Youth in certain spots reminds Pierce of successful Rice team

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Mention the year 2005 around Longhorn fans and you’ve caught their attention.

For Texas head coach David Pierce, 2005 means something a little different. He was in his third season as an assistant on Wayne Graham’s Rice staff and the Owls were coming off a year in which they failed to advance past the NCAA Regionals.

Fifteen years later Pierce sees similarities between those 2005 WAC champion Owls that eventually fell to Tulane in the deciding game of the New Orleans Super Regional and the 2020 Longhorns.

“This is a fun group so far,” Pierce said January 24. “They’re working. They’re sponges. They want to get better. They want to be great. They’re going to learn.”

“We’re going to have to go through some things to really understand the intensity of our schedule and playing at this level, but I really like it.”

Pierce said up to five freshmen, including eventual WAC Player of the Year Joe Savery, started on that 2005 team. While there may not be that large of a youth movement in Austin, there are several positions where freshmen could be expected to make an immediate impact in 2020.

For the second straight season, the Longhorns’ starting middle infielders could be freshman. Lance Ford started 40 of 48 games at second base in 2019, and Bryce Reagan was thrust into the shortstop spot following David Hamilton’s season-ending Achilles injury. Reagan struggled both in the field and at the plate and was eventually replaced by senior utility man Masen Hibbeler before entering the NCAA Transfer Portal.

“It’s interesting anytime you consider starting two freshmen in the middle, you always have to be prepared for some setbacks,” Pierce said. “Their mentality is so good. They’re going to have to learn, and they’re not a slam dunk that they’re going to start but Trey Faltine and Brenden Dixon are made right. They’re really good ballplayers, and they want to get better and become a great team.”

Faltine, a 39th round selection in the 2019 MLB Draft out of Fort Bend Travis, has the inside track on shortstop ahead of fellow freshman Murphy Stehly and junior college transfer Cam Williams. Dixon, a product of Argyle High School, is battling for second base with Ford.

Though Texas could start freshman up the middle once again, Pierce believes the situation is different. Hamilton’s loss was unexpected, and Reagan wasn’t quite prepared for the role he was forced to take on. This year, the possibility of two freshmen up the middle didn’t come as a surprise, and Pierce believes the two leading candidates can live up to the demands of each position.

“I just think the thing that you see with both Dixon and Faltine is they both play at a very high level,” Pierce said. “They’ve won a lot of high school games, but they played in a lot of showcase-type games that matter, and I think that’s meaningful.”

Another freshman, two-way player Andre Duplantier, was a leading candidate to take the starting third base spot. However, he recently had surgery on a fractured hamate bone and Pierce said he is likely out until around the beginning of the season. Without Duplantier, Ford, Williams, or Stehly all are in contention for the position Pierce calls his “biggest concern right now.”

No matter who starts at second, short, or third, the first base position belongs to Zach Zubia.

Rather than participate in a summer wood bat league, Zubia chose to “commit to his body” over the summer and “came back to start at first base,” according to Pierce.

With Zubia at first, a spot for another bat opens at designated hitter. Freshman outfielder Douglas Hodo has drawn high praise from the coaches, but two seniors in Duke Ellis and Austin Todd and a pre-season All-Big 12 selection in Eric Kennedy are ahead of him at the three outfield spots.

The coaches believe Hodo is good enough to play from Day 1, and he might do that at DH. “I’d like to see us be able to use all four of those kids in that capacity,” Pierce said of his outfield pool.

DJ Petrinsky returns after a medical redshirt season for a shoulder injury. His presence adds another veteran bat, and a dependable backstop at catcher Texas sorely lacked all of last season.

With the exception of first base and the outfield, each position battle between the young options should remain open until Texas starts the season, coincidentally, at Rice on February 14.

The public will be able to see how those competitions are faring at the annual Alumni Game on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.