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UTE COACH OPTIMISTIC DESPITE POOR RECORD

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You have a small number of scholarships and a team made up mostly of local talent that didn't get a better offer. What do you do?

You lose 19 of your first 27 games.Not one to sidestep competition, Utah Coach Rick Sofield lined up a schedule of mostly strong Division I teams - some nationally ranked - and then hit the road for 27 straight games to open the baseball season.

The results were predictable. Utah's pitchers, who in some outings looked respectable, fell into disarray in far too many others. The team ERA is 7.62, which isn't good. But for Utah baseball it isn't unusual, either.

Regardless, Sofield remains optimistic that his team will be among the four WAC schools represented in the conference tournament in Honolulu May 17-19. Utah opens its home season with noon doubleheaders today and Saturday at Derks Field against Colorado State.

"I told the club, hey, I'm disappointed in some areas, but there's nothing but time and work ahead for us," says Sofield. "I'm more convinced than ever that when all is said and done, hey, we're heading for Honolulu."

If so, they're taking a milk-run flight to get there. Utah opened its WAC season two weeks ago in San Diego, losing four straight. It was a confusing performance, with Utah showing signs of light, but eventually losing all four games. The Utes led in the ninth inning of the first two games before losing 4-3 and 3-2. In the remaining two outings they were blitzed 10-4 and 18-9.

"I told my team I'm tired of should-haves and could-haves and would-haves," says Sofield. "The point is that some of us are supposed to step up and do something."

Most of the stepping up has been done by seniors Rob Beck and Jared Nye, who are the team's leading hitters at .388 and .355. A third player, infielder Mike Edwards, was batting .333 until he got into grade problems and was declared ineligible. Outfielder Brett Alvey, a junior, is hitting .329 and leading the team with five home runs.

Again this year the Utes rely heavily on pitcher Craig Sudbury in big games. He has been good enough to throw a three-hitter against San Diego (he lost anyway), yet is packing around a sorry 7.61 ERA. Sofield says an awful outing or two marred what has generally been a good spring. Sudbury has an impressive ratio of 36 strikeouts to 16 walks in 39 innings of pitching and a respectable 3-3 record. But he has also given up 45 hits and 34 runs in the same time.

"On a given day, Sudbury will beat anybody in America," says Sofield.

Freshman Mark Wankier needs only experience, says Sofield, and his 4.91 ERA is best on the team. Lefty Paul Barton, a former football backup quarterback, has a 5.95 ERA but has delivered 48 hits in 39 innings.

However, Sofield's problem isn't with the starters. It is with middle-relief help. He says junior Dave Littlewood (17.54 ERA), senior Derek Staley (11.86), junior Larry Murray (8.99) and freshman Jason Murdock (7.14) often haven't been able to keep the Utes close enough in the middle innings to be in a position to win at the end.

Hitting, too, hasn't been especially impressive. Utah has a team average of .285. "We're not swinging like we can," says Sofield. Senior Steve Sigloch, a career .325 hitter, is mired in a .205 slump, with no homers.

Still, with 24 WAC games left - including eight straight at home within the next week - Sofield is optimistic. "We're two games out of second place," he says. "Say we do some sweeping and pretty soon we're 4-4 and we'd be in second place. Two games is nothing in the WAC. We're good enough to compete with anybody else."

All Utah's games are scheduled to be played at Derks Field this year.