the Cardinals from a cellar-dweller to a two-time Mid-American Conference champion. So far, it looks like he’s going the same route with Michigan. In his first season with the Wolverines, Maloney achieved one of the team’s main goals (30 wins), improved Michigan’s final conference standing five spots from a year ago and – through this rampant success – thwarted any idea of 2003 being a typical “rebuilding year” (the new-era term for a losing season).
Led by Maloney, Michigan finished just behind the conference’s two perennial contenders – Ohio State and Minnesota – who both will compete in the 2003 NCAA tournament. Will it leapfrog the Buckeyes or Golden Gophers next season? Possibly. Will it make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999? There’s a chance. But, under Maloney’s reign, at least one thing is guaranteed in 2004 – the Wolverines will most certainly “get after it.”