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January 15, 2009

Missouri loaded with experience

It's a new season for Missouri.

The Tigers entered the 2008 campaign with high hopes and national title aspirations, but finished fourth in the Big 12 and were unable to advance to the Super Regional round after competing in a tough NCAA regional.

Though the Tigers certainly are disappointed with how last season transpired, they're excited about the upcoming season.

Missouri welcomes back several experienced position players, including leading hitters Aaron Senne and Ryan Lollis. They also welcome back seasoned pitchers Kyle Gibson and Ian Berger.

MU coach Tim Jamieson said his team's strengths are an experienced offense, good team defense and speed and a trio of good arms in the outfield. The Tigers also have much depth on the mound and a wealth of postseason experience.

Jamieson doesn't think his team has any glaring weaknesses, but admits he's a little weary about the fact his team plays many road games this season. He also said his team must learn how to hold leads late in games.

To challenge for the Big 12 title, Jamieson listed three things that must happen: The Tigers must get a productive campaign from sophomore pitcher Nick Tepesch. They also are looking for fellow pitchers Kelly Fick, Brad Buehler and Tyler Clark to have solid campaigns. Additionally, the Tigers need two-way player Greg Folgia to be a contributor at the plate and on the mound.

The Tigers have the potential to be very good this season.


MISSOURI AT-A-GLANCE
The Tigers received a boost when Ryan Lollis decided to return for his senior season.
LAST SEASON
Record: 39-21, 16-11 in Big 12
In a nutshell: The Tigers entered last season expected to take the next step and compete for the national title, but that didn't happen. MU finished fourth in the Big 12 and was forced to hit the road for NCAA regional play, where it competed in one of the nation's toughest regionals with Miami, Ole Miss and Bethune-Cookman. The Tigers failed to meet their expectations in '08, but still had a solid campaign with a high conference finish and another NCAA regional appearance. Will this be the year MU finally takes the next step?
PROBABLE STARTERS

Senne
C Trevor Coleman (Jr.)
1B Steve Gray (Sr.)
2B Andrew Thigpen (So.)
SS Mike Liberto (Jr. Transfer)
3B Kyle Mach (Sr.)
OF Greg Folgia (Jr.)
OF Ryan Lollis (Sr.)
OF Aaron Senne (Jr.)
DH Conner Mach (Fr.)
SP Kyle Gibson (Jr.)
SP Nick Tepesch (So.)
SP Ian Berger (Sr.)
CP Greg Folgia (Jr.)
Head coach: Tim Jamieson
2009 OUTLOOK
When the Tigers lost ace pitcher Aaron Crow, leading power hitter Jacob Priday and often used pitcher Rick Zagone to the MLB Draft this past summer, some observers probably thought they were in trouble. However, I believe the Tigers may actually be better this season than they were in '08. The Tigers certainly will miss Crow and his powerful arm leading the weekend rotation, but junior Kyle Gibson is primed for a dominant year, Ian Berger is a seasoned starter and Nick Tepesch showed the ability to be dominant at times last season. MU also has a good bullpen this season. While the pitching staff is in good shape, the offense probably is in even better shape. The Tigers welcome back veterans Trevor Coleman, Steve Gray, Aaron Senne and Kyle Mach, among others. With a mix of good pitching, experienced hitting and motivation stemming from last season, the Tigers could be a team to watch in the postseason.
Offense

The Tigers are without power hitter Jacob Priday, who signed a pro contract last summer, this season, but are in great shape at the plate.

Missouri finished last season with a respectable .301 batting average, but must improve this season to compete for the Big 12 title and have a chance to go the distance in the NCAA postseason.

Experience is the name of the game with this group. The Tigers welcome back seven consistent contributors from last year's team and also have high hopes for newcomers Mike Liberto and Conner Mach.

Junior outfielder Aaron Senne and senior Ryan Lollis spearhead the offense.

Senne led the team in hitting last season, batting .347 with 13 homers and 67 RBIs. He also recorded 14 doubles and 128 total bases. Additionally, he had a .593 slugging percentage and a .461 on-base percentage.

Lollis, who turned down a pro contract to return to school this spring, finished last season hitting .339 with a home run and 42 RBIs. He also recorded 17 doubles and 97 total bases, while slugging .427 and having a .435 OBP.

Other offensive cogs to watch include Steve Gray, Andrew Thigpen, Kyle Mach and Greg Folgia.

Gray batted .317 with 10 homers and 36 RBIs last season, while Thigpen hit .324 with a home run and 17 RBIs. Mach, meanwhile, hit .259 with a pair of homers and 28 RBIs, while Folgia hit .293 with five homers and 40 RBIs.

