ORONO — There are some unknowns as the University of Maine baseball team prepares to embark on the 2011 season.
With sophomore Michael Fransoso sidelined after hip surgery, the Black Bears are relying on three first-year players to solidify the middle of the diamond.
Mike Connolly will step in as the starting shortstop, while Eric White of Brewer and Troy Black are expected to share duty at second base when coach Steve Trimper’s team opens the season Feb. 18 at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
“They’re very talented,” Trimper said during Tuesday’s practice at the Mahaney Dome. “What they bring is great legs as far as speed and getting to the balls with their footwork and they all have plus-plus (among the best) arms.”
Fransoso, who was UMaine’s starting second baseman last year, underwent surgery Jan. 5 to repair a partially torn labrum in his right hip. The procedure also included shaving down some bone that was causing cartilage damage.
“I think I’m a little bit ahead of schedule from where I thought I was going to be, which is good,” said Fransoso, who batted .300 with 30 RBIs and 16 stolen bases last season and had a .969 fielding percentage.
Trimper is holding out hope Fransoso, who had been moved to shortstop with the graduation of Tony Patane, might be able to return sometime next spring, though both are cautiously optimistic.
“(Monday) was the first day walking to class and doing everything without my crutches,” Fransoso said.
In the meantime, the Bears will lean on newcomers.
Connolly, a 6-foot, 175-pounder from Middleborough, Mass., is the only one playing his normal position. He had worked out at second base upon his arrival last fall, but moved back to short since the injury to Fransoso.
“I’ve had to work really hard,” Connolly said. “It’s a huge jump (to college). I’ve learned a lot, but it was an easier transition back to shortstop.”
Black and White will be used in some form of platoon, depending upon whether Trimper wants a lefthanded batter or a righty, respectively.
White (5-8, 180) is making the adjustment to second base after playing most of his career at Brewer High as a third baseman.
“It’s been a bit of a learning curve, but it’s coming along,” White said. “It’s (second base) actually a little easier, I think, because there’s more time to react to the ball and it’s a shorter throw.”
Black (6-1, 165) has been almost exclusively a shortstop, but is learning the finer points of playing on the other side of second base.
“Everything’s in reverse, like when you turn double plays,” he said. “We’re practicing almost every day, so you get used to it pretty quickly.”
Trimper has been impressed by the collective attitude and coachability of the freshman group, including newcomer Alex Calbick, who will be UMaine’s starting third baseman.
“They are one heck of a hardworking bunch,” Trimper said, “and not just working with me as a head coach, but with Michael Fransoso and Tony Patane.”
Patane, the starter at short the past two seasons, is now a volunteer assistant coach.
“He (Patane) comes to most of our practices, he was there all fall and he’s a great leader to learn from playing middle infield,” White said.
Trimper and the middle infield group agreed the most difficult part of incorporating three freshmen is developing double-play chemistry. That is especially true for the guys at second base.
One thing that should aid the middle infielders, regardless of who’s playing second, is the fact the Bears will play many of their games on artificial turf.
Connolly said the freshmen are blessed to be able to go through the transition experience together.
“I think it’s a lot easier because we’re all going at the same pace,” he explained. “It’s not like we’re jumping into a spot surrounded by seniors. It’s pretty much a freshman infield now and we’re all in the same boat.”
Trimper said that with a talented, deep pitching staff, UMaine should be able to work around an occasional error.
“The key for them, until Michael comes back and gives us a little more leadership, is just making routine plays,” Trimper said.