SIOUX FALLS, SD -- Perhaps the leaves have not yet turned from where you’re sitting, but that does not mean fall ball is not officially underway. The University of Sioux Falls baseball team has been practicing for two weeks and will continue going in earnest through the end of the month.

The team has been working out five days a week. The schedule includes practices, weight lifting and inter-squad scrimmages every Thursday and Friday.

“Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday we work on things based off of what we saw during the intra-squads and going over all of our plays, coverages and signs,” said sixth-year head coach Matt Guiliano.

The Cougars are coming off a season in which they finished 10-29 after playing what was arguably the toughest schedule in program history.

Among the players Guiliano must replace are right-handed pitcher Brady Nolz, third/first baseman Jimmy Maxwell (.339/.412/.525), leadoff hitter Anthony Williams (.327 BA, team-high nine stolen bases) and outfielders Kevin Santos and Brenndan Ward.

USF will also be without righty Chris Nichols, who signed with the Philadelphia Phillies and gave up his final year of college eligibility.

“Let’s just put it this way, coming into the fall, we nobody has any certain position locked up by any means,” Guiliano said. “I know some coaches always say that to make it sound like they have competition, but this year for us—especially coming off a 10 win season, we really do not have any one spot with a guy penciled in.”

The fall roster includes the familiar names of 20 returning lettermen along with 15 talented newcomers.

“The biggest question mark is who are starting line-up is going to be; we could easily have a starting lineup with six underclassmen,” Guiliano said. “I really want to see our returners and upperclassmen embrace the competition and push themselves back to where they should have been.”

“Last year was tough with the low numbers and lack of depth and I believe guys got comfortable and content—those two words should never creep into a players mind when battling for a spot.  That’s why we took to the road and brought in our largest and possibly best class in years.  I wanted to create that competitive spirit within the program again and I believe we have accomplished that,” he added.

“We brought a lot of new faces in to spark some competition within the program and we are already seeing this work,” Guiliano said. “Guys realize that there are limited spots and a lot of the guys you might have seen in the field on a consistent basis might not start for us this year.

“This includes a lot of the upperclassmen, so it is going to fun to watch and see how everything unfolds as fall moves along, he added.

With a crop of 15 new faces adorning the USF baseball roster, Guiliano and his staff have been working with the players to identify strengths, work to shore up weaknesses and, through a schedule of practices and scrimmages, gauge the chemistry of a new group of Cougar baseball players.

“Fall is always interesting, you get to see how your new recruits blend with the returners and how they are going to be a team once all together.  I have to decide what type of philosophy we are going to be looking for while we are recruiting and then put it to the test come fall.  So far I like what we are seeing and now we just need to see who can earn a starting role as the offseason moves on.

Highlighting the returners is versatile redshirt senior Corey Vasquez. Guiliano hopes that Vasquez can return to his 2011 form, when he split time between catcher and shortstop and batted .331 with 26 RBI en route to honorable mention All-GPAC recognition.

“Corey Vasquez, who is coming off a redshirt year, is probably one of the most intriguing guys that we have.” Guiliano said. “I just don’t know where he fits in yet though; he is a solid infielder, but also one of the best catchers our program has ever seen and it will be interesting to see where he will end up.”

“Right now, he is just trying to earn a spot,” he added.

At catcher, Vasquez will face competition from junior Dylan Dwyer (.179/.274/.189) who started every game behind the plate last season, along with newcomers Jason Fazendin and Collin Peterson.

Redshirt senior Damian Kardas is the only returner in the outfield. Kardas struggled at the plate last season (.205/.276/.304) and the coaches hope he can return to his sophomore form, when he batted .309 with 35 RBI in 2010.

The options in the outfield are plentiful as the Cougars boast eight other players with outfield experience. Veterans Wesley Kroupa, Coleman and Burke will be battling it out with true freshmen Matt Thomas, Noah Durkin, Trevor Crow, Kelby Beste and Tyler Abram.

Junior infielder Austin Goodenow batted .262 last year and reached base in 15 straight games. He and senior utility infielder Zach Ireland (.275/.313/.284) each owned a 10-game hitting streak. Junior infielder Ryan Fobes hit .145 and swiped four bases in limited action.

