Baseball: Panthers look forward to opening complex

Isaac Saul | February 17, 2011    

The Pitt baseball team opens the 2011 campaign in Clearwater, Fla., on Friday afternoon, but the… The Pitt baseball team opens the 2011 campaign in Clearwater, Fla., on Friday afternoon, but the Panthers are already thinking about returning home on Feb. 25.

That’s because their new stadium at the Petersen Sports Complex will be there to greet them.

Senior infielder Philip Konieczny is coming off a year where he almost doubled his career batting average after hitting .322 last season, yet those numbers aren’t the only thing that have him fired up.

“After all the years of waiting, it is great to finally see [the complex] completed and just how amazing the facility really is,” Konieczny said. “It will greatly boost our program for the years to come.”

The complex, which contains a 900-seat baseball stadium, a 600-seat softball stadium and a 735-seat soccer stadium, has been in the making for almost two years now. Its arrival appears to have re-energized the Panther squad.

“For the past 14 years, we played on, arguably, the worst facility in the conference,” head coach Joseph Jordano said. “So there is a tremendous amount of anticipation moving into such a great venue.”

The new facility has dominated headlines, sparking much of the excitement behind this year’s team, which is ranked No. 30 on Collegiate Baseball’s preseason list. Last year, the Panthers finished 38-18 (18-8 Big East).

“This team has no roof over our heads,” senior outfielder Zachary Duggan said. “I want to be a part of a Big East Championship and see us dogpile in Clearwater, Fla.”

The Big East tournament also takes place in Clearwater, Fla.

Despite the anticipation, the Panthers will still have to get it done on the diamond. After losing Big East Player of the Year Joe Leonard, among others, the Panthers will need this year’s class to step up.

“We lost about 300 starts in Danny Lopez, Joe Leonard and Cory Brownsten,” Jordano said. “We will miss not only their talent but their leadership as well. But, as with any season, there is turnover and you must have players that get their chance to step up.”

One of those players will be senior catcher Kevan Smith. Smith, who finished last year perfect in fielding percentage, also had a .361 batting average to go along with five home runs and 46 RBIs. Smith and left-handed pitcher Matt Iannazzo were voted to the preseason All-Big East team.

With the star power intact, the next step for the Panthers is gelling as a unit. Seemingly, things are headed in the right direction.

“I have been surprised to see how well we all fit together,” Duggan said. “There isn’t a missing piece to the puzzle with us.”

The players have been rallying around the additions of pitching coach Tom Lipari and catchers’ coach Kyle Cheesebrough.

“We have gotten two new coaches this year, and they both bring something new to this team,” Duggan said. “The most exciting part of this offseason is the new practices our coaches have developed. We do more inside a building than most people can imagine.”

Lipari joined Pitt after coaching at Youngstown State for the last two years. In the past three seasons alone, he has coached 11 pitchers who are currently playing professionally. Included in that group are the Milwaukee Brewers’ 30th round pick Eric Marzec and Aaron Swenson, who was recently signed by the Baltimore Orioles.

Cheesebrough is from Louisville, where he helped lead the Cardinals to a 50-14 record as well as a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament last year.

Even with the revamped coaching staff, it’s the players who must earn wins.

“This offseason the most exciting thing was seeing all the guys coming up at night to put in the extra time and work,” Konieczny said. “We routinely had 10 hitters come up at night to work on their swings and try to repeat the success of last year.”

Duggan added the team has a new slogan for this season.

“This year our motto has been ‘All In,’” Duggan said. “Basically, to leave everything we have out on the field and to play every pitch hard.”

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