Just five years removed from being the A-10 champs and a NCAA regional qualifier, Tony Vittorio and the Dayton Flyers find themselves in a position of regaining a winning profile.
Dayton – There’s a picture relative to University of Dayton baseball in 2016 that I particularly like.
It’s a shot showing the private frustration of head coach Tony Vittorio during one of those days that ultimately culminated in a 19-36 record, the second such mark in as many years for the Flyers.
It’s a shot that speaks volumes about the fine line that exists with any sport…between being a champion, and even being relevant.
It’s a shot that sums up a year of contradiction between the passing through of upper-classmen and an infusion of freshmen still wet behind the ears – of injuries and different perspectives, old and new.
It’s a shot that sums up the reality of seeing your stock fall from being conference champions and NCAA tournament qualifiers as recently as four years ago (2012)…to a point of finding eight ‘healthy’ position players on a given day all committed to winning, and whatever it takes, collectively, to do it.
“Now it’s about that feeling of having your back to the wall and finding whatever it takes to return to a championship level of play,” said Vittorio this week, assessing a fresh mindset for the 2017 season that opens next weekend in Greenville, South Carolina.
“I came here 18 years ago to build a program. We did that, and then we got to a championship level in 2012. But then the challenge became how to maintain a championship level, and I take full responsibility for that the past two years. I needed to do a better job.”
To that end Vittorio and his staff hit the recruiting trail prior to the 2016 season to find both the talent and the attitudes to again make Flyer baseball relevant, in the Atlantic 10 Conference, and beyond.
And while last year’s record didn’t show it, there were formative signs of building, transformation, and regaining the winning attributes that previously marked the high water mark of Vittorio’s tenure at Dayton.
Young pitchers, Austin Cline and Tyler Henry, made an impact that promised stability and consistency for the future.
Young position talent, like Sidney native Connor Echols and Moeller grad Bailey Montoya, proved dependable and predictable through the season and fall practice for future consideration.
And veteran players like Robbie Doring, Mitch Coughlin, and Nick Ryan emerged as leaders consistent in pursuit of “program” goals and a return to respect within the clubhouse first, and on the field.
“I’m really proud of last year’s freshman class,” says Vittorio. “They came in and adjusted to a different culture and demonstrated a willingness and ability to compete. We had some young guys who wanted to play, and given the opportunity they gave a positive performance.”
To that end, between the end of 2016 and next weekend’s opener, the Flyer roster has undergone a whopping turnover of 19 new faces to lend depth and additional talent to the 2017 picture.
“Our pitching is far deeper than a year ago,” says Flyer pitching coach Ryne Romick. “As of next weekend we’ll start sophomore Austin Cline on Friday (4.00, 4-4, from Ben Logan), junior Mason Kutruff on Saturday (7.03, 2-6, from Martinsville, In), and freshman Tyler Jones (Ben Logan HS) on Sunday against Furman.
“But beyond that we have more good arms that we’ve recruited that we know are going to help us.”
Among those are two freshmen, R.J. Wagner and Jordan Cox, both from the same high school in Zionsville, Indiana, and both with live arms and competitive upside even at such a young age. Translation: They throw hard! That’s good news for a staff that had a cumulative earned run average of nearly 5.00 last year, while opponents pitched to a 3.31 mark.
Behind that pitching Vittorio is counting on the leadership of veterans seniors Doring (.264, 8 HRs), Coughlin (.243 avg.), Ryan (.259 avg.), and catcher Matt Poland to anchor the eight everyday positions – plus the addition of a talented freshman class that was quick to show dividends in fall practice.
“Robbie Doring might be our best baseball player, overall,” says Vittorio. “And Mitch Coughlin just won the Presidential Male Scholar-Athlete Award, that’s about the most prestigious award you can win at Dayton. It gives you an idea about his character and commitment.
“Nicky Ryan’s just a leader who really worked hard to overcome a slow start last year. He was our best hitter in the second half of the season and he turns the double play at second base as good as anyone.
“Matt Poland has the experience behind home plate and has an edge offensively, but sophomore Bailey Montoya is going to compete for playing time and is really a good catch-and-throw guy back there. It’s good to have depth at that position.”
“And watch freshman first baseman Tate Hagan,” advises Vittorio. “He signed early with us out of Tallahassee, Florida, and he was only 6’ tall and weighed 165 pounds when he signed. Now he’s 6’2” and 195 pounds and he showed offensive promise at first base in fall practice like we haven’t had at that position in a while.”
Or anywhere else. The Flyers, as a team, hit just .241 last season. Opponents, collectively, hit .279.
He’s had eight 30-win seasons since coming to Dayton in 2000, and Vittorio pulls no punches over what it takes to flip the records of the last two seasons and get back on track in what portends to be in the wide-open A-10 Conference for 2017.
It starts with pitching.
“I love what Austin Cline did as a freshman, and we’re confident he’ll take another step this year,” says Vittorio. “Kutruff has a big opportunity, and Tyler Jones looks like a very promising freshman that’s ready to compete.
“Behind those guys are good young arms for the bullpen, and sophomore Tyler Henry (team best 4-1 record as a freshman, 3.06 era in 32.1 innings) really competes with the fastball. No longer will we have to hang someone out there to dry, hoping he can get the job done.”
And if that pitching gives them a chance, Vittorio is counting on this year’s Flyers taking strides towards the likes of conference favorites VCU, Rhode Island, and St. Louis, able to campaign with those schools to regain the lustre of 2012. The objective is to compete for another league title, and as soon as possible.
The Flyers open play next weekend, February 17-19, with a three-game series against the Purple Paladins of Furman University.
“We’ve recruited well. We’re a different team,” says Vittorio, flatly.
Now to show that ‘soon’…actually is possible!