For the UNF baseball team, it’s the beginning of a new era. With the start of preseason workouts, the team puts the program founder and only head coach it has ever known in the past and moves forward with a hand-picked coach and promising young talent.
“It’s kind of exciting,” said UNF senior shortstop Sam Perry. “It’s my last year. We got a bunch of new guys, new coach and new system. It’s going to be exciting to see where it goes.”
Veteran players like Perry must transition from Hall of Fame coach Dusty Rhodes to Raymond “Smoke” Laval, who has had a successful coaching career at the Division I level, something the team hopes will continue with them.
“It’s definitely a lot different without Dusty,” said senior pitcher and outfielder Robbie Collier. “It’s a completely different system, different coaching style. I think a lot of the guys responded well to it this fall. Especially with all the new guys so it’s interesting to see how it all works out.”
As of Jan. 5, the team started strength and conditioning, along with some four on one drills, which consist of four players and one coach. NCAA stipulations don’t allow team practices until Jan. 28.
The team is preparing for the season by giving stronger emphasis to the weights and conditioning aspect of the game, with UNF’s new Strength and Conditioning coach Tommy Barnes.
Laval said the team had a good fall, is almost used to the new coaching staff, and excited to start team practices.
One of the major things this year’s team must overcome is the loss of pitchers Michael Kelly and John Atteo, as well as outfielders Preston Hale and Justin Preckajilo. The Ospreys are still looking for a solid ace for their pitching staff; however, Laval did say they do have a lot of depth.
Losing Preckajilo and Hale will hurt in the batting department seeing that they were one and two on the team in home runs, respectively. Laval said he looks for guys like Collier, Perry, second baseman TJ Gavlik and catcher Kyle Dahl to step up and lead the team this year.
“They have done a great job in being team leaders,” Laval said. “They were here every day, you know, doing little things to help us get better — which is a good sign not only for us but for the whole team concept.”
Aside from physically developing his players for the new season, Laval also is trying to prepare them mentally. He said every school in the country is the same in the amount of time they are allowed to work and what they have to work with. Every school has a weight room and a track to work on, but the mental aspect is the bigger challenge for players, he said.
Laval uses motivational videos, posters and anything else that might help. He needs his players to want to be in and want to play better in the big game. He had them watch Monday’s BCS National Championship between Auburn University and the University of Oregon for inspiration. Laval wants his players to see Auburn celebrating after their win and want that for themselves.
“Watching Auburn beat Oregon and getting a ring–that means a lot, and if you haven’t been there it’s very difficult to get that feeling,” Laval said.
After starting practice Jan. 28, the team will be just weeks away from the season. Its first game is Feb. 18, which starts a three-game road series against Charleston Southern. The Ospreys’ first home game of the year is Feb. 25 against Liberty. Twelve of the team’s first 15 games will be at home at Dusty Rhodes Field in Harmon Stadium.