Head coach Smoke Laval's grand plan at North Florida is coming together at the most unexpected time.
To say the Ospreys have overcome some odds so far this season would be quite an understatement. With just a month left to the regular season, UNF is 29-12 overall, leads the Atlantic Sun Conference with an 11-4 record and has a respectable enough RPI where an at-large bid to the NCAA postseason bid possibly is in the works.
Combine those figures with the number of injuries the Ospreys have sustained and there's a great story to be told.
"You know, it's hard to explain with this team, things just seem to be working out for us despite the injuries. Guys are just doing a great job of picking up the pieces," Laval said. "It took some of our guys a couple of years to buy into our system and see things how we wanted to see things, but it has happened. We're now in a situation where guys believe in the system, and the system has kind of taken over. We're just plugging guys in now."
The Ospreys have made progress in each of Laval's three seasons as full-time head coach. Though they finished his first season (2011) with a .500 overall record, they went 31-24 last season, and of course, are having a tremendous 2013 campaign.
Entering this year, the Ospreys expected to have even more experience than what they're showing right now. For instance, right-handed pitcher Tyler Moore was expected to lead the pitching staff, but has been very much limited this season because of a recurring soreness issue around his body. Meanwhile, fellow pitchers David Trexler and Kyle Westwood also have battled injuries this season. Trexler had a pulled oblique and returned to action last weekend, while Westwood has been dealing with a hamstring issue and threw two innings last weekend.
Amazingly, that's not even all the significant injuries the Ospreys have sustained this spring. Also worth noting, shortstop Patrick Irvin had a serious knee injury before the season began, and outfielder Alex Bacon had Tommy John surgery.
Yeah, even with those injuries, UNF is still in position to make the NCAA postseason.
"You know, a lot of teams have to deal with arm injuries on the mound, but we're dealing with a variety of injuries in different places around the field. It's kind of odd," he said. "The good thing with our situation is that guys have noticed that they need to step up, and a lot of guys have stepped in and really answered the call for us. To be honest, it's been a lot of fun to watch guys grow this season."
Historically, the wrap on Atlantic Sun teams has been that they're rather offensive in nature, but lacking pitching. As with Florida Gulf Coast, and in some cases, Mercer, the Ospreys have some impressive balance.
Offensively, North Florida has one of the nation's best attacks, ranked fourth nationally with an impressive .325 team batting average. Veteran outfielder Tyler Marincov entered the season as the team's headliner at the plate, but the lineup has been so good he ranks eighth on the club in batting average with a .306 mark.
Senior second baseman Joe Wielbruda is having a terrific campaign with a .369 batting average and 21 RBIs, freshman Donnie Dewees and senior third baseman Paul Karmeris continue to have impressive seasons, hitting .369 and .353, respectively.
"Tyler has had some bad luck this season. He might go 0-for-5 in a game, but he's squaring up everything. As for Dewees, he's a talented freshman we thought would play a lot and have a great year," he said. "It's really all about growing up and figuring things out a little bit. All those offensive guys have really bought into the system."
With Moore and others still trying to work their way back to the rotation before the end of the regular season, the Ospreys have gotten solid contributions from the current rotation, which includes senior right-hander Nick Albritton and senior left-handed pitchers Tommy Organ and Michael Renner.
Organ has a skinny 6-foot-5, 165-pound frame with a 3.19 ERA in 62 innings. He has struck out 38 and walked 21, while teams are hitting him at a .284 clip. He sits 84-86 with his fastball, while he also utilizes a curveball and changeup. Meanwhile, Albritton has a 4.62 ERA in 60 1/3 innings with a 90-91 fastball along with a curveball that has a lot of potential. Lastly, Renner, a 5-foot-10, 165-pounder, has a 1.61 ERA in 61 1/3 innings. He also has struck out 36 and walked 13, while teams are hitting him at a .211 clip. Renner only tops out in the low 80s, but locates well with his curveball and changeup.
"Organ has one outstanding pitch and just otherwise goes out there and pitches. He's got a little bit of that left-handed magic in him. Renner is a really crafty under the radar guy who is extremely effective when he keeps the ball low in the zone," Laval said. "Albritton gives up a lot of hits and you've got to get to him early because he really gets into a groove as the games moves along. He always seems to have one bad inning, but otherwise is pretty good."
