As the Utah Valley baseball team prepares for their first game of the 2022 season, one word seems to describe the atmosphere around the Wolverines’ clubhouse: “excitement.”
Following a turbulent offseason that brought in a new coaching staff and 20 new players, everyone is chomping at the bit to take the field and hear the umpire say, “Play Ball” for the first time in this new era of Wolverine baseball.
Heading into his first season at Utah Valley and his first season as the skipper of a Division I program, head Coach Eddie Smith praised the hard work of his new players this offseason in preparation for this spring, as well as the tremendous job they’ve done meshing together so quickly.
“Our guys have done a good job of working hard,” said Smith. “We have 39 guys on the roster, and 20 of those guys are new faces, so I think we’re all transitioning. The guys have really bought in and put in a lot of hard work.”
In his short time at UVU, Smith has been hard at work building a foundation that can springboard this baseball program back to the former success that Wolverine fans have enjoyed in years past. Despite all the new faces, there are still keystone players returning, some for their fifth collegiate seasons, to help build this new foundation.
Among the returning players is senior infielder Mitch Moralez, who started every game at second base last season and led the team in batting average and stolen bases. Moralez is entering his third season with the program after transferring before the 2020 season from Palomar College in California. Mitch discussed what it’s been like taking on a leadership role within this new-look squad.
“A lot of it comes through experience. A lot of it is new for us, with an entirely new staff. It’s new in a good way, but all of us are kind of in the same boat in that sense, where we’re rebuilding from the ground up.”
Another key figure returning for the 2022 season is senior catcher Drew Sims, who caught the bulk of the innings behind the plate last season. Sims, who is entering his fifth year on campus, has spent most of the offseason developing chemistry with the new and returning pitchers he’ll be catching this year.
“With the new pitching staff, [I’ve been] getting to get closer with those guys, learning the pitches they like to throw, and learning their emotions on the mound,” said Sims. “I’m also learning …if they get frustrated easily, when to calm them down and when to excite them. It’s definitely a new learning experience with a bunch of new guys, but at the same time it’s pushing them to be their best.”
One of the main reasons Drew decided to return for his fifth season at UVU was being able to catch his younger brother Nick for one more year. Nick Sims was one of the leading starting pitchers for the Wolverines last season, leading the team in ERA and striking out 41 batters over 58.1 innings pitched.
Headlining the pitchers as the likely Friday starter for the Wolverines is junior Mason Gray, who was the workhorse of the staff last year. Gray pitched a team-high 71 innings and 65 strikeouts and has taken on a leadership role with all the new faces joining the team this season.
“Especially with the younger guys I try to be somewhat of a mentor because my whole career here, I’ve had mentors I’ve learned from,” said Gray. “There’s a lot of newcomers, and I just let them know that they’re going to be a big part of this.”
The transfer portal has been a major talking point among college athletics since its inception in 2018, but Coach Smith believes it hasn’t changed much among the collegiate baseball ranks.
“Transfers have been more common throughout the years, especially the JUCO transfer,” said Smith. “The game of baseball takes longer to identify who are the best players, and junior college has been a route for many players to go and bet on themselves for their future. It’s something we’re not a stranger to.”
The Wolverines were able to make a splash in the transfer portal this offseason, landing two of the top D-1 transfer products in shortstop Kayler Yates from Utah and pitcher Josh Brown from Houston, both of whom are sophomores.
Yates was a highly touted prospect out of high school, where he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 31st round in 2019. The St. George product elected to go the college route, playing for the Utes for two seasons before entering the transfer portal this past summer.
Brown started his collegiate career at the College of Southern Nevada where he posted a 0.54 career ERA and .115 batting average against before transferring to Houston, where he redshirted last season.
In addition to the D-1 transfers, Coach Smith was able to acquire the services of a host of traditional JUCO transfers, including the likes of junior first baseman Brody Ponti from Everett Community College in Washington. Ponti posted a career .313 batting average over three seasons and led his team to an NWAC championship. On the pitching side, Andrew Hauck headlines the JUCO transfers hailing from the College of Southern Nevada. The southpaw posted a 2.01 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 58.1 innings of work and was named a JUCO All-American.
In 2021, the Wolverines’ offense struggled and was worst in the conference by a wide margin in many statistics, especially the big three of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. Bringing in a coach like Eddie Smith with a pedigree of churning out big league prospects, one can expect those numbers to turn around quickly.
“We work hard every day with a foundation of trying to hit the ball as hard as we can right past the pitcher’s ear,” Smith stated. “We talk about approach, we talk about mechanics, we’ll talk about a lot of different components, but the biggest thing we preach day in and day out is hitting balls hard through the middle of the field.”
UVU was only able to play a pair of games in their fall schedule, facing off against USU-Eastern and SLCC, but in that small sample size, the Wolverines tore the cover off the ball, putting up a combined 56 runs over those two games. Regardless of the competition, those numbers are a sign of tremendous improvements across the board.
When the WAC releases its preseason rankings, don’t be surprised to see UVU at or near the bottom. The players know that rankings are based on the prior season and that most people outside of Orem don’t know what to expect from this Wolverines squad. Moralez believes the team will use that as fuel to achieve their goals and silence the doubters this season.
“We get to go out with a fresh start. We worked really hard this fall and had a great winter leading up to this spring. We’re kind of walking in with a chip on our shoulder. No one’s going to think anything of us, and we’re going to have the opportunity to go out there and surprise people.”
The Wolverines open the season Feb. 18 with a four-game series against the Texas State Bobcats of the Sun Belt Conference. Following the series, the team will return for its earliest-ever home game against the Utah Utes Feb. 22 at UCCU Ballpark.
Senior Staff Writer
Nathan is a senior studying Communications. In addition to covering UVU athletics for The Review, Nathan also covers BYU athletics for ESPN 960. Nathan hails from the Bay Area in California, and keeps tabs on the Giants, 49ers, and Warriors in his spare time.