Canes Take First Step Toward Omaha

by David Villavicencio

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Nothing is normal in the world right now, but things finally have begun feeling like they usually do around this time of year on the corner of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and San Amaro Drive.

The Miami Hurricanes baseball team opened fall team practice this week, bringing together veterans and newcomers to work together towards their common goal of reaching the College World Series for the first time this semester.

“It’s definitely exciting to be back out here at The Light,” first baseman Alex Toral said. “There are a lot of new faces here, a lot of new guys to teach the ropes. It’s very interesting for us in the infield compared to the past couple of years because we don’t have that many returners. It’s just me, [Anthony] Vilar and [Raymond] Gil, so we’re just showing the new guys around and kind of getting them used to how things are going to be here.”

The Canes have been back on campus since the fall semester began in August, but Miami has been limited to working in small groups for the last two months due to COVID-19 protocols.

“It’s just all about adjustments. In this game of baseball, everything’s about adjustments,” Toral said. “COVID caused us to adjust the schedule that we have for lifts and for practice not being out here with the coaches as early as we would have in a normal year and not being in the weight room with [strength coach] H.R. [Powell] like we usually have been, but we’re trying to make the most out of it. We’re out here early, we’re doing extra stuff that we haven’t done in the past and hopefully, it pays off.”

Right-hander Daniel Federman is entering his fourth year at The U and is the veteran leader of Miami’s pitching staff. The Pembroke Pines, Fla., native is glad to be back working with all of his teammates again and focused on building chemistry among the group of 38 players.  

“It’s awesome to just be back together again,” Federman said. “This is probably the longest, I’d say, any of us who have been healthy haven’t been on the field with the team doing team practices and taking live reps. We need to start building the team chemistry that you’re not getting because we’re not in the locker room, but it’ll come quickly. We’ve got a good group of guys and with the coaches’ experience I think that we’ll get it really quick.”

Building camaraderie as a team is a bit more challenging than normal this season. Due to social distancing, Miami’s baseball locker room is not available to its players. But veterans like Federman and Toral have made sure to begin creating bonds throughout the team despite the unusual circumstances.

“We’re not in the locker room yet, so that’s another level of camaraderie and team environment that we really can’t get a feel for yet,” Toral said. “But being out here under the grandstands, it’s huge because you get to talk to people. Even though you’ve got to wear your mask, you get to know guys and mess around with each other and that helps build bonds as a team. Then getting out on the field, you get to show the young guys how we work and what they need to do as they make the transition into college, but at the same time we’re teaching them the ropes and they’ll get it pretty quick.”

While adjustments have been made by players and coaches alike, fans will also have to change their fall routine this fall. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the University of Miami protocols in place to keep student-athletes, coaches and staff safe, practices are closed to the public.

“I think everyone’s on the same page, we all want to play,” Federman added. “We’re all taking as many precautions as we can and staying healthy. Our guys are being really good about once they leave the field, they’re going home. We’re hanging out with just each other and not going out. We’re all excited to be back playing baseball together and we want to keep that going.”

For head coach Gino DiMare, a return to the field is a huge sense of normalcy. After his second season at the helm of the Hurricanes was cut short due to the pandemic, DiMare is thrilled to be back on a baseball diamond with his team.

“We are used to being able to be out here with the guys as a group, it’s the longest we’ve ever been without that,” DiMare said. “It’s basically been seven months since we’ve last been together as a team. It feels good and feels normal to be back together on the field again. We’re so happy and we’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. I’m just excited to be around the guys and the coaches and drawing up a practice and meeting with the coaches and the staff like we do daily and being out here with the players. This is what we do. This is our livelihood, but it’s also what we love to do so, it’s just great to finally get back together after so many months apart.”

“I think everyone's on the same page, we all want to play. We're all taking as many precautions as we can and staying healthy."

Right-handed pitcher Daniel Federman

The return of team practice means a lot more than just hitting, pitching, defense and base running. Much like spring training prepares pros for the MLB season, fall ball is a chance for the Hurricanes to work on fundamentals and get familiar with playing together again.

“It’s good to get to work together as a team,” Federman said. “You’ve got to get on the same page with bunt defenses and picks and all the little things you’d think come naturally, but when you go full speed and go game speed, there are some connection issues that you’ve got to work out within the first few weeks. I think we’re doing a good job. We looked really good today and I’m excited to see what these guys got.”

“The young guys are getting it pretty good, so far,” Toral added. “The pitchers are finally getting mixed in with the hitters and we didn’t get to do that early in the fall. We’re seeing how they work, how the new guys look, and they get to see how team practice looks. The big thing is communication. We’ve got to talk to each other and build a team chemistry that we need to in order to be a successful team this year.”

