By: Adam Tortelli ~Staff Writer~
With the teasingly warm weather that blew through Cincinnati this past weekend, baseball enthusiasts are excited for another season at Xavier.
The Musketeers began their 2015 tournament season on Feb. 13 and will begin regular season play on Feb. 27 at the University of Louisville.
For the Xavier faithful, this season brings high expectations after the team won last season’s Big East championship and made the school’s second appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
The team caught fire in conference play only before confronting future national champions Vanderbilt in the first round of the national tournament.
In addition to earning conference royalty, the 2014 squad also earned recognition from the conference for academic excellence.
They join their classmates and fellow Big East champions, the men’s swim team, in receiving this honor.
This season, the team will be without the dominant pitching prowess of graduated Vinnie Nittoli.
The Seattle Mariners drafted Nittoli in the MLB’s First-Year Player draft.
The right hander ranks fourth all-time in school history for starts (51), seventh for innings pitched (280) and 10th in career ERA (3.54). He is also in a tie for ninth under the strikeout column (186).
The Musketeers were picked to finish fourth in the conference behind St. Johns, Creighton and Seton Hall in the preseason coaches’ poll.
Xavier looks for junior catcher Daniel Rizzie and senior pitcher Eric Stiene to have breakout seasons.
Both were selected to the preseason All-Big East. This marks the first time in program history that two players were named to the Preseason All-Conference team.
Stiene hopes to start 2015 in similar fashion to his 2014 campaign that began with more than 25 consecutive innings in which he did not surrender a single run.
Throughout the remainder of the season, Stiene finished with an ERA of 2.92 – good enough to land him on the list of 80 finalists for the Gregg Olson Award Watch List, which recognizes college baseball’s breakout performers.
Rizzie returns this season as undoubtedly one of the conference’s premier catchers.
Xavier’s field general tore the cover off the ball in 2014 with five home runs and 38 runs batted in while still hitting and an elite average of .307.
This year also brings in an impressive freshman class that will be looking to prove its worth by filling voids left by graduated seniors from last year’s team.
Pitchers Garrett Schilling and Zac Lowther will be vying for the gaping hole left in the rotation by Nittoli.
Schilling, also a right-hander, experienced tremendous success in high school with a perfect 31-0 record and three state-championships for Bishiop Foley High School in Madison Heights, Mich.
Lowther, a lefty, also enjoyed a winning career that included a trip to the Ohio state championship game as a sophomore.
He also had a dominant senior seaspm including a 0.55 ERA, 76 innings pitched and 148 strikeouts for Cuyahoga Heights High School just outside of Cleveland.