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It all starts now!

Go Owls!!!!!!

Soaring to new heights

By Ted Hutton
Staff Writer
Posted February 6 2004

BOCA RATON ? Florida Atlantic has so much talent that even the Owls eternally pessimistic coach Kevin Cooney has dropped the usual qualifiers when talking about his team's prospects for this season.

"For the first time in my career I'm actually buying into what people are telling me, and I'm saying I think this is a good club," said Cooney, who is starting his 17th season as coach of FAU.

It took four regional appearances in the past five years, a strong recruiting class, preseason pick as Atlantic Sun Conference champion, and preseason rankings of No. 19 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 23 by Baseball America, but Cooney does sound convinced about the quality of his team.

"I've decided that we have an awful lot of talent and that this program has reached a certain point I need to start thinking that way," Cooney said as FAU prepared to host Florida A&M in tonight's season opener.

His players have never lacked confidence, and they welcome the expectations that come with the preseason rankings and Cooney's bragging.

"I think we've earned everything we were chosen for," said junior outfielder Jeff Fiorentino, a three-year starter and leader of a veteran lineup. "We're a year more mature, a year stronger and ready to play."

Fiorentino, the preseason A-Sun Player of the Year after leading FAU in hitting (.382) and home runs (15) last year, will anchor the outfield and the offense.

Fiorentino is expected to battle senior Rusty Brown for the batting title. Brown hit .368 last year and had a team-leading 66 RBI.

But Brown, who plays first base, will miss the first two to four weeks of the season with a stress fracture in his ankle.

Lack of concern about losing Brown is indicative of the depth the Owls have this season.

Jordan Hafer, a switch-hitting freshman from Deerfield, will replace Brown to start the season.

"We think Hafer will be a big bat for us," Cooney said.

Another freshman who will be starting is third baseman Robbie Widlansky of Coral Springs.

"Robbie had a great fall – he does a lot of things well and is a great baserunner," Cooney said.

The rest of the lineup is filled with proven players. Junior Derek Hutton is back at second base, and senior Robbie Orton is behind the plate. Senior Evan Brannon will share time at shortstop with sophomore Alex Fonseca, with sophomore Tim Mascia and senior Rob Horst joining Fiorentino in the outfield.

FAU will be replacing three starting pitchers that combined for a 25-8 record last season, but even that prospect fails to sway Cooney's opinion.

A big reason for that is that the ace of the staff is back in senior left-hander Randy Beam, a preseason All-American who was 13-2 last year with a 2.39 ERA.

O'Brien, a right-hander, was a reliever last year and was 1-1 with a 2.49 ERA.

"Matt served a valuable role as middle innings reliever. He was overshadowed by some other people. We want to give him that opportunity to start," Cooney said.

Crotta is a 6-7, 220 pound right-hander from Martin County who was drafted in the 47th round by Philadelphia.

"If you're going to recruit great players, I think you need to play them early," Cooney said about putting Crotta in the starting rotation.

Senior Chris Saxton (4-4, 2.40 ERA) is back as closer.

FAU, which finished 47-16 last year, will get a good measure of itself with a schedule that includes six teams that made regional appearances last season.

If the Owls live up to expectations, they will be in another regional. Last year's experience has been eating at the team since they were knocked out by Florida in a miserable 22-14 game in the regional eventually won by host Miami.

"I don't think there were too many players that felt good about last season considering the way it ended," Cooney said. "The talent still has to play. If you have good cards but you're a bad card player you're going to lose the hand."

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