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Finding funding

That the Pitt baseball team is headed to the Big East tournament is quite an achievement, considering the obstacles the Panthers have overcome.

For one, Pitt bounced back from an 0-8 start to finish fourth in Big East play, despite losing two talented juniors to the Major League Baseball early entry draft last June. Second baseman Jim Negrych was taken in the sixth round by the Pirates and pitcher Billy Muldowney went in the eighth round to the Chicago Cubs.

“I can’t imagine how good we’d be if they had come back,” Pitt coach Joe Jordano said, “but I’m happy for them because they’re living out a dream.”

Losing juniors to the draft has become commonplace in major-college baseball, but Pitt isn’t your typical major-college baseball program. Jordano mentioned in passing that the Panthers aren’t a “fully funded” program. They receive only 8.5 scholarships a year, three-plus below the NCAA maximum (11.7), to fill out their roster.

That means Jordano splits scholarships into percentages, with some players receiving half tuition and others covering the cost of books. It’s not much, but sometimes enough to entice a talented player to walk on.

“You can’t recruit depth,” Jordano said.

Imagine the difficulties Pitt’s football program would have if it only received 80 of the allowed 85 scholarships.

Baseball was one of the sports that scored lowest across the board in the latest academic progress rate (APR) reports, and new NCAA legislation is only going to make Jordano’s job more challenging. Baseball programs aren’t going to be allowed to divide scholarships to less than 33 percent and players who transfer from one Division I program to another will have to sit out a season.

The Panthers have benefited from transfers. In fact, if such a rule were previously in place, Pitt’s leading hitter – redshirt freshman Gary Bucuren, a Kentucky transfer – would be ineligible this season.

Pitt’s Quest for Excellence fundraising campaign could mend some of the troubles. If the school can raise enough capital for the baseball program to become fully funded, the additional three scholarships can be divided to account for as many as six to nine more players.

That would alleviate some of Pitt’s depth issues. When Bucuren injured his wrist, it affected the Panthers on several levels. Not only did they lose their top hitter (Bucuren had a .319 average), but their No. 3 batter and starting third baseman. They had to switch starting second baseman Dan Williams (hitting .293) to third and put reserve Brian Muldowney (.176) in at second.

The Panthers went 7-5 in Bucuren’s absence. Four more wins would have been good for third place, giving Pitt a higher seed in the Big East tourney.

One thing that should help Pitt’s recruiting efforts is last week’s announcement of a $1 billion facilities plan that includes a new baseball field, to be built on Robinson Court near the Cost Center. Now, when the baseball season ends, the retractable right-field wall is removed so that the soccer teams and band can practice there. As a result, the Panthers’ fall practice schedule varies.

“We don’t look at it as an obstacle,” Jordano said. “We never use it as an excuse.”

Soon, the baseball program will have its own stadium to entice recruits. New facilities have helped Pitt’s basketball and football programs. Now, the school is focusing on long overdue facilities for its “Olympic” sports of baseball, softball, soccer and track and field.

“We love playing here,” Jordano said of Trees Field, “but when you get the opportunity to get something brand-new and state-of-the-art, it’s nice.”

When Pitt baseball is fully funded, it will be even nicer.

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