Filling the void

All the Ute baseball team has to do this spring is replace not only the top player in the Mountain West Conference in 2005, but the very core of the ballclub. Other than that, the Utes have plenty going for them. That may sound sardonic, but it’s not. The player in question is departed shortstop Ryan Khoury, who won just about every honor a player can win last year before graduating and subsequently being drafted by the Boston Red Sox.

But while his void is a huge one, much of the rest of the team’s core remains intact-a huge plus for a club that showed a nine-game improvement in head coach Bill Kinneberg’s second year at the helm.

“The one nice thing that we have is the middle of our lineup is still intact,” Kinneberg said. “We still have (Jay) Brossman, we still have (John) Welsh?Corey Shimada?(Bret) Baldwin?Erich Kemp. Those are five guys who were mainstays in our lineup last year. That is a nice core to have back.”

The one hole that will remain glaring until a formidable replacement is found is the one left by Khoury. In fact, make that two holes: Not only was he the team’s leadoff hitter-he lead the MWC in hitting and was near the top of the rankings in nearly every offensive category-but he played strong defense in the infield as well, making his absence all the more gaping.

“Ryan Khoury is going to be basically irreplaceable with the kind of year he had, and the way that he carried our ballclub last year,” Kinneberg said. “What I’m hoping is that we recruited a shortstop that’ll be a good player for us-not Ryan Khoury, but a good player-and that everybody else makes up for what Ryan did for us last year.”

While it remains to be seen just how things actually play out next spring, Kinneberg at least has an idea who might be in line to fill the void left by Khoury’s departure-and it’s not one, but two junior college transfers. Nick Lowery is coming to the U after two seasons at Scottsdale Community College, where he hit .296 last year and was impressive on the mound as well, registering a 2.13 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 25 innings on the hill.

Lowery may be the Utes’ next starting shortstop-while the roster isn’t completely settled just yet, he’s the leading candidate for now.

“All those things work themselves out. Everybody’s got to earn it,” Kinneberg said. “But (Lowry) at this point, on paper, is the guy that needs to come in and fill that void at short.”

The other replacement, one who could prove perhaps even more valuable, is Mesa CC transfer Nate Burnham, a speedy outfielder who may take over in the leadoff spot.

“Nate can really run; he’s a good outfielder, so he’s got a chance to be a good leadoff hitter for us and really add some speed to our lineup,” Kinneberg said.

One thing the Swingin’ Utes have going for them is their returning starters. Though Khoury is gone, the potent middle of the lineup-including first-baseman Brossman, a three-time all-conference slugger-remains the same, and Kinneberg expects even bigger and better things from second-year starters Corey Shimada and Erich Kemp. All the veterans still in tow should only help along all the expected newcomers on the 2007 roster, which could number at least a dozen.

“We have approximately 12 new guys coming in at this point,” Kinneberg said. “You just hope that you replenish and get better athletes and better baseball players than the ones you’re losing.”

Jamison Brogdon