A new season brings familiar expectations.
As No. 3 Florida State officially began its 2018 campaign with its first practice on Friday, the main goal remains intact. For the Noles, reaching Omaha is the standard and after last season’s run to the College World Series, the players are itching to make another appearance in “The Greatest Show on Dirt.”
“Our goal is to get back to Omaha and do something more special than we did last year,” junior pitcher Tyler Holton said before the team’s first official spring practice. “This team in hungry to do something it’s never done before.”
The Seminoles are a consensus top-five team across every major outlet and are a trendy pick to make it back to the CWS. However, in baseball—as this team learned a season ago—anything can happen.
“We haven’t played a game yet and we have to understand we have to keep our feet on the ground,” FSU head coach Mike Martin said.
“The game can turn on you quickly.”
The Noles were fortunate to catch a hot-streak at the right time in 2017 and surge into Omaha. This season, a batch of talented fresh faces will mesh with a group of experienced veterans, giving the squad confidence as it begins a new year.
“We have 17 returners and 16 new guys, I believe,” sophomore third baseman Drew Mendoza said. “There’s a lot of new faces, but everybody has fit together perfectly so far.”
“We’re very good every year,” junior leftfielder Jackson Lueck added. “This year we have a lot of talent, we just have to put the pieces together.”
The confidence begins on the mound, where the Noles return their entire weekend rotation.
Holton along with Cole Sands and Drew Parrish are poised to form one of the best trios in the Atlantic Coast Conference. A preseason first-team All-American, Holton will anchor a group ready to take FSU to the next level on the mound. Add reliable mid-week starter Andrew Karp to the mix and the Noles will feel comfortable against opposing offenses each time out.
“It’s boosts confidence. We scored a lot of runs last year and I felt like we had to, at times, to get some wins,” Holton said.
“This year as a staff we’re focusing on lowering the team ERA and forcing everyone to beat us. This is a veteran staff that’s pitched in Omaha and we want to be dominant this year.”
Holton led the team with a 2.34 ERA in 2017, while his 144 strikeouts were amongst the best in college baseball. The rest of the starting rotation showed spurts of life at various points in the season, with Parrish and Sands having memorable outings during the Noles’ postseason run and Karp shining in a relief role against LSU in the College World Series.
“It’s comforting to know that everyone who took us to Omaha (last season) is coming back on the mound,” Mendoza said.
At the plate, FSU welcomes back seven players who received significant at-bats last season, including key members such as Jackson Lueck (9 HR, 54 RBI), Drew Mendoza (10 HR, 33 RBI) and Cal Raleigh (9 HR, 39 RBI).
Those three should form the middle of the Seminoles’ order and will be joined by a slew of experienced bats and a few new, talented hitters. Martin also mentioned that Holton would see increased time in the lineup when not on the mound, utilizing his two-way talent more often.
“He brings value to our team as hitter and as a pitcher,” Martin said. “He has leadership and is a winner through and through. He wants to be out there every day helping his team.”
“It’s exciting, I love having the bat in my hands and helping the team win that way,” said Holton, who recorded two home runs in limited at-bats a year ago.
With the opening series against Xavier (February 16-18) three weeks away, the Seminoles are fine-tuning their skills and finalizing roles before another campaign gets underway.
A season will have its ups and downs, this team knows that better than anyone. However, with the talent returning alongside a crop of eager newcomers, FSU has the elements of having a special season that will look to break some records in the process. Add that to the experience of playing on the game’s biggest stage in their back pocket, and an opportunity to achieve something the school has never seen seems within reach.
“It’s the epitome of college baseball. We know that, we’ve tasted it, ‘11’ (Martin) has been preaching it a lot,” Mendoza said, smiling.
“Now that we’ve been there’s a lot of motivation to get back and win it.”