ST. LOUIS — Saint Louis University baseball coach Darin Hendrickson isn’t quite sure what to make of his team right now.
His Billikens went 41-21 a year ago, won the Atlantic-10 regular season and tournament championships to earn a spot in an NCAA tournament regional at South Carolina.
On Thursday morning, after a month of practicing mostly indoors at an off-campus facility, the SLU team hopped on a bus for a nine-hour drive to a season-opening three-game series at Alabama, which is ranked No. 21 by Baseball America, beginning Friday night.
Hendrickson reminded his players to bring movies and snacks for the ride. He’s also got to be hoping they bring their ‘A’ game to Bama’s Sewell-Thomas Stadium.
"I like our talent," Hendrickson says. "I like our athleticism. I think we’re super-talented. I purposely put us against an SEC power to open the season after last year’s kind of record-breaking successful season. I thought this team needed to be tested. We’re still feeling our way through. We’ve got a lot of young players that haven’t played Division I baseball and it’s just showing. They need to get out and just play. I wish we were playing 10 games in a row so we could get our feet wet and just be in some better weather. It’s really hard on guys."
Mike Vigliarolo, the A-10’s reigning co-Player of the Year, hit .341 last season with 19 doubles, eight homers and 42 RBIs.
It was 30 degrees outside the Bud Dome in Green Park, Mo., deep in the heart of South County, during Wednesday afternoon’s practice. Two space heaters nearby warmed up the turf as the players practiced in shorts and t-shirts and went through drills and took batting practice.
This is the beginning of Hendrickson’s seventh season at SLU and he is already the second-winningest coach in the program’s history, with 198 wins against 148 losses.
Hendrickson’s success at SLU, including a school-record 41 wins in 2012 and 2013, has been unprecedented. He’s had five winning seasons in six years after the Billikens had two such campaigns in 19 years under the previous head coach.
Saint Louis U. is the favorite to win another A-10 title this spring.
"Our goal from Day 1 is we have to win the A-10," says junior first baseman Mike Vigliarolo. "That’s one thing. We know with our conference not being the best, we try to get as many wins as we can outside conference. These upcoming weekends are going to be huge for us."
"We’re expecting to win the A-10," senior center fielder Danny Brennan says. "We’re trying to take it to the next level and win a regional. That’s our goal."
Vigliarolo and Brennan are among the Billikens’ five returning position players this season.
Clay Smith, a senior right-hander, went 8-3 with a 3.77 ERA in a team-high 17 starts in 2013.
Vigliarolo, the Co-Player of the Year in the A-10 last season, batted .341 a year ago with 19 doubles, eight homers and 42 RBIs. Brennan scored 33 runs. Junior shortstop Alec Sole hit .326 and stole a team-high 10 bases. Sophomore third baseman Braxton Martinez batted .314 and earned Freshman All-America honors from the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. Sophomore outfielder Michael Bozarth hit .302 with 18 extra-base hits.
"It’s definitely a different team but I think we’re a lot more athletic this year, compared to last year," Brennan says. "We’re not going to have a bunch of guys hitting 12 to 20 home runs like we did last year, but we’ll have a lot more guys getting on base, taking extra bases, turning singles into doubles, trying to steal bases."
Hendrickson described his rotation situation as "choppy."
"It’s good, don’t get me wrong," he says. "We have great options, which we’ve never had. We have a battle right now for the three spot. We have (James) Norwood, who has the best stuff per se, penciled in at Saturday right now, so (No.) 2 guy. He’s a super-high draft prospect. Then we have our returning Friday night guy in Clay Smith, who was really our best guy last year. He pitched against South Carolina in the regional. I love that part of it. We’re going to be young in the middle innings, middle guys, and we have a returning guy back at the end, followed by two really good arms, but they are freshmen."
Smith, a senior right-hander, went 8-3 with a 3.77 earned-run average in a team-high 17 starts in 2013. Norwood, a junior righty, went 0-2 with a 4.71 ERA in seven appearances during an injury-shortened sophomore season but touched 97 with his fastball in the fall. Matt Eckelman, a sophomore right-hander, went 6-1 with four saves and a 1.64 ERA in 27 appearances a year ago.
So the Billikens will go into this three-game series at Alabama with a talented roster but still lots of questions. That is in part due to the team’s youth as well as the lack of practice time outside, though the latter is something the team’s upperclassmen have gotten used to.
Still, there is plenty of reason to believe that SLU will continue to progress as a program like it has during the Hendrickson era.
"I think we got a good taste last year going to a regional and winning the (A-10) tournament in the fashion that we did. I think this team is just as capable to get to that regional again," Martinez says. "Our goal isn’t to get a four seed in the regional. We’re trying to get a two or a three seed and trying to win it, trying to go on to a super-regional. We want to get better and better each year."
The bar has definitely been raised with the success of the past few seasons. Now the expectations for this team are a little higher than they’ve been, the coach says.
"We’re not getting crazy," Hendrickson says. "We’re not trying to say we’re ready to go in the SEC and compete, but the expectations have certainly been raised and I think everyone knows that, everyone associated with the program and who has followed the program."