February 20 - Two of his pitchers were taken in last June’s Major League Draft and he graduated his top run producer and one of the best defensive shortstops in program history. But for Bill Brown, the goal remains the same as he enters his 38th season as the coach at George Mason.
A trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.
“At the end last year, we were very close, quite honestly, to playing in a regional,” Brown said. “We figured it out, what you need to do to have success, to win and be that team that is right there. And that’s carried over.”
The Patriots bounced back from losing their first eight games in 2018 to advance to the Atlantic-10 Conference championship game. They lost that game to St. Louis and finished 29-27, falling just short of an eighth NCAA Tournament appearance under Brown.
Then two junior right-handers, Zach Mort and Bryce Nightengale, were selected in the eighth and 16th round, respectively, joining experienced regulars Michael Smith, Tyler Nelin and Trevor Kelly as voids George Mason would have to fill in 2019. Mort was a second-team all-league pick after going 6-3 with a 2.48 ERA and 108 strikeouts to 13 walks in 105.1 innings, while Smith graduated as one of the Patriots’ most-accomplished shortstops and had 206 career hits, Nelin was a second-team all-conference pick and Kelly had team-highs of nine home runs and 48 RBI.
“We knew that there was a good chance we were going to lose Zach, and then Bryce came on last year,” Brown said. “And as juniors, it’s tough to absorb that in a program like ours.”
George Mason was picked to finish fifth by the Atlantic-10 coaches, and Brown understands why. “You look at what we lost - two junior pitchers in the draft - and your first question is, ‘How are they going to replace those guys?’ And we lost some good position players. But every year is a different year, and we’ll see how things play out. Those things don’t bother me.”
One of the keys to absorbing the loss of Mort and Nightengale will be junior right-hander Jared DiCesare (Chantilly), who emerged as the team’s third starter last spring and then put together an All-Star summer campaign in the Cape Cod League. DiCesare went 6-5 with a 3.33 ERA and just 15 walks in 83.2 innings last year, and is expected to slide seamlessly into the role as George Mason’s Friday night starter.
Also back in the rotation is senior lefty Brian Marconi, who has logged 203.1 innings and 38 starts in his career and has 12 wins over the past two seasons. Brown said sophomore Austin Cabone should be the third weekend starter, though he begins the season on the shelf while recovering from a minor back injury. Two freshmen, Nick Zegna and lefty Nate Young, could bounce between the rotation and the bullpen.
A third first-year pitcher, Patrick Halligan (Marshall), is expected to be the club’s weekday starter.
“We have Jared, we have Brian Marconi, two seasoned veteran guys and we’ll find that right guy to be the third guy on the weekends,” Brown said. “Our young guys are going to play a big part, and if one of them becomes a starter on the weekend, then so be it.”
Once Cabone returns - Brown expects him to be back soon - Zegna and Young will join a bullpen that will include junior college transfer James Beasley as well as three additional freshmen - Jared Lyons (West Springfield), Mason Posey (Brentsville District) and Stuart Barrett.
“One of our keys for success this year is how quickly our freshmen pitchers come along, and how well they pitch for us, quite honestly,” Brown said. “It’s critical that the freshmen that came in were able to pitch right away, and pitch in high-leverage situations.
“That really is the story for us.”
Much of the attention of opposing pitchers will again be focused on catcher Logan Driscoll, a first-team all-league selection after hitting .342 with 19 extra-base hits and 37 RBI as a sophomore last year. The Lake Braddock graduate has also garnered the attention of Major League scouts and could be the highest Patriots player drafted since another catcher, Chris Widger, was taken in the third round by Seattle in 1992.
Joining Driscoll in the middle of the order will be senior third baseman Greg Popatak, who hit .282 with a .408 on-base percentage and 21 extra-base hits last spring. Similar production from the Pennsylvania native would force teams to go after Driscoll rather than pitching around Baseball America’s preseason A-10 Player of the Year.
Sliding over to shortstop will be senior Alejandro Aponte, who had been the program’s starting second baseman since early in his freshman season and carries a .975 career fielding percentage. “Alejandro is an elite defensive player, so it wasn’t ever going to be an issue with him moving to shortstop,” Brown said. “The only reason he didn’t play there was, one, he was so good as second base, and two, we had Michael Smith playing short as well as we’ve ever had anybody play it.”
Taking Aponte’s former post at second base will be sophomore Daniel Brooks (Spotsylvania), who hit .227 with 18 RBI in 110 at-bats last year. Slick fielding senior Tim Smith will be the opening day starter at first base. All four infielders swing left-handed.
The outfield will be anchored by fifth-year senior Brady Acker, the talented leadoff man who has had two of his past three seasons shortened by injuries but is healthy entering his final campaign in Fairfax. “To have Brady back and to have him healthy is a huge boost to what we’re trying to do,” Brown said of Acker, who hit .282 with four homers and 20 RBI in 34 games. “He’s an unbelievably-talented player who unfortunately has been sidetracked with some injuries throughout his career.”
The Patriots are likely to have a handful of players platoon at the corner outfield spots that were manned last season by Nelin and Kelly. Included in that mix will be sophomore Scott Morgan (Woodbridge), senior Bailey Klein, junior college transfer Cam Reckling and Lyons, a two-way player who is an infielder by trade.
“We wanted to get Jared on the field, and it was like, ‘You know what, this kid is an athlete, so let’s get him out there and give him a chance in the outfield for a couple days’,” Brown said “The outfield will be where we have a lot of flexibility, we’ll rotate a lot of guys through there.”
George Mason Patriots
2018 Record: 29-27 overall, 16-8 conference
Head Coach: Bill Brown, 38th year (1,026-945-7)
Assistants: Brian Pugh, Tag Montague, Tyler Nelin, Ryan Ricci
Key Losses: RHP Zach Mort; RHP Bryce Nightengale; SS Michael Smith; OF Tyler Nelin; OF Trevor Kelly
Top Returners: C Logan Driscoll; RHP Jared DiCesare; 3B Greg Popatak; OF Brady Acker; SS Alejandro Aponte; LHP Brian Marconi
Photo of Brady Acker courtesy of George Mason Athletics