Baseball Opens Season Friday at Texas Tech's Red Raider Classic

Goose Kallunki

Feb. 17, 2011

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Red Raider Classic Tournament Central

OREM, Utah -- Utah Valley baseball opens the 2011 season this week at the Red Raider Classic at Texas Tech University. The Wolverines begin play Friday at 10 a.m. MT vs. Big 10 Northwestern and then play an afternoon contest vs. Western Michigan at 1:30 p.m. MT.

On Saturday UVU will face host Texas Tech at 5 p.m. MT before wrapping up the weekend with a second contest vs. Western Michigan on Sunday at 10 a.m. MT.

The Wolverines enter the 2011 season on a 14-game winning streak after finishing 2010 with a 42-17 record and winning both the Great West Conference regular season and tournament titles. Goose Kallunki ended 2010 on a 22-game hit streak, two shy of the school record.

Following this weekend's action, Utah Valley will travel to Southern Utah next week for a three-game series with the Thunderbirds.

Utah Valley University baseball is coming off its most successful season in eight years at the NCAA Division I level, and it wasn't even close. The Wolverines won a school-record 42 games, more than doubling the win total from the year before, led the nation in five team and three individual categories, won 93 percent of their conference games, won the Great West Conference tournament in the 10th inning on a walk-off hit and finished 10-2 in one-run games.

For Utah Valley University coach Eric Madsen though, last year was last year and the ultimate goal of reaching an NCAA Regional is still on the horizon.

"Last year was an exceptional year. Our mindset is that we're always trying to improve. If we can accomplish the same things we did last year that would be great," said Madsen. "Bu we have a lot of goals we're still trying to achieve and we're going to keep striving for those. Our goal, like any team, is find a way to get to the tournament and to do that we have to win in non-conference. That's been a big point of emphasis in our program."

It's a non-conference schedule that begins this weekend at the Texas Tech Red Raider Classic where the Wolverines will face Western Michigan along with Big 10 Northwestern and host Texas Tech of the Big 12. The preseason slate of games also includes three-game series at Arizona and Washington State of the Pac 10, two NCAA Tournament teams from 2010.

"I really hope we come out of the chute and play good baseball and that leads to wins. Everybody wants to win," Madsen said. "Guys have worked hard, they've improved and we're excited to see the results of that hard work. Our goal is to be a better team regardless of what our record is and what the stats say."

The Wolverines finished 42-17 in 2010 and batted a nation-best .372 and also led all Division I teams in hits (292), doubles (188) and doubles per game (3.19) and were second in slugging percentage, total runs and runs per game.

In addition to winning 26 of 28 Great West games, Utah Valley also won four straight in the GWC Tournament, including a come-from-behind win against Northern Colorado in the championship game. That, along with a majority of the offense and nearly every pitcher returning made the Wolverines the coaches' pick to win the conference.

"Getting through the Great West with two losses was a tough thing to do. All of the teams have improved each year and there are a lot of teams in the conference that will compete," Madsen said.

UVU was also selected as the top team in the Great West in a poll and by national baseball writer Eric Sorenson of College Baseball Today and for the first time the program was among the `others receiving votes' on the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper preseason poll.

Despite returning the bulk of its offense, including Chris Benson, a third-team preseason All-America selection by College Baseball Lineup, the Wolverines will be forced to replace a larger load than expected in 2011.

All-American Jace Brinkerhoff, who finished his career in 2010 and ranked first in the nation in runs, second in batting (.456) and second in hits (118), is gone as is catcher Kevin Arendse, who was a backstop behind the plate.

The Wolverines will also move forward minus two first-team All-Conference performers they didn't expect be without; shortstop Jake Rickenbach and closer Brian Whatcott. Both will miss 2011 due to injury and Rickenbach, the nation's leader in runs per game (1.51) in 2010, will not only be missed not only for his spark at the top of the lineup but for his glove at short as well.

"They were both outstanding for us last year and it's going to be difficult to overcome," Madsen said. "But we just have to trust that we have good players and while it will shrink our depth a little we still have guys that are good enough to step into those roles."

Utah Valley will have Benson, Goose Kallunki and Billy Burgess, who combined to hit 33 home runs, and All-Conference performers Jason Zundel and Austin Heaps.

The pitching staff returns its top six players innings-wise, and all four starters including nine-game winner Blake Krahenbuhl, who will take the ball in Friday's opener against Northwestern along with Justin Campbell, Zane Gray and Kyle Beecher.

"We return the whole staff and have added some good depth. I think that's an area we had to address, as everybody does, and I hope those guys can live up to what we expect of them because we see a lot of good things in our staff," Madsen said.

As is customary for a school in a cold-weather area, UVU will play its first 13 games on the road before the home opener on March 17 against Southern Utah. Following the three-game series against the in-state T-Birds, the Wolverines will play 12 straight away from home including their Great West Conference opening series at NJIT (April 8-10). UVU plays 18 of its final 23 regular season games at home including a four-game series with Northern Colorado, the team that finished second a year ago.

Utah Valley will play 10 games against in-state schools after going a combined 9-4 against SUU, BYU and Utah last year. The 2011 Great West Tournament will be hosted by North Dakota in Grand Forks from May 24-28.

"We got into a groove last year. Guys need to realize that we have to stay focused and they can't try and do more than they did last year," said Madsen. "We have to manage their expectations and focus on the process and let the results take care of themselves. We haven't reached all of the goals that we've set as a club. We're building an identity in the program and will continue to try and reach goals that we've set and never be satisfied with the success we've had.