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Can pitching hurl Eagles to Omaha?
Georgia Southern pitcher Evan Challengers faces off against Radford at J. I. Clements Stadium.

The Georgia Southern baseball squad was one of a handful of Eagle teams to see a bump in production in their second season competing in the Sun Belt last spring. Head coach Rodney Hennon’s team turned in a 36-24 performance and - after taking a few lumps during a 16-14 mark in league play - caught fire in the Sun Belt tournament, making it all the way to the championship game.
    As with most teams, the new season is all about taking the next step.
    “You always want to improve and, ultimately, Omaha is always the goal,” Hennon said “Right now, we’re excited about the guys we have coming back as we get ready for a new season. We’ve played a lot of baseball over the summer and fall and I think some guys have taken some big steps forward.”
    Georgia Southern begins its 2017 season Friday as Middle Tennessee State comes to J.I. Clements Stadium for a three-game series.
    Here’s what fans can expect to see from the newest edition of the Eagles.
Whether it was the first inning or down to the final out, Georgia Southern typically enjoyed an advantage on the mound last season.
    In his second season removed from Tommy John surgery, Evan Challenger continued to be a steady force as the Friday night starter, going 7-5 with a 3.05 ERA while leading the team with 77 strikeouts to just 24 walks.
    While Challenger performed as expected, it was a pair of freshmen who stepped up to give the Eagles depth. Chase Cohen and Brian Eichhorn combined to start 28 games and often looked more like grizzled veterans than first-year starters. Cohen posted a 2.66 ERA and was nearly untouchable when he had his best stuff as opponents batted .199 against him.
    Eichhorn got the most run support of any Eagle starter, helping him to a 6-2 record. But by the end of the season, he didn’t need much help. Eichhorn allowed just one earned run over his final 23.2 innings pitched, including a complete game in the regular season finale and 7.1 shutout innings in the Sun Belt tournament semifinals.
    “We feel really good about our options with guys who can start for us,” Hennon said. “We tell our guys that we don’t want them saving anything. We want our starters to empty the tank because we’ve got plenty of arms behind them.”
    Opponents won’t be breathing any easier once the starters are out of the game.
    Landon Hughes ended the season as one of the Sun Belt’s top closers and showed his versatility when weather messed with the Eagles’ tournament schedule and Hughes was sent to the mound to ‘start’ a postponed game that picked up in the third inning. All the hard-throwing righty did was throw seven no-hit innings in a GS win.
    “A big part of our approach is to keep all of our pitchers versatile,” Hennon said. “Obviously, we saw that with what Landon was able to do. The goal is to have any of our guys comfortable coming into any situation.”
    Leading up to Hughes, Ryan Frederick, Adam Kelly, Anthony Paesano and Connor Simmons all return to the bullpen after each made at least 23 appearances in 2016.
The Eagles were the definition of a small ball offense last season.
    Georgia Southern finished next to last in the Sun Belt in all three “slash line” categories (batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage). They were next to last in hits and finished tied at the bottom of the league standings with just 30 home runs.
    But what was lacking in explosiveness was made up for in part with efficiency. The Eagles led the Sun Belt in sacrifice bunts and were second in stolen bases. It didn’t make for head-turning line scores, but taking an extra base multiple times per game made a difference as the Eagles won 12 games in which they scored below their average of 5.6 runs per game.
    The batting order figures to remain mostly the same as third base is the only position that doesn’t feature a returning and proven veteran. Though the familiar faces didn’t provide much pop last season, the Eagles are hoping that another offseason of training will show.
    “We take pride in being able to execute and do the little things well,” Hennon said. “At the same time, it never hurts to have some bigger bats. The goal is to stay effective when we run and bunt, but there is also an emphasis on being a little more balanced with what we can do at the plate.”
    The featured piece of the lineup will be Ryan Cleveland. The senior first baseman hit half of the team’s home runs and tied for the league lead as he cleared the fence 15 times. Cleveland is often avoided by opposing pitchers, but if Jordan Wren can continue the flashes of power he showed late in the season and Evan MacDonald can continue to set the table in front of him, Cleveland will once again be an intimidating force.
    Georgia Southern still features speed over power throughout most of the batting order, but just a few more extra base hits could easily increase the run totals this spring.
With the Eagles figuring to have plenty of pitching talent, the key will be to clean up the rest of opposing at-bats when the ball is put into play. That job is (literally) a bigger one this season. Recently completed renovations at J.I. Clements Stadium have pushed the outfield walls back by an average of about 10 feet.
    Most of the extra coverage work will come from the outfield and there aren’t too many stadiums out there that can pose much trouble for the Eagles. Logan Baldwin, C.J. Ballard and Wren had 34 steals between them last season. After some early hiccups, the trio developed into a black hole for balls seemingly headed for the gap.
    And it wasn’t just the outfield. The Eagles as a whole struggled to stay out of the error column in 2014 and misplayed balls in crucial moments led to a few early losses last season. But things tightened up down the stretch as the Eagles made one or no errors in 16 of their final 19 games and committed just one error in four games at the Sun Belt tournament.

No season is easy to predict and — with 56 games to be played — baseball might be the toughest in which to take a peek into the future. Two things are for sure though; the Eagles have high expectations and some even higher hurdles to clear.
    The Sun Belt has been a strong baseball conference over the last few seasons and gets even tougher this spring with the addition of Coastal Carolina, which was last seen celebrating its national championship in Omaha last June. Aside from the Chanticleers, UL Lafayette enters 2017 as the defending conference champions while South Alabama joins Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina in a loaded East division after securing an at-large NCAA regional bid last season.
    The Eagles also continue their tradition of playing a challenging non-conference slate as they take on Georgia, Georgia Tech, Mercer and College of Charleston among others.
    There won’t be many easy wins on the schedule and the Eagles will need every bit of their pitching depth and strength to post another solid record. If an NCAA regional or more is the ultimate goal, the bats will have to play a bigger role this season.
    EAGLES’ FATE — 39-15 regular season. Second place in Sun Belt East. No. 3 seed at-large bid to NCAA regional.

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