6/01/2007 – Daily News Record
Valley League Team’s Trademark May Be Fleet Feet Written By Brent Johnson Daily News Record HARRISONBURG — They’ve been practicing for less than a week and Thursday was the first time they even donned their bright red jerseys. But Bob Wease is already impressed with one key ingredient of the 2007 edition of his Harrisonburg Turks: "We’re going to have seven or eight kids that can flat-out fly," said Wease, the franchise’s owner and coach. One player runs the 60-yard dash in 6.3 seconds, Wease marveled. Two or three others clock in at 6.4 or 6.5, he said. That speed is the highlight of what Wease calls a more well-rounded Harrisonburg lineup as the Turks get ready for another season in the Valley League — a summer circuit featuring college players from across the country. Harrisonburg opens on the road today against the Staunton Braves at 7:30 p.m. at Moxie Stadium. It will be a rematch of last year’s South Division pennant series — which the Braves swept from the Turks. Staunton went on to lose to Luray in the Valley League championship series. But Wease, who has managed the franchise for five years, said last year’s team mostly relied on power. This year, he said, there are still four to five power guys, but the overall skill runs deeper. "It’s hard to judge them when you’ve only seen them three days," Wease said Thursday. "But I think we have better talent this year than what we had last year. … It’s very well-balanced this year." The team’s newfound quickness is the key component that Wease and his players kept mentioning Thursday, lounging around the concession stand at Memorial Stadium after practice was cancelled because of rain. The Turks finished 27-20 last summer, placing fifth in the VBL with a .261 team batting average and fourth with a 3.65 ERA. But they had only one threat on the base paths: Gary Martoccio, who had 11 stolen bases. No one else on the team had more than four steals. Wease singled out Patrick Norris — a 6-foot-2, 189-pound outfielder from Oklahoma City University — as the team’s most fleet of foot this season. He said Norris’ 6.3 time in the 60 is similar to a distinguished former Turk. "That’s what Juan Pierre runs it in," Wease said of the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder. And Norris — who finished second at Oklahoma City this spring with 19 steals in 26 tries — knows he isn’t alone on the Turks. Wease said other speedsters include Travis Peep of the University of Arizona and Jon Moore of Purdue, among others. "I’ve seen guys [here] that can put a lot of pressure on the defense on the basepaths," said Norris, a native of Pensacola, Fla. Each summer, the Valley League features a revolving door of college prospects, and the Turks return only four players from last year: shortstop Bobby Spain and first baseman David Dennis, both juniors at Oklahoma City University; pitcher Tim Wheeler of Troy University; and pitcher Jon Vallen of Potomac State. Spain was one of the top Turks in 2006, leading the team in batting average (.348, sixth in the VBL) to go along with three home runs and 24 RBIs. He hit .414 with 20 home runs for Oklahoma City this spring. Dennis hit .299 with three home runs and 27 RBIs last year for the Turks. He hit .372 with 14 home runs for Oklahoma City this spring. Another thing that makes Wease happy is the number of players he’s beginning the season with: He’s only missing eight out of the 28-man roster, with the rest set to arrive later. Last year, he started with only 13 players because of various conflicts. The result was an 0-6 start. Among the new talent, Wease is high on B.J. Wheeler, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound shortstop who played as a freshman this year at Clarendon College in his native Texas, and will play next spring at Oklahoma State. The Valley League is an avenue for college players to hone their skills and gain the attention of professional scouts, who are often in attendance. But the players made it clear that winning only helps. Hence, there’s a desire to get to that VBL title game the Turks missed out on last year and bring Harrisonburg its first league championship since 2000. This year, the VBL — which adds an 11th team this season, the Fauquier Gators — switches to a one-division format, with the top eight teams advancing to the playoffs. "That’s got to be the goal," Spain said of the team’s championship aspirations. "That’s the reason you play."