Senior Keith Cutler came on strong at the end of last season. The infielder and part-time designated hitter batted .368 in the Cougars’ last 10 games.

Danny Hughes, Wesley Kroupa, Jeremy Varner, Joe Williams and Clayton Kibbie also return.

Junior college transfer Michael Vine has had a strong fall. A native of Sydney, Australia, Vine joined the two after spending his first two seasons at Iowa Lakes CC. Newcomers Cole Sweeney (Chaska, Minn.), Matt Howa (Draper, Utah), Trae Russell (Arvada, Colo.), Collin Peterson (Beresford) and Gunner Peterson (Brookings) are all in the mix.

“As far as hitting goes, we are going to be a very scrappy team at the plate and then aggressive on the bases,” Guiliano said. “You will not see too many power numbers coming from this year’s team, but you should see a lot of speed.”

One of the strengths that Guiliano has touted going into the offseason is the depth and experience within his pitching staff. And, true, USF does return 64 percent of its innings pitched from a season ago. The Cougars lost all-time innings pitched (194) leader Brady Nolz and Chris Nichols, who posted a 15-7 mark in three seasons.

“Our pitching should be our strength as we get going in the fall,” Guiliano said. “We have all returning but Brady Nolz and Chris Nichols—granted those are two great arms we wish we still had—but we return nine pitchers and were able to add another five during the recruiting process, plus senior Steve Schroer, who redshirted last year, to give us a total of 15 pitchers.”

Junior righty Derek Fischer and junior southpaw Noah Coleman are likely to once again be in the starting rotation, but this fall will "pitch like everybody else, and we'll see how it all shakes out,” Guiliano said.

Fischer emerged as the ace of the Cougars’ staff last season. After a 5-1 start, the Brandon Valley product logged a record of 5-3 with team-low ERA of 3.57 and a WHIP of 1.62.  He racked up 33 strikeouts in 45.1 innings pitched and held batters to a .287 average, more than 70 points lower (.359) than his freshman campaign.

Coleman started eight games for the Cougars and went 0-5 with a 5.03 ERA. The left-hander held opponents to a .322 batting average and walked just 14 batters while fanning a team-high 40 batters over 48.1 innings. Coleman best outing came against Augustana College, when he allowed five runs on ten hits with a career-high 10 strikeouts in the Cougars’ 6-5 win (4/21/12).

When he wasn’t on the mound, Coleman saw time at first base and right field and hit .324/.465/.426 with one homer and seven RBI in 68 plate appearances. He also reached base in 15 straight games.

Redshirt senior Andrew Christensen, another southpaw, went 3-2 last season (10.95 ERA) with 22 strikeouts in 24.2 innings pitched.

Sophomore fireballer Eric Brothers (1-4, 6.80 ERA) has been nursing a sprained ankle most of fall ball and looks to cut down on the walks (30) this season. Redshirt senior Mark Vig (02) made three appearances.

Redshirt senior and 6-8 fan favorite James Rader is back. A starting forward on the USF men’s basketball team, Rader induced two ground balls and notched a strikeout in his only inning of work last year.

Austin Burke made eight appearances out of the bullpen while Jeremy Varner and Damian Kardas each logged relief innings.

The new batch of pitchers consists of Dylan Rock (Brandon), Matt Thomas, Trae Russell, Kelby Beste (Brookings) and Henry Ojeda (Southwestern CC).

“I have high expectations for our pitching staff,” Guiliano said.  “We have the numbers this year to actually be able to let Coach Bowman manage a staff and have situational guys, set up guys and closers.”

“They have a lot of work to do, but I am confident that they will get there and are going to be a big reason whether or not we succeed this season.”

What Guiliano has made clear throughout fall ball is that no one will be handed a starting role because they have been here before.

“If a true freshman earns a spot then he will be my opening day starter and there is nothing handed out based on experience in our program,” Guiliano said.  “Does the experience help them? Yes. It helps them in that they know what to expect but it absolutely does not mean they will be handed a starting role.”

“I have a simple saying that sums up our competition; ‘“earn the dirt,”’ he added. “That simply means, you want it, go get it.  Doesn’t matter if you’re a senior or a freshman, you want to start for USF, you need to come in ready to not only play but ready to earn it.”

Courtesy:  University of Sioux Falls