Now that team practice has officially started, DiMare expects his team to take the next step in development ahead of the 2021 season.

“We’ve got to get in baseball shape,” DiMare said. “We’ve conditioned and we’ve lifted and we’ve done individual work, but once you get out here as a team and start doing things as a team, it’s a little bit different. The conditioning is a little bit different now that our guys have got their baseball pants on and they’re in their gear and they’re catching bullpens and the pitchers are throwing. We’re running the bases on the dirt for the first time and, as a player, your gear goes up a little bit.

“As coaches, we’re trying to work our way into it and we don’t want to jump too far ahead of ourselves. We’re aware of that and we want to make sure we don’t get anybody hurt in terms of that, but we are still out here working,” DiMare continued. “The last couple of practices were a few hours and today we went for about three hours and the practices have been good. You could tell that they’re working hard. The conditioning factor kicks in a little bit, but they’ve been working through it and it’s been really good.”

Miami will get its first taste of competition this Friday, as the Hurricanes will hold their first scrimmage of the fall. Scrimmages will factor greatly in how DiMare and his coaching staff determine roles on the 2021 team.

“At the end of the day, you want to see them play,” DiMare said. “We need practice and we’ve got a lot to work on, there’s no doubt, but we’re looking forward to seeing guys play. We’ve got a lot of new guys – a lot of highly touted guys – here and we’d like to see how they play in this environment. We’ve got a lot of good returning players so, we’d like to see how these hitters face some of our really good pitchers and vice versa and see how they play the game instinctively.

“As a coach, you’ve already been thinking in your mind about what you have as a team when you’re doing the skill work and you’re doing those individual things, but you really don’t know until you play the game,” DiMare added. “We’ll have a good amount of intrasquads so we’ll be able to evaluate these guys.”

While Miami’s scrimmages go a long way toward determining who the starting nine will be when the season begins, they also provide a heightened level of competition for the Canes to thrive on.

“Iron sharpens iron and we’ve got a bunch of new guys who are really motivated,” Toral said. “They’re highly-touted, but they’re not just coming in thinking they’re on top of the world. These young guys that are supposed to be good are out here working and they’re getting in extra swings. They’re motivating the upperclassmen and we’re motivating them, so it’s huge to be able to push each other and compete as a group.”

“The leadership is going to be as good as we've had here in a long time. A lot of our veterans are back from the team last year and I know a lot of them are very hungry because of how last season ended."

Head coach Gino DiMare

The Canes bring back 16 returners from a 2020 team that many expected to contend for a national championship. With unfinished business fueling their desire, DiMare expects those veterans to help set the tone of this year’s club.

“The leadership is going to be as good as we’ve had here in a long time,” DiMare said. “A lot of our veterans are back from the team last year and I know a lot of them are very hungry because of how last season ended. Everybody’s unhappy that they got their seasons taken away but the teams that really felt like they had a chance are probably feeling a little extra motivation right now.

“I’ve had a number of college coaches come up to me and say, ‘I feel really bad for you guys.’ And I’m like, ‘Why so bad for us?’ And it’s because they thought that we had a chance to go all the way,” DiMare added. “You work hard to get a team like that and it doesn’t come around every single year. We obviously want to try to have it every year, but those special teams don’t happen every year. So, to lose out on that, it hurts even a little bit more. Our guys feel that, so there’s a sense of a little bit more hungriness with the veteran guys.”

The 22 newcomers add talent and depth, in addition to daily competition, to the 2021 Hurricanes. DiMare and his coaching staff are eager to see how the newest Hurricanes respond this fall.

“I really like our rookie guys’ makeup. We’ve got some talented guys but I’m very impressed so far with the character of the guys, the work ethic of the guys and their attitudes,” DiMare said. “The true test now will be when we play and they face some adversity. I’ve been telling them this a number of times, ‘That’s when I want to see how you guys act.’ We haven’t had any adversity and we’re just practicing. Now you’re going to play, now you going to strike out, you might give up a home run or you might walk a guy, make an error. How do you handle yourself then? I think we have the right guys that can handle that, but we’re going to find out.”

Every year, the beginning of fall baseball at Miami means one thing: the Hurricanes are taking their first step towards Omaha – home of the College World Series.

“Absolutely, this is the first step,” DiMare said. “It’s been talked about in our Zoom meetings and we’ve had many of them. Our guys understand what we’re trying to do here at Miami. Our goal is obviously to get to Omaha and give ourselves a chance to win a national championship. They know it’s been a long time since we’ve won it and I know our guys are hungry to do that. We’ve got a long way to go, so does every other team in the country. You’re not going to win it today or tomorrow. I just want to make sure we don’t waste any practices and we’re getting better every day. With the talent that we have here, there’s no reason why, if we do that every day, we could be one of those teams at the end standing.”