Besides the starting rotation, the bullpen continues to do a terrific job with freshman right-hander Corbin Olmstead and sophomore left-hander Spencer Hermann leading the way. Olmstead, a two-way player, has a 1.88 ERA in 28 2/3 innings. Stuff-wise, he's 89-90 with a plus slider. Hermann has a 1.06 ERA in 17 innings and sits 89-91 with his fastball, along with a developing slider.
Overall, Laval admits that his club isn't overly flashy, but they just continue to take care of business and his plan is coming together at the right time.
"I'm glad we are where we are right now," he said. "A lot of our guys are experiencing a lot of success for the first time in their careers. I'm interested to see how they react down the stretch."
Mid-major hot board
South Florida: The Bulls, not Louisville, lead the Big East standings heading down the stretch. They were winners of 12-straight contests before losing to Florida in midweek action. However, the Bulls are getting a very solid campaign from starting pitcher Jimmy Herget, who has a 1.65 ERA in 60 innings. He also has struck out 41, walked 18 and teams only are hitting him at a .168 clip.
Canisius: The Golden Griffins have won nine-straight contests and continue to make headway in the MAAC with a 7-5 league record. The Griffs are getting an expected and impressive campaign from ace pitcher Garret Cortright, who has a 1.78 ERA in 70 2/3 innings, along with 47 strikeouts, 17 walks, with teams hitting him at a .206 clip.
The Citadel: There's been a lot of talk about Western Carolina in the Southern Conference title race, but also keep an eye on the Bulldogs, who are just a game and a half out of first with a 24-17 overall record. The Bulldogs are getting a very good campaign from hard-hitting Bo Thompson, who's batting .328 with 10 homers and 34 RBIs.
Western Carolina: The Catamounts have won nine-straight contests and are getting a much improved campaign from athletic outfielder Julian Ridings. Ridings is hitting .412 with seven homers and 29 RBIs, while Taylor White is having a huge year with a .354 average, nine homers and 42 RBIs.
Rhode Island: The Rams played a very tough schedule earlier in the season and that's starting to pay off as the season progresses. URI is just two games out of first place behind Saint Louis and has a 22-17 overall record. The Rams are pleased with ace pitcher Sean Furney, who has a 1.73 ERA in 67 2/3 innings. He also has struck out 51, walked 17 and teams only are hitting him at a .224 clip.
UNC Wilmington: The Seahawks have had a terrific campaign and added to their resume Tuesday night with a 9-8 road win over top-ranked North Carolina. UNCW second baseman Michael Bass is hitting .431 with four homers and 25 RBIs, while Ryan LaGrange is heating up with a .397 average, three homers and 29 RBIs.
Campbell: The Camels have an outstanding overall record, but as even coach Greg Goff predicted, it might be hard to make the postseason because of their strength of schedule. With that said, the Camels have given much praise to Clayton Brown and Michael Felton, who are hitting .427 and .339, respectively.
Saint Louis: The Billikens continue to lead the Atlantic 10 standings heading down the stretch this spring. SLU has a solid power hitter in Alex Kelly, who has seven homers and 33 RBIs, while ace starting pitcher Alex Alemann continues to have a great year with a 2.77 ERA in 68 1/3 innings. He also has struck out 54, walked 22, with teams hitting .271.
Troy: The Trojans are in an extremely hard-fought race for the Sun Belt regular season title, just one game out of first behind South Alabama, and tied with Florida Atlantic and Western Kentucky. Troy is getting terrific campaigns from Danny Collins and Logan Pierce, who are hitting .399 and .396, respectively, while on the mound, Tanner Hicks has a 3.73 ERA in 60 1/3 innings.
Lamar: The Cardinals have a chance to capture the Southland Conference regular season title. The've won five-straight games and are hitting .309 as a club. They also have a solid weekend rotation with Eric Harrington leading the charge. He has a 2.50 ERA in 68 1/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 50, walked 13, with teams hitting .237.