Rookie revolution: FIU baseball’s culture shift

A view of FIU's baseball mound from the stands. Photo courtesy of FIU Athletics.

Carla Mendez | Staff Writer

Under the watchful gaze of stadium lights that adorn the diamond’s structure in a soft glow, the FIU baseball team diligently prepares their bats as they swing into the new 2024 campaign.  

Coming off a 21-34 record in 2023, the Panthers look to build upon their positive habits from last season while still trying to establish a competitive identity into their new season 

Working hard to develop a consistent team performance, head coach Rich Witten expresses the significant individual development the team showed this off-season. 

“I felt a hunger for our team to get better on their own which is a really positive indicator of the team culture we are creating here,” he said in an interview with PantherNOW. 

“A Year in the Life” 

The 2023 baseball season marked Witten’s first year at the helm where he became the fifth coach in program’s history. Under his instruction, the team opened up an eight-game win streak early in the season and got off to an 11-6 start.

Starting the season strong against George Mason (Feb. 14-19, 2023), FIU claimed a 3-2 victory, which marked Witten’s first win as head of the program. Across all three games, the team registered 20 hits, with five going for extra bases and struck out 25 of the Patriot’s batters. 

Senior Ryne Guida along with Sanchez and Rosario, led their offensive strategy in the opening contest against the Missouri Tigers on Feb. 23-26, 2023. 

This golden trio would go on to continuously pull through scores for the Panthers. This marked the second time they defeated the Tigers since a 11-5 triumph in 2018.

The Panthers had a season high against the Harvard Pilgrims on March 3-5, 2023. FIU opened the four-game series by taking the game 4-3 on opening night and went on to win all remaining matches. 

Their single match against the Stetson Hatters (March 8, 2023) went down as the season’s most impressive victory as the Panthers secured a 5-0 winning score. 

The Panthers continued their streak through the three-game series until they were struck down by the Miami Hurricanes on March 16, 2023. 

This match against the Canes marked the last time the Panthers would host a team on home soil for the 2023 season.  FIU was unable to hold down the bases and lost 17-3. 

Opening C-USA play on the road against Dallas Baptist (March 17-19, 2023) saw the Panthers lose 10-8 in extra innings. FIU would claim the last match in this three-game series with a close 7-6 win, their first conference win of the season. 

Counting the CUSA play, the Panthers finished 1-2 in a three-game series against the FAU Owls, spanning from April 6-8, 2023. Heading into the series, FIU held a 13-17 all-time record against FAU and claimed a 16-2 victory.

Last we saw the FIU baseball team, they closed out the 2023 regular season within CUSA play, having a 10-7 hard-fought victory against a three game series with the Rice Owls, with the previous two games being a narrow loss. 

Veterans at the Bat 

“We’ve got a group full of people that really enjoy being around each other which is a great start,” said Witten about the 2024 season.  “And then a group of people that really enjoy and embrace the game in the day-to-day grind of it.”

The season poses as a compelling scene where we might see the ramifications from this “cultural shift” on the field. The dynamics should be interesting as the roster is made up of both young players and seasoned veterans. 

In discussing the roster composition, Witten articulated that, “A couple other returners that I think you’re going to see in a different light this year will be, especially on the mound, [are] Jackson Richie, Joel Pinera, and Owen Puck.” 

Redshirt sophomore Joel Pineiro, son of a professional baseball player of the same name, returns to the roster coming off of injuries from last year. 

“Pineiro had just finished and been released from Tommy John rehab last year and he was cleared medically”, said Witten.

His transformation has been significant and is sure to bring attention to his play as Witten continues, “I’m not sure he was the Joel Pinera that we are seeing right now, he’s taken another jump throughout this off-season.” 

Another veteran who suffered from the same injuries and is ready to give this season his all is junior Owen Puk. Witten expressed Puk to have been, “electric early on in his outings and he’s gonna be cleared to pitch opening weekend.” 

Senior Jackson Ritchey returns to the team ready to take his pitching play to the next level. Witten shared that Ritchey, “had a solid role on the staff last year but has had a great off-season, worked very very hard and someone that was looking to really explode this year.” 

On the mound, junior Kevin Martin returns to the Panthers ready to make history again. As Witten expressed, “he’s got returning some of the best statistics from a pitching standpoint that will make a big impact.” 

Fresh Meat 

Alongside their returning players, FIU introduced a varied and large class of players to the 2024 season and its roster. Positionally, on both the in and out-fields, the team is trying out different combinations to assure a steady competition play. 

Junior Alex Ulloa previously played for Miami Dade College with an impressive 0.263 hit on the season and 32-RBIs recorded. Also transferring from SCF is redshirt junior Brylan West, where he led the team with a 0.411 batting average and belted 10 home runs with 56-RBIs. 

For both these rookie Panthers, Witten expresses, “between Alex Ulloa and Brylan West they’re gonna be guys that are gonna be in the line-up every single day that I think are gonna be all conference type players.” 

All the way from Peosta, Iowa, junior Logan Runde posted a 6-0 record and 2.93 ERA back in Kirkwood Community College. Witten highlights his performance in the off-season and says, “Runde has really been someone who has separated himself as a pitcher that was a junior-college transfer that is going to make a big impact.” 

Upcoming Season Ambitions 

With every new campaign comes a new set of challenges and goals. This season, the FIU baseball team focuses on improving to championship level performance while simultaneously enduring a rigorous schedule with fortitude and tenacity.

Managing the performance of a predominantly new team will present another challenge for the coaching staff. 

Witten articulated the team’s objectives for the upcoming campaign and stated:  “I think continuing to learn what our best combination [of players] is to lead to the success on the field is very important to us early on.”

Finding the most effective combination of players will set the Panthers up for the elevated competitive play the team seeks to fulfill. “We certainly want to start off by winning championships.

He continued by saying, “we want to dominate in the conference USA tournament, which is preceded by conference USA regular season play.”

The strategy that seems to be preparing the team for conference play is the rigorous schedule that lies ahead. Witten explained and said, “not only is Conference USA one of the best college baseball conferences in the country, we’re going to play a very challenging out-of-conference schedule too.” 

The 2024 FIU baseball season is set to begin with a symphony of emotion, perseverance, and victory on the diamond. Every swing and audience cheer brings the game’s energy to life. 

Coach Witten encourages FIU students to engage and experience the joy of baseball for themselves and as he puts it, “enjoy a cold one at the ballpark.” 

The Panthers will start the campaign with a four-game series against the LIU Sharks on Feb.16-18 at the FIU Baseball Stadium. 

The match is set to begin at 6 p.m. and is available for streaming on ESPN+. 

Follow Carla Mendez on X: @carladfmendez

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