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New-look Ducks Ready For Opener

Feb 17, 2022

On Friday night at San Diego, Oregon baseball will officially take the field for the first time without Robert Ahlstrom and the rest of the 2021 starting rotation, and without Aaron Zavala, Kenyon Yovan and Gabe Matthews in the middle of the lineup.

While it will be the first game the Ducks play without those program luminaries, it will be far from the first time their absence has been felt.

"In the fall it was something you realized – you miss the presence of six big names like that in the locker room," outfielder Tanner Smith said. "You can tell it's a little bit different."

The Ducks couldn't help but notice in the fall who didn't return from the 2021 team. But they also quickly took stock of what was returning for 2022. And that got them excited.

"It was pretty apparent right when I got here in the fall, we have a ton of talent," closer Kolby Somers said. "All the guy we lost, we've replaced with really talented players that care a lot and work hard. We have really good team chemistry right now, and I'm really excited to start the season."

The Ducks and Toreros will kick off a four-game series Friday at 6 p.m. Transfer Adam Maier gets the ball first in Ahlstrom's former role as the Friday night starter, followed in the rotation by Andrew Mosiello, Isaac Ayon and then freshman Tommy Brandenburg in the series finale Monday.

Next week features Oregon's first series at revamped PK Park, and Pac-12 play begins March 11 at Stanford. The Ducks finished a game out of first place in the conference last spring, and fell a game short of advancing to NCAA Super Regionals, before being picked fifth in this year's conference preseason poll.

After getting a taste of the postseason a year ago, the Ducks are thinking bigger in 2022.

"If we can push ourselves in the right direction," Smith said, "I think Omaha's in the future."

Reaching the College World Series in Omaha is of course the goal of every college baseball program this time of year. For the Ducks in 2022, though, it's a little more tangible after hosting a regional last spring.

In the past, Somers said, "we really just wanted to win games and hope to get to the postseason. But after being there last year, I think our expectations and goals are a lot higher."

As the Ducks look to replace so may key faces from the 2021 team, they're not looking for exact replicas of each departed veteran.

Maier is right-handed and a model of composure, but has just as much potential to thrive in the Friday night starter role as Ahlstrom, a left-handed bulldog on the mound. The middle of the 2022 lineup figures to feature Smith, shortstop Josh Kasevich and right fielder Anthony Hall, who combined for 15 home runs last spring – two fewer than Yovan alone hit in 2021.

"Instead of replacing them it's more just, how can we all play to our role and fill it from there," Smith said. "A lot of young guys have stepped up, a lot of older guys have developed even more and we're excited to see where it goes."

The Ducks enter Friday's opener mostly healthy, third-year coach Mark Wasikowski said, with catcher Logan Paustian an exception. When he's healthy, he'll join a crowded position battle that veteran Jack Scanlon currently leads. Center field also features an ongoing battle, between Colby Shade and Bryce Boettcher, and infielder Drew Cowley continues to play himself into contention for reps with second baseman Gavin Grant and third baseman Sam Novitske.

"It's been spirited, with good competition," Wasikowski said. "Knock on wood, the guys will play like we've seen them play in scrimmages and practices leading up to where we are right now. It's been really competitive and really fun to watch."