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January 9, 2007

BYU optimistic about upcoming season

BYU's baseball season begins in one month when it has a three-game series at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Texas, Feb. 8-10.

Build around All-American candidates Apana Nakayama and Jesse Craig, who is one of five previous pro drafts on the team, and the future looks bright.

Two BYU starters return from last year's baseball team on the field and two starters from the main pitching rotation, but don't let that fool you.

It's nearly impossible to replace shortstop Marcos Villezcas and third-team All-American outfielder Ben Saylor among 14 lettermen not returning from the second-place finishing club which got hot at the end of the season for a 33-28 record.

Coach Vance Law welcomes 16 newcomers, including three junior college transfers. Two members of the team are recently returned from Church missions in Leon Johnson and pitcher J.D. Stambaugh.

"We're excited because of the talent level, the speed in the outfield and (Apana) Nakayama anchoring our lineup," said Law. "It's nice to have a couple of returning pitchers like Jesse Craig and Jordan Muir anchoring our staff, too.

Nakayama, who looks to split time at first base and designated hitter, returns for his senior year after redshirting last year because of a knee injury.

"Apana is fully recovered from his injury," said Law. "He is a disciplined line-drive hitter with great power."

Nakayama batted .344 in 59 games during 2005 with 47 RBI and was selected to the All-Mountain West Conference all-tournament team where he batted .615.

"We are solid and deep with our pitching. We have a talented, but inexperienced infield."

Freshman All-American pitcher Jordan Muir, 6-0 with a 3.97 ERA, returns for his sophomore season. Competing for a starting spot in the rotation are lefties Blaine Howell, Jake Wortham, Brandon Michon, J. D. Stambaugh and righthanders Matt Jensen and Rett Varner.

Craig, a righthander who was 7-7 with a 4.70 ERA with 80 strikeouts in 103 innings, is one of five former pro drafts on this year's Cougar squad. He was drafted in the 36th round in 2001 by the Atlanta Braves.

Outfielder Leon Johnson, one of three Johnsons on this year's team, is one of the fastest players in the MWC. Leon, a sophomore transfer from Eastern Arizona Junior College, has recently returned from a Church mission to Siberia and was drafted in the 45th (2005), 41st (2003) and 29th (2006) rounds by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

The Devil Rays also drafted freshman lefthand pitcher Howell in the 25th round of last season. Fellow freshman Jonathan Cluff, an outfielder, was drafted in the 20th round by the Braves last season. And JC transfer Collin Fanning, an outfielder from Clarendon College in Texas, was drafted in the 40th round by the Houston Astros in 2005.

With Leon Johnson, Fanning and Cluff joining JC transfer Mike McKeever and freshman Stephen Wells in the outfield, Coach Law has experimented with sophomore Kent Walton moving from the outfield to the vacancy at second base. Walton is competing with returners Chris Johnson and Jason Johnson for the second base job.

Sophomore Daniel Vargas saw some playing time at second and third last season, but is competing with freshman Austin Hall to fill Villezcas' void at short and could also see some time at second base.

It appears that Steve Parker, who was co-MVP from Utah's 5A ranks last year is nailing down the hot corner, third base.

Nakayama is competing at first base with fellow Hawaiian Kasey Ko, a sophomore who was second team All-MWC last year. Both could do well at first or designated hitter. McKeever also adds an option at DH and redshirt Thomas Bills is vying for time at first base.

Leading out of the bullpen is JC transfer Jacob Perez.

Other pitchers rounding out the staff are: Clayton Barnes, Nelson Castleberry, Brad Kidd, David Parry, Kurt Turley and Michael Ward.

Catching duties will be manned by sophomore J.T. Musso and freshmen Chase Frampton and Wes Guenther.

The schedule calls for the University of Washington and Gonzaga as the non-conference marquee teams coming to Larry H. Miller Field. Among the highlights for the non-league road games is the Service Academy Tournament at the Team USA Training site in Millington, Tenn., against the University of Memphis, Missouri and Akron in February. The Cougars also have road games at Kansas State and Washington State.