Coming off its second 20-win season over the last three years, the UMass Lowell baseball program enters the final year of the Division I transition with a team full of youth and experience looking to take the next step.
"We’ve talked as a team about being better than we have been in the last three years," remarked Head Coach Ken Harring. "We’ve won 20 games in two of the last three seasons and we think we can do more than that. As for conference play, if things go well, we think we’ll have the opportunity to compete in the upper echelon and that’s the ultimate goal."
"We’ve got a couple young guys who had 100 at bats, and when you start six or seven freshmen at one time, you’re throwing them into the fire to get that experience," continued Harring. "It was done with a purpose, and now those guys have a year in the conference and they know what to expect.
With a team that has 12 sophomores on it, Harring understands that there will still be bumps along the way, but what they endured last season can only help the team as everyone makes the next step.
"They’ve learned to deal with failure and some of them had never failed before in their lives, but that’s the game of baseball," explained Harring. "That experience should push them over the hump, where the biggest thing we talk to them about is staying in the present moment and bringing their best to that moment."
"Their mentalities are better because of what they endured last year and now it’s about turning any failures into more successes. We think we have a pretty good formula with our guys to do that."
Harring views this team as one of the most well-rounded and balanced group of players that he has had in the Division I transition.
"Our depth is by far the deepest we've ever had," commented Harring. "The depth, mixed in with the athleticism, and mental and physical toughness, are our strengths. We know where we are and what kind of team we have, and these guys have put in the work."
With 20 pitchers ready to take the mound, Harring sees this group able to be more confident this year with the fielders around them.
"I think our pitching depth is by far the deepest we’ve ever had, and they will be more confident this season as they see the defense behind them and realize that they can throw more strikes."
Harring sees this year's schedule as a nice balance with some of the nation's top teams and programs in the recruiting footprint. The River Hawks will go up against eight teams that won over 30 games last season and five NCAA tournament squads.
"We’re playing some upper-echelon programs and leading it off against UConn, arguably the best DI program in New England over the last 10 years, to give us a good taste of where we are at," commented Harring. "The tournaments that we are in give us the opportunity to make some noise on the national level, but also be able to play teams in our region. We want to make sure we stay present in our recruiting footprint, which is Maine to Maryland, to get recruits able to see our style of baseball and get excited about being River Hawks."
The 2017 squad is led by one senior, Steve Xirinachs, who has also been named one of the team's captains.
"He’s been with us for four years, and he’s been a great person, great teammate and an absolute competitor on the mound," explained Harring. "The stats show he only had one win last year, but he really only had one or two bad outings and was our most consistent starter.
"He’s been through it and we lean on him to get the pulse of the team, and as a senior captain, it’s nice to have someone that knows what you expect and portrays that to the young guys."
Along with Xirinachs, Harring named junior Nick Kuzia and sophomore Steve Passatempo as the 2017 captains, and he is excited to see what the trio can do for the team.
"Being from three different classes, the guys can each bring a different wealth of knowledge and experience to the team, " remarked Harring. "The team looks up to them and these three have done a great job bringing the rest of the guys together as a team and understanding what our goals are."
Passatempo led the offense last year with 11 home runs, 50 hits and 46 RBI, and ended 2016 with a .481 slugging percentage. The first baseman committed only three errors in 369 total chances.
Kuzia built off an impressive rookie campaign, picking up three wins and striking out a career-high 40 batters in 64.1 innings. The opening-day starter pitched one complete game, striking out eight in a 8-0 win against NYIT.
As the team's lone senior, Xirinachs brings the comfort level and trust that the team and staff has in him to the mound. After pitching three complete games as a junior, he will be looking to be the leader on and off the mound.