After finishing 25-25 and 9-9 in the Big East a season ago, the Seton Hall baseball team will look to take another step forward in 2016.
Right-handed starter Shane McCarthy took the conference by storm in his freshman year. The 6-foot-2-inch Fair Haven, N.J. native broke onto the scene as a full-fledged star.
He was named to the 2015 Freshman All-American team after leading the Big East with a 2.19 ERA and finishing with the fewest runs, earned runs and walks allowed among conference starters.
Last year, his rise to stardom was a pleasant surprise for Seton Hall. This year, it will be expected.
Similarly, head coach Rob Sheppard expects to lead the team north of the .500 line this year. That starts this weekend when the team heads to Florida.
“We expect to be a much better team,” he said.
“We thought that we under- achieved to some extent last year. We always have high expectations each year when we start, and this year is no different.”
Seton Hall will escape the chills of the Jersey winter with a four-game series against Missouri in Fort Myers on Feb. 19, 20 (which will be a double-header) and 21.
Four days later, the Pirates will travel to Miami to battle Florida International for another four games.
Finally, SHU will play Indiana twice along with Ohio State at the Snowbird Classic in Port Charlotte.
“It’s good to get outside,” Sheppard said. “We want to play against really good competition, and it’s a good challenge playing an SEC team right out of the gate. Our team always wants to play the best. We’re looking forward to it.”
While McCarthy will be the ace of the staff, veterans like senior reliever Sam Burum will carry much of the load.
The Pirates have nine incoming freshman, and five of them are pitchers.
Senior outfielder Derek Jenkins said his fellow upperclassmen will keep the young guys’ heads on straight.
“It’s a long season,” Jenkins said. “It’s way different than high school and even summer ball. Us upperclassmen, we do a pretty good job of letting (freshmen) know what to expect as the games come. They come quickly, and they go quickly. It’s a grind, it really is.”
Burum saw 26 appearances in 2015, the most of his career at SHU. This offseason, he said he focused on becoming a sturdier asset on the bump.
“Trying to be more durable and bouncing back multiple days out of the pen,” he said when asked about his offseason focus. “It was a lot of lifting, conditioning and hard work.”
In addition to a leadership role, Jenkins is looking to improve his greatest strength.
The speedy outfielder led the Big East in stolen bases last year and helped propel SHU to the top of the conference rankings in that regard.
“I did sprints – a lot,” Jenkins said. “Just to kind of maintain my speed, and get a little quicker. Quicker first step, reading pitchers is a big thing. I’ve worked on looking at the pitchers’ moves, and how that dictates what I can do.”
Sheppard made sure to point out that while the team is used to playing in the cold, collectively shoveling off the field in order to practice foreshadows good things.
“We’re used to adapting,” he said. “It says a lot about their character, and willingness to get themselves prepared. That’s a good example of them coming to- gether as a group and attacking a situation and adapting to it.”
The team has received votes in the Collegiate Baseball newspaper’s Fabulous 40 NCAA Division I preseason poll. Seton Hall is one of three Big East teams to receive votes.
Still, Jenkins won’t let that get to his or his teammates’ head.
“I try not to get caught up in that stuff. But we gotta just come out and play the way we know how to play every day. Expectations are something you have to look up to. We want to play every day like it’s our last game. All I can say is if we’re good, and we play like we should play, we’re going to be a damn good team.”
Editor’s Note: Staff writer Anthony Di Paolo contributed to this article.
Tom Duffy can be reached at Thomas.firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TJDHoops.