The Tigers are especially excited about catcher Trevor Coleman, who Jamieson believes is ready to have a Big 12 Player of the Year type of season. Coleman had a strong freshman campaign and as a sophomore last season batted .295 with four homers and 35 RBIs. He also had a .417 on-base percentage.


Starting pitching

No Aaron Crow, no problem.

Though some observers assume the Missouri weekend rotation is in trouble without stud right-hander Aaron Crow back this spring, that isn't the case.

Junior right-hander Kyle Gibson is ready to take the torch.

Slated to be one of the top picks in the MLB Draft next summer, Gibson once again is expected to have an impressive campaign.

Gibson started 12 games and made 19 appearances last season. He also had a 9-4 record and a 3.84 ERA in 86 2/3 innings of work. He also struck out 96 and walked 23, while opponents hit him at a .254 clip.

Also keep an eye on sophomore right-hander Nick Tepesch.

Tepesch had consistency issues at times last season, but showed the MU coaching staff during fall workouts he has the ability to be a front-line pitcher at some point in his college career. Tepesch appeared in 22 games and started one contest last season and had a 4.85 ERA in 28 2/3 innings. He also struck out 17 and walked 12, while opponents hit him at a .287 clip.

The No. 3 spot in the weekend rotation still is up in the air between veteran Ian Berger, Tyler Clark and Kelly Fick.

Berger started 14 games last season and had a 4.54 ERA in 85 1/3 innings. Clark, meanwhile, struggled mightily and had a 15.30 ERA in just 10 innings. Fick had a strong fall and is expected to improve this spring, but last season he had a 7.32 ERA in 19 2/3 innings of work.

If I'm Missouri, I feel comfortable with a weekend rotation of Gibson, Tepesch and Berger.


Bullpen

Missouri's bullpen will be deeper and better this season.

The Tigers could use Berger, Fick and Clark as relievers this season, but currently are focused on other candidates to hold important bullpen roles.

Ryan Allen is Missouri's best returning reliever. Allen made 22 appearances last season and had a 3.60 ERA in 30 innings of work. He also struck out 32 and walked 11, while opponents hit him at a .270 clip.

Scooter Hicks had a 4.60 ERA in 29 1/3 innings of work last season, while Brad Buehler had a 5.52 ERA in 14 2/3 innings and Andrew Mueller threw just one inning the entire season.

The wild card for the bullpen is two-way player Greg Folgia.

Folgia likely will split duties as a hitter and pitcher this season. The veteran had a 9.28 ERA in just 10 2/3 innings of work last season, but Jamieson believes he has the ability to be a shutdown reliever this spring.

Missouri's bullpen once again is talented, but as Jamieson said, it must find a way to keep teams from coming back late in games.


Shoes to Fill

The Tigers have few holes to fill this season but will miss Jacob Priday and pitchers Aaron Crow and Rick Zagone.

Priday batted .332 with 16 homers and 65 RBIs last season. He also slugged .640 and had a .428 on-base percentage.

Crowe was a Rivals.com All-American last season, had a 13-0 record and had a 2.35 ERA in 107 1/3 innings of work. He also struck out 127 and walked 38, while opponents hit him at a .217 clip.

Zagone made nine starts and had 19 appearances last season. He had a 5.25 ERA in 70 1/3 innings of work. He also struck out 56 and walked 23, while opponents hit him at a .284 clip.

Replacing Crow and Zagone could be tough, but the offense should be just fine without Priday.


Must Step Up

With the offense in good shape entering the spring, there are few players in the lineup that need to step up. Coleman, though, is an exception.

Coleman is an exceptional defensive catcher but must increase his offensive production this season. Last season, he batted .295 with four homers and 35 RBIs. He also recorded nine doubles, one triple and 79 total bases.

The Tigers also need productive campaigns from pitchers Nick Tepesch and Ian Berger.

Tepesch was very good at times last season, but also was inconsistent. Berger, meanwhile, is a senior that has had a productive career for the Tigers. As a veteran, he must rise to the occasion and grab the No. 3 starting job.

If Tepesch and Berger can become front-line starters behind Gibson, the Tigers all of a sudden have a possible Omaha team.


Impact Newcomer

The Tigers won't have to rely too much on newcomers this spring, but are hoping for immediate production from shortstop Mike Liberto and designated hitter Conner Mach.

Liberto played at Delgado CC last season, where he batted .377 with a home run and 37 RBIs. He also recorded 12 doubles and four triples and was 8-for-12 in stolen bases. He was named an NJCAA All-American.

Mach is a very athletic newcomer that played football in high school. Mach batted .420 with three homers and 27 RBIs as a high school senior. He also recorded nine doubles and two triples and had a .691 slugging percentage.

Look for Liberto and Mach to make immediate impacts.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com and Yahoo! Sports. He can be reached at rogersk@yahoo-inc.com.