Taft College opens play Friday against Feather River

Taft College baseball coach Vince Maiocco is looking for a better hitting team as the Cougars roll out their 2014 edition today.

TC is hosting Feather River in a doubleheader today.  The Eagles are ranked No. 5 in the pre-season California poll.

“They made it to the final four last year and have a better team this season, so we definitely have our work cut out for us,” Maiocco said.
Six of TC’s nine pre-conference tune-ups are at home.

After today’s acid test with one of the state’s best programs, the Cougars will host Imperial Valley College tomorrow at 2 p.m., then entertain College of the Siskiyous next Thursday (1 p.m.) and Friday (10 a.m.) before closing out the home stand with Barstow (2 p.m.) on Saturday the 8th.

“I think we’re going to be OK this year,” Maiocco said.  “We’ve been down the last couple of years but I think our hitting will be improved and we have decent overall team speed.”

He’s looking for more production from his hitters.  Last season the Cougars had just two hitters over .300 on a team that finished 11-24-1 overall and 8-16 in the tough Central Valley Conference.

In the pre-season northern California poll, Fresno is No. 1, Merced No. 8 and Sequoias No. 15.

First team all-conference pick Travis Tessandori (.324) is expected to set the tone for the Cougar hitters from his leadoff spot.  He had a .412 on-base percentage, stole 18 of 20 bases, earned the conference Golden Glove award with his .989 fielding average (just one error) and had 88 putouts.

Maiocco also expects more production from the 3-4-5 hitters in the lineup: sophomore Roman Testani and newcomers Chris Hoppballe and Scout Villanueva.

“They can really swing it,” Maiocco said.

Hoppballe is a redshirt transfer from Saddleback College and Villanueva played at Bakersfield College last season.

Maiocco also is looking at an improved defense, especially on the infield despite being young.

“We’re very young on the infield except at third base,” he said. “We’re very young up the middle.”

Sophomore Loren Cutolo and freshman Villanueva are solid at third base and newcomer Bryan Nunez has impressed at shortstop.

Villanueva has good power at the plate, also can work behind the plate and might fit into the designated hitter role.

Freshmen Michal Hillcoat and Michael Dagg are tussling for the starting job at second base.

“Hillcoat has the best offensive power and Nunez is smooth and fluid.  He makes everything look easy.”

The top four outfielders from last season are back “which gives us a lot of flexibility so we can rotate players in.”

Maiocco likes the depth he’ll have at the catcher position, led by sophomore Adrian Rodriguez.

“He caught just about every inning of every game last year, but we’re not going to wear him out this year because we have depth there now.”

Returning all-conference right-hander Brandon Van Stone anchors the pitching corps.

He has signed a letter of intent to pitch at Hawaii Pacific University next year.

Van Stone will lead the rotation that also returns Kevin Little.

“That’s a great place to start,” said Maiocco, who is still undecided on who will step into the third spot in the rotation.

“Kevin had a very solid freshman year for us,” he said.  “We’re expecting good things out of him this year.  We’re still looking for that third starter.”

Newcomer Kendal Daniels is a southpaw who could fill the bill.

“He throws strikes, changes speeds and has a very good curve ball,” Maocco said

Another newcomer with promise is slender Nick Risucci (6-foot-2, 150 pounds) who led Las Vegas-Bonanza High to the state finals last year and twice beat national powerhouse Bishop Gorman.

“He’s a side-armer whose pitches are very confusing to hitters,” Maiocco said.  “He uses both arm angles very successfully.  Ideally, we will use him as a closer, but he can throw the last two or three innings.

“I like his makeup, the way he competes.  We also could put him in the rotation as our No. 3 starter.  We’re expecting a good season from him.”

Assisting Maiocco with coaching duties are veterans Jeremy and Chris Wadel.  Michael Hayes, who played at TC a few years back, is a newcomer on the staff.