For the first time in 44 years, Cornell baseball will make its way down to College Station, Texas for the team’s season opening series against No. 10 Texas A&M. The Red faces an uphill battle right off the bat in 2018 with a three-game non-league series against one of the nation’s top teams.
Cornell has not played any of the 14 teams currently in the SEC in over 25 years — with the last game played against Auburn in 1991. Of the top 10 teams in the D1Baseball.com ranking, five of them are members of the SEC.
Early in the season, and specifically this weekend, the Red will face some of the best baseball programs in the country, most of them on the road. Right from the first pitch of 2018, head coach Dan Pepicelli is putting his squad to the test.
“This is a whole different challenge,” he said. “I really threw down the gauntlet for us in the beginning of the year. [Texas A&M] has one of the best crowds in the country — top five certainly.”
The Aggies provide a substantial challenge for the Red. Texas A&M has qualified for the NCAA tournament in 11 straight seasons and participated in its sixth College World Series in 2017.
Cornell is coming off a relatively successful season at 21-17 — its third winning season in 20 years. In Pepicelli’s second year as head coach, the team’s record improved by seven wins.
A potential strength for the Red this season is its offense, which led the Ivy League last year with a batting average of .295. Six of the team’s returning hitters recorded averages of .284 or above. Notable batters returning include seniors Dale Wickham and Ryan Krainz who batted .406 and .369 respectively in 2017.
“When we’re dialed in [on offense], our good is going to be really good,” Pepicelli said. “I love what I have to choose from, we are big and physical. And I think [assistant coach Tom] Ford has done a tremendous job preparing our hitters.”
Offense aside, there is a bit more uncertainty to how the Red will perform in 2018.
Cornell lost several quality pitchers over the offseason, including MLB draftees Paul Balestrieri ’17 and Peter Lannoo ’17 who graduated, and Justin Lewis ’18 who opted to sign with the Dodgers instead of returning to East Hill for his senior year.
“On defense I am happy with some of the improvements we’ve made there,” Pepicelli said. “[There are] more questions on the mound than anywhere else, but I think we’ve got some guys who can do it.”
Seniors Tim Willittes, Tyler Fernandez and Tommy Morris will man the starting rotation for the Red. Despite their veteran status, no member of the trio has appeared in each of his three seasons for Cornell, with Fernandez having never started a collegiate game.
The relief staff boasts a younger but perhaps more experienced unit, consisting of several sophomores who made several appearances last year, including Jeb Bemiss, John Natoli and Colby Wyatt. Besmiss ranked second on the team in saves and appearances last season.
Nevertheless, Pepicelli will be using plenty of new pitchers in relief as well.
“There are some big questions marks on how we will gel and who we become as a pitching staff,” Pepicelli said. “The entire back half of the pitching staff, the entire back half of the game, is going to be all brand new.”
Transitions like the one occurring with the pitching staff can be difficult and take time. Certainly, facing a team like Texas A&M to start is all the more difficult.
“There’s such a thing as getting thrown into the fire; we are going to play a really good team, in a really tough place to play right off the bat,” Pepicelli said. “So you’ve got opening day jitters, plus all that comes with that.”
With inclement weather in the forecast, the schedule for opening weekend has been modified. A doubleheader will take place Friday beginning at 4 p.m. EST, with the second game immediately following. Saturday’s 2 p.m. CST game remains, but will now be the series final game.
All games will be broadcast on SEC Network + on WatchESPN.