Order was restored last year, and the University of Rhode Island baseball team doesn’t plan to stop there.
The Rams qualified for the Atlantic 10 Tournament last season after a one-year hiatus, and with a veteran core returning and a strong freshman class joining the fold, they believe they’re capable of reaching greater heights this season.
“To not make it two years ago – that’s not a good year for our program. Last year was better but still not to where we think we can be,” head coach Raphael Cerrato said. “I feel like we’re a much better team this year than we’ve been. The league is going to be good again, so it’s going to be really tough. But I think on paper, with what we have, it’s a team that can compete to win a championship.”
The Rams had made three straight A-10 tournament trips, a stretch that included the 2016 championship, before a rough start doomed them in 2018. Last year, they won two out of three in each of their first two league series and swept a third, then held steady from there. In the tournament, they lost their opener, won a dramatic game with St. Louis to stay alive, then bowed out to Davidson.
Seven of the nine players in the starting lineup for that final game will be in uniform Friday when the Rams open the 2020 season, a sign of the team’s experience. They lost a few key pieces to graduation like shortstop Kevin Heiss and pitcher Tyler Wilson, who left as the school’s all-time wins leader, but Wilson missed much of last season with an injury. In that regard, URI’s returning players have already been carrying the load, and they picked up some momentum along the way.
“We had a couple of walk-off wins that the year before they would have lost,” pitcher Justin Cherry said. “I think last year definitely set an example.”
“We got back on track last year. I think this year, though, we’re even better than last year,” senior catcher Sonny Ulliana said. “The culture is better and we’ve got a lot of guys here who are really focused on getting better each and every day.”
Cherry heads the weekend rotation after a breakout redshirt freshman campaign. He had a 2.93 ERA and led the team with 56 strikeouts. Senior Nick Robinson, coming off an up-and-down year that included some flashes of brilliance, is slated to join Cherry. Senior Vitaly Jangols, banged up the last few years, will be looking to recapture the form of his freshman season, when he had a 2.23 ERA.
“There’s a lot of good experience there,” Cerrato said. “Cherry, Robinson and Jangols in the weekend rotation right now, and Cherry was a big-time pitcher for us last year.”
Senior Tyler Brosius anchors the bullpen after saving six games last season with a 2.27 ERA. He played in the Cape Cod Baseball League last summer and started the season with five straight scoreless outings before hitting a rough patch.
South Kingstown native Bo Brutti is slated for a key role, along with sophomore Jon Morrison, senior Jake Walker and a number of others. Several freshmen will be in the mix for relief innings and mid-week starts.
“It’s a pretty deep staff,” Cerrato said. “I think it’s deeper than the 2016 team that won it. We don’t have a Tyler Wilson to go 13-1, but I think the depth is there if we can stay healthy.”
If the offense lives up to its potential, the Rams may not need heroics from their pitching staff. Returning standouts include Xavier Vargas and Austin White, the team’s top two hitters from a year ago. Junior Jackson Coutts led the 2018 team in batting average and tied with Vargas and Ulliana for the home run lead last year. Josh Brodeur, John Cristino, Greg Cavaliere and Max Mircovich are among the other regulars back in the fold. Several more Rams could be poised for a breakout, like former Ponaganset High School star Billy Butler and sophomore outfielder Mark Coley, who was named the Top Pro Prospect in the Futures League last summer. A freshman class that profiles as the best of Cerrato’s tenure will also have an impact.
“Going into a season, it’s the best I’ve felt about an offense in a long time,” Cerrato said.
The freshman class includes Ocean State natives Alex Ramirez of Providence, Addison Kopack of Cumberland and Sean Sposato of Chariho. They join Brutti, Butler, Brodeur and Kyle Beaulieu to provide the Rams with some local flavor.
“There’s some talent. It’s a small state, but per capita, there are good Division I players. We’ve got a couple of kids committed for the next couple of years who are really good as well,” Cerrato said. “That’s very, very important for us – get the best kids in the state to stay here. There’s a sense of pride. The program has had success. You want kids to grow up wanting to play here. And we also want to keep building facilities. That’s really important for us.”
The local products are used to the weather challenges that the Rams face, though it hasn’t been too tricky this year. With no snow on the ground, URI has been able to practice outside more than usual ahead of its opening weekend series at Lamar.
The Rams will play their first 18 games on the road before the home opener March 18. As usual, the schedule is daunting, with Maryland, Arizona and a late trip to East Carolina all on the docket. The Atlantic 10 will also be a grind. URI, despite its experience and high hopes, was picked seventh in the league’s preseason poll.
“It’s not an easy start,” Cerrato said. “There have been years where our record has not been very good to open up. You’ve got to have tough kids and a tough coaching staff to be able to handle that and know that, no matter what happens, we’d rather play East Carolina than somebody who’s 280th in RPI, because it makes us better.”