SMITHFIELD, R.I. – With the graduation of three senior infielders, the Bryant University baseball team will look to veteran second baseman Cole Fabio (Mahwah, N.J.) to lead a youthful group this spring.
"Losing three seniors is difficult to replace in one group but we have athletic, well-skilled infielders that are versatile with the ability to play multiple positions," head coach Steve Owens said.
A four-year starter at second base, and one of three captains this year, Fabio will be the leader of an infield that could feature three freshmen starters. Fabio has shown himself to be one of the most durable players in program history and is the only returning player to play in all 59 games a year ago. He enters his senior season with the chance to break into the top five in Bryant DI history in games played and hits, and has a chance to break the stolen base record.
"Cole is the tone-setter for our program," Owens said. "He's a guy that can win a game in a lot of ways and he personifies durability and toughness."
Fabio is coming off a junior year in which he set career-highs in home runs (4), RBI (38), runs (52) and walks (36). He is one of only two players on this year's roster that had over 100 at-bats last year, and enters his senior season with career slash line of .319/.418/.418. Fabio also got it done defensively last year, posting the best fielding percentage of his career (.975) while fielding a career-high 284 chances.
"Cole will be leaned on heavily to play consistently and to be good every day," Owens said.
The biggest hole the Bulldogs will have to fill on the infield will be that of four-year starting first baseman Robby Rinn, one of the best all-around players in Bryant's DI history. Throughout the fall and the winter it has been a battle between senior Zane Smith (Ilion, N.Y.), sophomore Tyler Panno (Rivervale, N.J.) and freshman Chris Wright (Cumberland, R.I.). Smith missed most of last season with an injury but showed his power potential with two home runs and eight RBI in just nine at-bats.
Panno has the ability to play both first base, third base and the outfield and has improved his swing a great deal over the offseason after going 4-for-20 in limited time as a freshman. Wright has impressed the coaches with his defense during the preseason and will also be a key part of the starting pitching rotation. A local standout at Cumberland High School, Wright was one of the best pitchers in the state of Rhode Island the last two years and he also led Cumberland teams to the Little League World Series and the American Legion World Series.
"Tyler has really good size, is a good runner and has improved his offense a lot over the course of the year," Owens said. "He [Panno] needs to get comfortable playing multiple spots defensively, while Zane could be a factor in our lineup when he's in there.
"Chris is our best defensive first baseman and that is a really important thing to be especially because of our young infield," Owens added.
The rest of the infield, however, lines up the way Owens had always imagined it would, with every player having the ability to play the other three infield positions. Freshman Jimmy Titus (Stafford, Conn.) will open the season as Bryant's starting shortstop, becoming the first rookie to start at short since Pat McKenna in 2006. Titus is one of the most highly touted recruits in program history and became the first baseball player to ever win back-to-back Gatorade Player of the Year honors in Connecticut. He also got a head start on facing college pitching as he played in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League last summer, hitting .288 in 118 at-bats.
"We knew with Dan [Cellucci] leaving it [SS] would be open and we recruiting a very talented player to come in and fill his shoes," Owens said. "Jimmy has the physical tools to stay on the field every day and he's a very offensive player that will hit in the middle of our lineup right away. We feel he is the right guy to handle the demands of the position and we are confident he will learning and improving throughout the year."
Titus could also be joined in the infield by another rookie, Bryan Hart (Franklin, Mass.). The fastest player on the team, Hart is in the running to be the opening day third baseman and can also play short and second. He was a standout at Xaverian Brothers in Massachusetts, the same high school program that produced former Bulldog John Mullen.
"Bryan is the fastest player on our team, he's versatile and he's athletic," Owens said. "He has all the tools to be a very successful defender but we need to see Bryan continue to take the strides to become a consistent everyday player."
Bryant's swiss army knife on the infield, however, will be senior Jacob Marotta (Bridgewater, Mass.). One of the few veterans on the team, Marotta has appeared in 85 games over the course of his career, including 35 games last season. He was Bryant's top defensive option off the bench late in games last season, committing an error in just four of the 35 games he appeared. This season, Marotta will be competing for the open spot at third base and can also play short, which he has done in his career, and second if needed. Marotta put in a great deal of work in the weight room during the offseason and the Bulldogs are hoping a breakout offensive season is on the way.
"Jake is arguably our most athletic defender," Owens said. "He's tall, rangy, has good hands, has a good arm and is able to make plays on the run. We are looking for more offensive production and consistency out of Jake with his improved strength.
"We spent alot of time focusing on our infield defense in the offseason," Owens said. "As they play together at game speed there will be some growth that needs to happen but we are confident they will become an above average unit."