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Baseball begins practice to defend its conference title

Jan. 17, 2001

No. 17-ranked Bears face new season challenges

By AMETHYST HENSLEY

Sports Writer

Baylor baseball is back for another season with a Big 12 Conference championship under its belt and a host of new goals for the season.

'The Big 12 Championship was a big accomplishment for the program and the university,' junior catcher Kelly Shoppach said. 'We're looking for bigger things this year. We are now in the position to compete every year for the World Series and the National Championship. Winning is still the most important thing.'

But defending the Big 12 Championship may be quite a challenge in itself.

Baylor is ranked No. 17 in the nation according to the preseason Collegiate Baseball poll. However, the University of Oklahoma hovers over the Bears at No. 15, and Nebraska leads the Big 12 at No. 4.

'Preseason polls are based on last season. Basically, which players are coming back,' Shoppach said. 'It's just based on what's in the past.'

Baylor's ranking may be due to its loss of key players to the pros. Starting pitchers Chad Hawkins and Kyle Evans, the middle infield of shortstop Jace Brewer and second baseman Preston Underdown, and two-thirds of the outfield in center fielder Anthony Hensley and right fielder Jaime Bubela all left to play for the big bucks.

'We can't really ever replace an individual player,' Shoppach said. 'We can hope to fill their spot with guys who can play, but we can't replace them.'

Speed may be the biggest hole to fill with the two fastest base runners gone to the pros. Last year, Bubela was 28-34 on stolen base attempts and Hensley was 32-38, well ahead of the rest of the team.

However, this season's turnover has given some players a shot at the limelight.

Sophomore pitcher Zane Carlson has already been named to the Louisville Slugger Preseason All-America First Team. He was also the 2000 Big 12 Freshman Pitcher of the Year.

Freshman infielder Trey Webb looks like a promising candidate this year along with returning sophomore first baseman Mike Huggins who has a .312 batting average.

One thing that has not changed is head Coach Steve Smith's leadership. Smith starts his seventh season at Baylor with a trail of milestones in his path.

In 1999, he guided the Bears to their first ever 50-win season and an appearance in the NCAA Super Regional. Last season, he led Baylor to the conference crown, Baylor's first outright conference title in 77 years.

His secret does not include a complicated training program or rigorous workouts.

'He [Coach Smith] brings in good people and good athletes,' Shoppach said. 'He set the mold for what kind of players come to Baylor. The type of people we have is really a unique thing. It's neat to go to other places and be the 'nice guys' of the Big 12.'

Baylor baseball will get its first taste of the 2001 season February 1-3 at the Astros College Classic in Houston. The opponents will include Rice University, the University of Houston and Texas Christian University.