Skies are grey in Ithaca and Hoy Field lies dormant under a thin blanket of snow and ice; spring seems a long way off. But for Cornell baseball, this weekend carries promises of spring, sunshine and a chance for renewal.
The Red will head to Texas this weekend for a three-game series against Baylor. Some may remember last year’s opening weekend in Texas, when Cornell was on the wrong side of a sweep that included an abysmal 22-0 thrashing at the hands of No. 10 Texas A&M. While many coaches might fear a repeat performance, head coach Dan Pepicelli is steering his team straight back into dangerous waters.
“If you’re emotionally and mentally weak then [playing top-tier programs] is not going to make you better, but we’re not that,” Pepicelli said. “There are players that will play this weekend that really benefited from going to Texas A&M and Duke. They already know what they have to be when we land. I expect us to be really competitive.”
The Red’s early non-conference schedule, which includes trips to Virginia Commonwealth and the United States Naval Academy in the weekends to come, is a product of Pepicelli’s coaching philosophy: “If you want to be the best, you have to play the best.”
“Next year we have a really tough schedule lined up and it’s going to keep building this program up until we can sustain excellence and not just say ‘well, who’s the right dance partner for us,’” said Pepicelli. “I have big aspirations for this program.”
Last season — Pepicelli’s second at the helm — was something of a bump in the road for the coach’s long-term plan. Cornell finished 14-22-1, but won three of its last four Ivy series, settling down after capsizing early against tough teams.
Pepicelli knows he has a very different team this year after losing key bats like Dale Wickham, Ryan Krainz, Trey Baur, Elis Bitar and Kyle Gallagher to graduation. He expects senior catcher Will Simoneit and senior first baseman Josh Arndt to step up in the middle of the order.
The biggest change this year, though, is in the Red’s pitching: “Pitching-wise there’s a whole lot of options, a lot of depth,” said Pepicelli.
Cornell’s newfound depth comes not only from recruiting — with freshmen power arms Kevin Cushing, Luke Yacinich and Jonathan Zacharias on the squad, — but from within the Red’s ranks. One example is junior John Natoli, who missed last season after tearing a muscle in his back in the opener against Texas A&M. Natoli will get the nod to start game two this weekend.
“We’re clearly more powerful on the mound, bigger and throw harder, and all that but now [the freshmen] are learning the craft of pitching,” Pepicelli said. “We had guys last year who were good at the craft of pitching, but we suffered from a lack of depth, and when you lack depth you can’t give anything away.”
Returning starter junior Seth Urbon will start game one of the series while junior Jeb Bemiss — who Pepicelli says “has taken a huge step” this preseason after adding a cutter — will get the ball for game three. Looking forward from the murk of the preseason, Coach Pepicelli is optimistic about his team’s prospects this year.
“Yale, Columbia, Baylor, whoever is on that schedule, if we play as the best version of us, it’s going to be a good day,” Pepicelli said. “What that means on the scoreboard I don’t know, but it’s going to be a lot more good days than bad days.”
The Red will be on the road for a long time to start the season; the home opener isn’t until April 2, a weekday game against St. Bonaventure University, long after the team’s foray into Southern baseball. So as the turf thaws and spring finally returns to Ithaca, baseball, too, will return having weathered the storm and no longer so fresh-faced.
The Red will play in Waco, Texas on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7:35 p.m., 4:05 p.m. and 1:05 p.m. respectively.