BETHLEHEM, Pa. – With the 2012 Lehigh baseball season less than a month away, head coach Sean Leary and the Mountain Hawks are set to play one of their toughest schedules in program history. Lehigh’s 2012 slate is highlighted by the program’s first-ever trip to California where Lehigh will play eight games including three at No. 22 Cal which advanced to the second round of the 2011 College World Series.
"It’s really exciting for the kids in our program," Leary said. "We are going to be playing in some beautiful stadiums against some outstanding competition which will certainly make us better. It’s not just a baseball opportunity but it will be a great experience for them culturally and a great opportunity for our alumni on the West Coast to see us play, many of whom haven’t seen us before."
The Mountain Hawks will kick off their season in Davidson, N.C. on February 24 at 5 p.m. against Davidson. Lehigh will play two games against host Davidson and two against Fairleigh Dickinson over that weekend.
"One of the reasons we go to Davidson and travel is because we not only want to challenge our guys on the field, but off the field as well," Leary said. "We want them to get used to getting up in a hotel, having an early breakfast and getting their schedule and routine down. Knowing how to do that and preparing on the road is so crucial especially later in the year during Patriot League play."
The Mountain Hawks will then head to Princess Anne, Md. to take on the University of Maryland Eastern Shore for two games on February 29.
With six games under its belt, Lehigh will get set for its eight-game trip to California. The Mountain Hawks will kick off the West Coast swing on March 3 at the nationally-ranked No. 22 California Golden Bears which advanced to the second round of the College World Series last season. At the end of the season, Cal had been ranked as high as No. 11 in the nation while this year’s squad features a pair of Preseason All-Americans.
It will be Lehigh’s first game against a nationally-ranked opponent since the Mountain Hawks opened their 2009 season against No. 30 Southern Mississippi which ended up playing in the College World Series that season. Lehigh kicked off its 2008 slate at No. 17 Virginia and later that season faced No. 6 Miami which advanced to the second round of the 2008 College World Series.
"This isn’t the first time we’ve played a Top 20 team in a three-game series; we’ve challenged ourselves on a number of occasions against a bigger name school so that doesn’t intimidate our kids," Leary said. "They look at it as an opportunity to show who we are. To be honest, we don’t have a whole lot to lose so in a lot of ways, you get the challenge to play up while having the opportunity to show people who Lehigh baseball is."
Lehigh will face Cal for one game on March 3 and two more the following day. The Mountain Hawks will face San Jose State on March 5 at San Jose. Lehigh will have a couple days off before travelling to Santa Clara, Calif. to take on San Jose State on March 8, Utah on March 9 and Santa Clara that same day. The Mountain Hawks will travel back to San Jose to face Columbia for one game on March 10 to cap off the trip.
Lehigh enters the 2012 season with 12 freshmen in the mix after graduating a veteran group. Because Leary will have a larger group then he is used to whom are adjusting to Division I collegiate baseball, he is hoping that the California trip will also serve as a teaching lesson about being mentally tough and how to handle not just success, but adversity as well.
"A lot of what we are going to gauge as coaches is how resilient we are when we hit those thoug moments and they will come," Leary said. "The question will be how quickly do we work through them and grow from them? We are really going to rely on our upperclassmen to lead the way in getting the younger guys ready for those games. With a big win or tough loss, coaches can try to help the younger player but we really need our older guys to step up in hotels, locker rooms and bus rides. Our older group have been in those situations before and will definitely need to be leaders on and off the field."
After the great experience in California, the Mountain Hawks will return to action back on the East Cast on March 13 at Coppin State followed by a game at Delaware State the next day.
Lehigh will return to Goodman Campus for its home opener for a four-game series vs. Iona on March 17 and 18. After Lehigh travels to take on Saint Joseph’s on March 20, the Mountain Hawks are back at home for another four-game series on March 24-25 with Binghamton.
Both the Iona and Binghamton series’ will provide the same format in which Patriot League games are played which will serve as a way to get the young Mountain Hawks used to a four-game series over two days.
Before Lehigh kicks off its Patriot League schedule, the Mountain Hawks will host a Liberty Bell Classic game on March 27 against a team still to be determined. Lehigh is guaranteed two games in the Classic (the second is on the road TBA on April 3) with the Championship Game being held at Citizens Bank Park. The Mountain Hawks have had great success in Classic games, appearing in five finals with their lone Classic Championship coming in 2004.
Lehigh will begin its Patriot League schedule hosting rival Lafayette on March 31 for two games and two more the following day. The Mountain Hawks kick off its league slate with the Leopards for the first time since 2003. The two teams split the four-game series last season in Easton.
After Lehigh hosts Delaware State on April 4, the Mountain Hawks will continue its Patriot League schedule with a series at Army on April 7-8.
Lehigh will have another non-league game, hosting Scranton on April 10 before going back on the road for a four-game set at Bucknell on April 14-15.
Eight road games in back-to-back weekends are where Leary is planning on the trip to Davidson and especially to California will pay dividends. The freshmen won’t be freshmen anymore by that point as they will have 25-30 games under their belt and used to playing in front of big crowds against good teams.
The Mountain Hawks will have a pair of non-League games as Lehigh faces Coppin State, this time at home, on April 17th and then will travel to take on Penn on April 18.
Lehigh will have its final home regular season series April 21-22 against Holy Cross and after hosting Franklin and Marshall for one game on April 25, the Mountain Hawks will play their final series of the regular season at reigning Patriot League Champion Navy.
"The Patriot League is always tough and competitive every year," Leary said. "Especially this year, I really believe there is no clear cut favorite. There is a lot of parity in the league and it’s anyone’s for the taking. Our non-league schedule is very tough and we do that so we are battle tested and ready come league play."
Of the Mountain Hawks’ five league series, three are on the road as is the case every other year. Lehigh has had tremendous success in those years. The Mountain Hawks have made the playoffs in four out of the past five seasons (2002, 2004, 2006, 2010) in which they have more League road games including a Patriot League Championship in 2006.
And Lehigh will be looking for a similar result in 2012.