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    Three-year starter Eric Duke and the Flames look to ascend the ranks of the MCC.
     
    Three-year starter Eric Duke and the Flames look to ascend the ranks of the MCC.
     
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    Jan. 27, 2000

    With hard hat on and construction crew in place, UIC baseball skipper Mike Dee continues to work on building the Flames' baseball program into a consistent force, both in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference and throughout the Midwest, as he enters his second season.

    Last spring, Dee and his spirited assistants brought back enthusiasm and respect to the Flames' program, two elements that had been lacking in recent years. Along the way, UIC doubled its conference wins from 1997 and reached the MCC Tournament semifinals while landing three players on both the All-MCC First Team and the All-Newcomer Team.

    For his efforts, Dee became just the second coach in UIC history to earn coach of the year accolades as he shared the honor with Butler's Steve Farley, whose Bulldogs captured the MCC regular-season title.

    This year, Dee's top project will be incorporating 19 newcomers into his lineup, while meshing the new youngsters with the 15 returnees from last year's squad. The mere size of the 2000 roster, with 34 players, certainly gives Dee many more options to work with this season after fielding just 24 members on the squad last spring.

    "The size of our roster this year gives us two things - first of all, it obviously gives us more depth than we had last year," Dee said. "Secondly, and more importantly, we have some competition now in this program that's really healthy for it. Every day every position is up for grabs and I think that's a positive thing. It's also infused some enthusiasm to the program."

    The Flames' infield, which welcomes back starters at every position this spring, returns two players who bring a great deal of enthusiasm and leadership to the field on a daily basis - second baseman Eric Duke and shortstop Sean McNichols.

    Duke, a senior and three-year starter, has continued to improve with each season and returns UIC's strongest bat to the lineup this spring after hitting .368 in 1999 with a team-high 18 doubles.

    "Eric has worked the hardest of anyone in our program," Dee noted. "He's been a tremendous influence on the other kids in the program because of the example he sets as a worker. We expect him to have another great year."

    McNichols, who joined the Flames last year after beginning his career at Viterbo College in LaCrosse, Wis., split time between shortstop and the mound last spring. A true team player, McNichols led the squad with 13 sacrifice hits while batting .255. On the mound, he tossed 49.2 innings and racked up 42 strikeouts while picking up conference wins against Detroit and Cleveland State.

    "Sean has been an extraordinary leader," Dee said. "His impact as a person is really difficult to measure - he's just a great kid. He's made himself into a solid Division I shortstop and he's also going to help us on the mound as well this year."

    Two other veterans return to join Duke and McNichols as starters in the infield with Andy Deahl returning at the hot corner and John Rosner slated for first base. Deahl, who was selected to the MCC's All-Newcomer Team in '99, finished with the highest batting average of all rookies last year as he hit .289 with six home runs. Rosner, who also worked at third base last spring, finished up with a .242 average and a team-high four sacrifice flies.

    Other returnees also expected to vie for time in the infield include Bob Rosinski and Jason Hughes at first base and Kevin Hanifin at second base. Rosinski, who may also DH this season, split time as a first baseman and catcher last year and was one of two players to see action in all 48 games while compiling a .269 batting average with 29 runs batted in. Hughes, who missed 12 games during the mid-season with a knee injury, started at first in 14 games last season and tallied a .246 batting average. Hanifin, a walk-on, played in 14 outings and finished up the year with a .250 average.

    Several newcomers will challenge for time in the infield as the Flames welcome Doug Vetter, Nelson Gord, Mark Homco, Chris Kerpan and Mike Lorenzo.

    Vetter, a switch hitter who is expected to play quite a bit at shortstop with McNichols pitching in the starting rotation, tallied seven home runs last year while compiling a .438 batting average at East Central High School. Gord, who will likely see time at second and third base, shared Mid-Suburban player of the year honors with fellow newcomer Kevin Nelson and batted a team-high .412 last spring while his 44 RBI established a new Buffalo Grove High School record. Homco, a challenger for time at short, also brings a strong bat to the plate as he tallied a .439 average last year at Galesburg High School with eight home runs.

    Kerpan, a first baseman who may also DH this season, joins the Flames after a stellar career at Waukegan High School. As a senior last spring, he batted .454 while driving in a school-record 41 runs. Lorenzo, who may also see some action on the mound this spring, brings a successful background to UIC as he helped Providence High School in Lockport to a 30-3 overall record and an eighth-place ranking in the USA Today High School poll. At the plate last spring, he compiled a .415 batting average, 48 RBI and 15 extra-base hits.

    Behind the plate, the Flames return lone starter Bogdan Gryglak while welcoming a plethora of new faces in Weber Bowen, Kevin Nelson, Andy Marin and Mike Hughes. Gryglak, who shared time behind the plate last season with Rosinski, earned the starting nod in 19 games and ended up with a .257 average. Bowen, the early favorite to start behind the plate, comes to UIC after a redshirt season at the University of Florida. As a senior at The Blake School in Minneapolis two years ago, he set nine single-season records, including batting average (.412), hits (102) and RBI (76). Nelson, who will also likely see considerable time catching this spring, batted .460 as a senior and set a school record for fewest errors by a Rolling Meadows catcher.

