Loyola Marymount’s basketball team may not be living up to past performances, but Chris Smith’s baseball team opens the season Saturday with high expectations.
The Lions, who are ranked 10th by Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball and are defending West Coast Conference champions, return several veteran players from last season’s 45-17 team. They may not have as much punch as last season, when the team batted .341, but should have stronger pitching and defense.
Smith’s biggest concern is replacing catcher Miah Bradbury, the 1990 West Coast Conference player of the year.
“I think we’re OK,” Smith said. “We’ve got some ability. Top 10? At times we’ve looked like it (in practice). Bradbury is the big question from a chemistry standpoint. It’s not down to people, it’s down to finding out who we are.”
The Lions take to the road early, opening at UC Santa Barbara Saturday and playing at U.S. International in San Diego Sunday. They play their home opener Tuesday against UC Irvine.
During the first week of February, Loyola plays a three-game set at Arizona State, followed by a game at UCLA.
“I wanted to be out there on the road and take our knocks,” Smith said. “That’s where you find out what you’ve got. It’s good for you. To be a good team you’ve got to learn to play on the road. If you want to be a Top 10 team you’ve got to play a Top 10 schedule.”
Smith’s planned pitching rotation will see left-hander Jon Willard start Saturday and community college transfer Chad Dembiski, a right-hander, start Sunday. Lefty Chris Spears is expected to start Tuesday. Junior Joe Caruso is the top relief pitcher.
Willard, a senior, was a first-team all-conference choice last season when he went 13-4.
Another community college transfer, right-hander J.C. Kirkland, will add depth to the staff, which would have been stronger had Mike McNary stayed in school.
“The pitching is in better shape than last year,” Smith said.
The lineup is without last year’s biggest sluggers, Bradbury and Tony Kounas, but returns senior outfielders Tim Williams and Rick Mediavilla, the leadoff man; junior first baseman Joe Ciccarella and sophomore shortstop Chris Gomez, both 1992 Olympic prospects who spent the summer playing for a U.S. national team. Senior Darrel Deak returns at second base.
Mediavilla, a first-team All-WCC selection, batted .421 with a school-record 112 hits. Gomez, named the WCC newcomer of the year, hit .342 and led the conference with 24 doubles. Ciccarella, a .340 hitter, was named to the WCC second team despite missing nearly a third of the season with an injury.
Williams, who hit .331 with 15 home runs, suffered an injury to his right eye last fall in a drive-by shooting. He was hit by glass while riding in the back of a car that was fired on. He required surgery on his eye, but is back in the lineup.
“He’s a little rusty but getting better every day in practice,” Smith said.
“We will not be as physical but if we can keep Ciccarella healthy that picks up some of Bradbury’s slack, and as long as you’ve got Gomez at short you can play some defense.”
He also hopes for some offense from community college recruit Gerrardo Perez, a 200-pounder who will probably start at third base if sophomore Bobby Hughes is ineligible.
Without Hughes, who was expected to alternate between third and catcher, catching duties go to sophomore Rob Ickes and community college transfer Andy Biaggi.
The Lions open West Coast Conference play Feb. 8. They are among the favorites to win the conference title.
Archrival Pepperdine is also expected to challenge for the title. Last season the Lions beat the Waves in a doubleheader on the last weekend of the season to win the title.
“We’ve got to get ready for conference faster than most (teams),” Smith said. “We’ll probably take some losses early, but you’ve got to go through it. The first week you spend just trying to get through your problems. You can’t worry about the polls.”