Gators begin to prepare for opener


Preseason All-American pitcher Bryan Augenstein gives Florida a clear No. 1 starter.

AARON DAYE/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

The big, yellow cranes are gone. So is the buzzing, the hammering and the sawing.

When Florida's baseball team holds its first official team practice of the 2007 season today at McKethan Stadium, only the sounds of baseball will be in the air: The ping of the bat. The snap of the ball hitting the back of a glove. Bouncing balls skimming across the grass and dirt.

It will be sweet music for the Gators. A year ago, Florida played and practiced in the shadow of noisy construction crews working on a $13 million expansion to McKethan Stadium. The construction forced the Gators to play the 2006 season without a locker room.

The work on Florida's new locker room, coaches' offices and indoor batting cage/bullpen is now complete, meaning the Gators are once again a baseball team with a home.

"What I'm excited about today is the new facility, the new year, moving forward and being the best club we can be," head coach Pat McMahon said Wednesday.

Not only will Florida's stadium have a fresh look, so will its roster. Gone are several key starters from last year including catcher Brian Jeroloman, shortstop Adam Davis, third baseman David Cash and outfielder Gavin Dickey.

Only four position players with regular starting experience return. They are first baseman Matt LaPorta, third baseman Brandon McArthur and outfielders Brian Leclerc and Chris Petrie.

Waiting to fill the remaining holes will be a deep roster of youngsters, including an incoming freshman class ranked third in the nation by Collegiate Baseball.

"This year's club will take on a new personality," McMahon said. "This team has many new faces."

One expected to make an immediate impact is freshman second baseman/shortstop Cole Figueroa, of Tallahassee. Figueroa turned down a hefty signing bonus from the Toronto Blue Jays to come to Florida after being selected in the ninth round of the 2006 Major League draft.

Also expected to provide help in Florida's revamped infield will be junior transfer Jon Townsend, redshirt freshman Clayton Pisani and sophomore Avery Barnes, among others.

There are more than five players fighting for Florida's catching role, including sophomore Cody Neer, junior transfer Dustin Bamberg, freshman Hampton Tignor, and sophomore transfer Brett Smith.

Florida's third outfield spot could be filled by true freshmen Jonathan Pigott and Matt den Dekker or sophomore Jared Kubin.

On the mound, preseason All-American Bryan Augenstein gives Florida a clear No. 1 starter while sophomore Stephen Locke, a key member of Florida's 2005 national runner-up team, could emerge as the No. 2 starter as he continues to make his return from Tommy John surgery.

Senior left-handers David Hurst and Steven Porter along with junior right-hander Josh Edmondson should anchor Florida's bullpen.

The Gators will be without a few pitchers who will be recovering from injuries this season. Sophomore right-handers Michael Brahman, Andy Gale and Chas Spottswood along with junior right-hander Tommy Wynn are all expected to miss this season with injuries.

Florida opens its season Feb. 8 when it hosts Virginia Military Institute in a weekend series.

Contact Brandon Zimmerman at 374-5051 or zimmerb@gvillesun.com.

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