Challenges ahead for Privateers

NEW ORLEANS — A different stadium, a challenging schedule and already-building anticipation for a big move next season give the UNO baseball team enough challenges in 2013.

But as the Privateers kicked off preseason practice Friday, coach Bruce Peddie said his team is doing its best to focus at the task at hand — to have a successful campaign this season to set itself up for their entry into a Division I conference in 2014.

“I can say this,” he said. “We know we have a very challenging schedule. But we believe it’s the type of schedule that will only benefit us next year when we go to the Southland Conference. We’re trying to be competitive for next year. We’re healthy, and I like this group.”

In addition to enduring a grueling schedule that includes road trips against four teams ranked in Baseball America’s preseason Top 25, the Privateers are bumping back up to Division I independent play after playing in Division II last year. UNO launches its season Feb. 15 with a home series against Southeast Missouri State before a trip to Arkansas.

On top of that, with their home stadium, Maestri Field, a grass facility, undergoing year-long reconstruction, the Privateers are shifting their home games to nearby and newly renovated Wesley Barrow Stadium, a turf diamond.

With all of those obstacles in the mix, saying UNO will be challenged this season might be an understatement. But senior left-handed pitcher and captain Stone Speer said the Privateers are ready.

“This team has come a long way,” Speer said. “We have a big group of guys who like to work hard. It all comes down to whether we’re willing to put it all together.”

The Privateers might have made some leaps forward, but they’ll have to make a lot more to find success this season. In 2012, UNO went 17-27 overall against a largely Division II schedule, making the jump up this year all the more daunting.

Peddie knows that. But he’s also upbeat about a squad that should feature a solid starting rotation, anchored by Speer, and a top-notch closer in senior righty Garrett Manning. The tough task will be developing a bullpen that can provide enough strong middle relief.

“We’re confident in our guys,” Peddie said. “We just have to fill in the middle
(innings).”

Speer also said the strength of the UNO squad will be its group of starting hurlers, with a good mix of veterans and newcomers. The 2013 campaign, he said, “will depend on how we do on the bump. It’s just putting it all together. We have some new guys coming in, and we have to play as a team.”

As far as the Privateers go at the plate, Peddie is pleased with the top of the lineup, especially leadoff spot and the middle, and he’s optimistic that the No. 9 spot will be filled admirably. The top and bottom of the order will be speedy, but question marks remain at the seventh and eighth slots.

The temporary move to Barrow Stadium in adjacent Pontchartrain Park will present the Privateers with a unique acclimation, one that Peddie said will be a challenge to overcome. But Speer believes the shift in confines will boost the team’s success this year.

But the bottom line will be how the team reacts to its return to Division I play and how it prepares for its entrance into the Southland Conference. Peddie said that while the Privateers aren’t overlooking the challenges they’ll face this season — a brutal schedule, a new stadium, a bump up in opposition — they also have on eye on next year.

“This season, we’re getting ready for next year,” he said. “That’s obviously exciting, but still, at the end of the day, we want to be in the mix for a regional (NCAA tournament) berth, and I think we have the kids to make it happen.”