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URI’s Vitaly Jangols makes a pitch during a game last season

Baseball season ended early for the University of Rhode Island last year. Missing out on the Atlantic 10 tournament for the first time was bad enough. Worse was the thought of how long the Rams might have kept going if not for the abrupt ending. They won 16 of their last 18 games, but the hole they dug in a bad start to the season and A-10 play was too much to overcome.

With the 2019 season beginning this week, the Rams get a chance to pick up where they left off from a new starting line.

“It was obviously a disappointing season last year,” head coach Raphael Cerrato said. “Not making the conference tournament is not acceptable for this program. I am proud of what we did to end the season. Most teams would have folded. We were 1-9 or 1-10 in conference and ran off 11 out of 13. I’m proud of that. I think we know we can be successful, but we’re also hungry to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

“It’s a lot of motivation,” senior Kevin Heiss said. “We were really close. We’ve just got to get off to a better start. We were really hot at the end of the year, but we can’t dig ourselves that big a hole.”

The Rams believe they have the kind of team that can keep rolling, this time from day one. URI started 2-11 overall last year against a challenging schedule then opened A-10 play with nine losses in their first 10 conference games.

“We faced the fourth or fifth best non-conference schedule in the country,” Cerrato said. “We had a lot of young hitters facing first-round picks, second-round picks. I think our confidence was shot a little bit early, and then we finally came on late in the year. I think it’s going to help us this year that we return a lot of hitters and we have a some good freshmen as well. And there’s a little bit of that hunger. We can’t assume we’re going to make the conference tournament every year.”

Those young hitters are now leading the way with experience under their belts, while the pitching staff’s weekend rotation looks strong. The bullpen is more of a question mark, but not for lack of talent.

“We feel pretty good,” junior pitcher Nick Robinson said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys, but we’re pretty confident. We’ve got a great young staff. We’re ready to go.”

The offense lost only two players to graduation and the young core is ready for center stage. Jackson Coutts starred as a freshman last year, leading the team in batting average and RBI, before delivering an even better summer. Coutts won the New England Collegiate Baseball League’s Rookie of the Year award after hitting .376 for the North Adams Steeplecats.

Junior Sonny Ulliana, who led the Rams in home runs last season, also had a big summer in the NECBL with the Ocean State Waves and is back as a key cog. Heiss and fellow seniors Laurence Hill, Brett McManus and Sam Ilario provide a veteran presence and a link to the 2016 A-10 championship team. Junior Greg Cavaliere and sophomore Xavier Vargas also had strong campaigns last year, while a host of young players like Austin White, Josh Brodeur and Max Mircovich will be looking for breakthroughs after taking their lumps last season. A number of newcomers will also be pushing for time.

“I’m super excited about our offense,” Cerrato said.

Graduation took a bigger toll on the pitching staff, which lost weekend starters Matt Murphy and Taso Stathopoulos, as well as relief aces Nick Johnson and Tyler Barrs, who combined for 12 saves.

The weekend rotation shapes up better than those losses would predict. Former A-10 Pitcher of the Year Tyler Wilson is back for one more season with the Rams. Working back from injury last year, he started to recapture his form en route to a 3.58 ERA and a team-best 70 strikeouts.

Junior Vitaly Jangols started eight games last year before an injury. He also pitched in the rotation as a freshman. Robinson pitched out of the bullpen last spring before earning NECBL all-star honors as a starter for the Waves.

Replacing Johnson and Barrs is the tougher task. The team’s most experienced relievers like Cam LaFleur, Mark Silvestri, Jake Walker and Dom Grillo will be among the first in line. The staff also includes former South Kingstown High School star Bo Brutti, the MVP of last year’s state championship series.

“I think we have the talent to fill that back end,” Cerrato said. “They just haven’t done it yet.”

The Rams will test themselves against a non-conference schedule that will be challenging, if not quite as much of a gauntlet as last year’s, which included College World Series participant Florida and NCAA Tournament qualifiers Texas A&M, Stetson, Army and Jacksonville.

This year’s slate includes matchups with Rice, Missouri, Texas Rio Grande Valley and Wichita State. URI may have a little more of a running start this season thanks to friendly weather that has allowed them to be on the field more than normal this preseason.

“On paper, it’s not quite as tough as last year, but it’s still a tough schedule,” Cerrato said. “We need to have a better start this year. If we play well, we should have a chance to win games.”

The A-10 slate also will pose a challenge. Teams in the A-10 don’t see the full cast of league-mates every year. Six of the eight opponents in URI’s draw this season were A-10 tourney qualifiers last season.

“I think there will be six or seven teams that will compete for a championship, and I think we’ll be one of them,” Cerrato said.

URI was picked seventh in the league’s preseason poll. St. Louis was labeled the preseason favorite.

The Rams open the season Friday night at Rice. The team’s first home game is set for March 20 after 13 straight games on the road.

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