    "With those three (Gryglak, Bowen and Nelson), in each of their cases there's something that each of those guys does particularly well that the other two don't, so I see all three of those guys making contributions behind the plate," Dee said.

    Marin and Hughes will also vie for time behind the plate. Marin compiled a .360 mark with 31 runs scored and a team-high 45 RBI at Waubonsie Valley High School as a senior while Hughes, who may also DH for the Flames, joins UIC after a stellar career at Fremd High School as he batted .404 with 13 extra-base hits.

    Hardest hit by vacancies was the UIC outfield with the departure of three All-MCC performers in Al Candea, Pete Lotus and Armand Candea. Centerfielder Joe Schicker is the lone returning starter and he is joined by Dan Salameh as the Flames' only two returning outfielders. Schicker finished the season strong and will look to build upon that momentum this season as he batted .355 over the final 13 games of the season. A solid glove in the field, he compiled 54 putouts and three assists without an error. Salameh, used primarily as a pinch-runner with his speed on the base path, earned the starting nod 19 games and finished the year batting .222.

    Newcomers challenging for the vacated spots in left field and right field are Curtis Granderson, J.P. Moran, Chuck Peters and Wesley Peete. Granderson comes to UIC after a strong senior season at Thornton Fractional South High School during which he batted .427 and led the Rebels with 30 walks. Peters, a graduate of Sandburg High School who may also DH for the Flames this spring, finished his career second on the all-time home runs list and third for both hits and walks. Last season, he hit .441 at the plate with a school-record 52 RBI.

    Moran, a first team all-conference honoree at Westosha Central High School, batted .390 as a senior and led the squad in both RBI and home runs. The speedy Peete concluded his career at Waukegan High School as the all-time stolen base leader with 104 while batting .400 last season with 29 extra-base hits.

    Perhaps the most important component of Dee's "building project" is the Flames' pitching staff and with the return a solid core of veterans, plus the addition of six new arms, look for big things from UIC's hurlers this year. Perhaps the most favorable characteristic of the staff is its experience as eight of the Flames' 12 pitchers are juniors and seniors while added depth will certainly be a bonus.

    Four members of the starting rotation and back this season - left-handers Wes Gilliam and Steve Carlson and righties Sean McNichols and Jaime Velasquez.

    Gilliam led all UIC pitchers last season with a 4.42 ERA and a 5-3 record while holding opponents to a .263 batting average. Carlson, who turned in one of his best performances of the season in UIC's 4-0 shutout of Cleveland State in the MCC Tournament, led the Flames with 69 strikeouts and finished the year with a 5.38 ERA.

    McNichols, who will also play shortshop when not on the mound, had a strong conference season as he compiled a 3.47 ERA against MCC foes while recording back-to-back 11-strikeout performances against Butler and Cleveland State. Velasquez picked up three wins during the year and fanned 48 batters in 50 innings pitched.

    Returning out of the bullpen for the Flames are Brad Goebbert and Kevin Ryan. Goebbert, who worked mainly as a middle reliever last season, led the staff with 22 appearances and a pair of saves while Ryan, whose fastball has been clocked in the low 90's, saw most of his action as a closer last spring. In 15.2 innings of work, he struck out 15 while holding opponents to a minuscule .213 batting average.

    Newcomers who will fill a variety of roles for the Flames this season are right-handers Eric Szalo, Larry Banks, Nick Worm, Brad Mears and Eric Carlson and lefty Gene Rausch.

    Szalo, despite seeing limited action due to injury, struckout 34 batters in 18 innings of work at Galesburg High School last year while Banks, a pitcher and third baseman at Nazareth Academy, tossed 41 innings as a reliever and compiled a 2.80 ERA last spring. Mears, a junior out of Indian Hills Junior College in Ottumwa, Iowa, threw 36 innings and tallied a 4.50 ERA with a 5-2 record as a sophomore last year. Carlson finished up his senior year at Leyden High School with a stingy 2.04 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 36 innings pitched

    Worm, a junior, and Rausch, a sophomore, both began their collegiate careers at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa. Last year, Worm put together a 3.00 ERA with 44 K's and a 6-2 record while Rausch struck out 65 foes and finished with a 6.65 ERA.

    "Early in the year we're going to try and sort out who will be pitching where and find out which role is suited for each player," Dee said. "We have many more options this year. Steve Carlson has pitched very, very well as has Nick Worm and Sean McNichols. Those three guys pitched consistently well all fall and winter. We also anticipate Larry Banks and Brad Mears to pitch a significant amount."

    As Dee's project continues to build, so does the excitement level surrounding the UIC baseball program. The young Flames will be tested early in 2000 as they'll start the season in early February, nearly a month ahead of last year, and their first 23 games are on the road. But with the right blend of experience, veteran leadership and youthful enthusiasm that Dee has collected in his 34-man roster, look for many exciting times ahead for the Flames.

    "We're really excited about the dynamic of the program right now," Dee said. "The players are excited and their work ethic has been outstanding. We know we're young and inexperienced, but we're excited about the challenge of playing the toughest schedule in the history of the program. We're going to struggle with some things, but I think the schedule is going to give us a tremendous opportunity to grow and improve over a three-month period of time. Our goal this season is not much different from last year - I want us to be a pretty good baseball team, a competitive baseball team, when the tournament rolls around."