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Back on the diamond
Georgia catcher Brett DeLoach, top, stretches for a throw to home as Georgia Southern's Chase Griffin slides for a score off a base hit by teammate Garren Palmer during the first inning at J.I. Clements Stadium in this Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 file photo. Georgia Southern won two out of three games in the 2013 season-opening series against the Bulldogs, including an 11-2 victory in the finale. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/file

Season Opener

Georgia Southern at Georgia

Saturday, Noon (DH); Sunday, 1 p.m.

RADIO: 106.5 FM, 103.7 FM

    Georgia Southern’s 2013 baseball season couldn't have gone any better.
    Or any worse.
    The season started with series wins over Georgia and Xavier and individual wins over Florida, Indiana and Georgia Tech.
    When the Eagles started the Southern Conference schedule with a series win over Samford and sweeps of Wofford and Davidson, they sat at 16-7, 8-1 in the SoCon and cracked the Top 25, earning a No. 22 ranking.
    Then it all fell apart.
    The Eagles lost 23 of their last 30 games and fell off the map, before closing the season on a run to the SoCon semifinals, where they lost to Elon.
    “It was a roller coaster,” GSU coach Rodney Hennon said. “Out of the gate we played at a high level, and then we had a stretch where it seemed like everybody slumped at the same time. I was proud of the way they played in the tournament and left it all out there after a disappointing season. We were all disappointed, players and coaches, and we’ve got to go out there with a chip on our shoulder.”
    The Eagles open the 2014 season at Georgia, beginning with a doubleheader on Saturday. First pitch is at noon.
    The only sure thing about the 2014 Eagles is that there are an awful lot of new faces.
    Defensively, the only familiar faces will be Ben Morgan, who has played all over the infield and will start the season at second base, catcher Chase Griffin and Hunter Thomas of Garren Palmer, whoever gets the nod in left field.
    Everybody else will suit up at GSU for the first time.
    One thing the Eagles were lacking in 2013 was power. First baseman Ryan Cleveland,and third baseman Garrett Chapman, both freshmen, and junior-college transfer Aaron Mizell in right field each bring big frames and the potential for the long ball.        Cleveland — a big target at first with a 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame — hit .427 with 16 homers as a senior at Stephens County last season.
    “He’s got tremendous raw power,” Hennon said, “He’s a young player and he’s going to have to develop. There’s going to be a learning curve, and there always is when you make the jump up to this level, but there’s no question he’s got a bright future.”
    Having big bats in the lineup should help take some pressure off of Griffin, who was an All-American catcher as a freshman but suffered a sophomore slump, watching his batting average drop from .320 in 2012 to .272 last season. Griffin will also have a backup behind the plate, something he was missing last season, in freshman C.J. Brazil.
    “It makes us feel better going into the season being able to let Chase rest his legs. We can throw Chase over to first base if need be. That was a weakness last year, that lack of depth behind the plate,” Hennon said. “Obviously Chase is going to be a guy who needs to drive in runs in the middle of the order. Having guys like Mizell and Cleveland, even though he’s young, having that physical presence in  the lineup is going to help Chase.”
    Dalton Busby brings experience to shortstop, and also adds speed to the basepaths.

    Mizell pretty much has right field locked up. Junior-college transfer Kody Adams will likely start in centerfield, but he’ll be pushed by freshman Josh Black, who “may be the fastest guy on our team,” Hennon said.
    Left field is also interesting, with veterans Hunter Thomas, Garren Palmer and Stryker Brown in the mix. All of them are possibilities at designated hitter too, along with Robbie Dodds.

    The nod to start the season opener was a tossup between veteran lefty Sam Howard and junior-college transfer Josh Wirsu. Howard, a lefty, got the nod.
    “I think more than anything else Sam is just mature in a lot of ways,” Hennon said. “He’s matured physically, and I think from a mental standpoint. He’s always had a big work ethic.I don’t think we could have gone wrong either way.”
    Wirsu will start the second game of the doubleheader against Georgia, and Ryan Frederick, a new addition to the team from the now-disbanded program at Savannah College of Art and Design, will start on Sunday.
    The Eagles will face Georgia Tech in the home opener on Wednesday, and junior-college transfer Eric Alonzo is the likely starter in that one.
    Will Middour would have been in the weekend mix, but was suspended indefinitely for a “violation of team rules.”
    The bullpen features a pair of sidewinders — lefty Jason Richman and righty Matt McCall — as well as plenty of other new faces who are still working out their roles.
    “We’re still going to have to figure out who’s going to start those midweek game, but that’s not unusual at this time of year. Some of those roles in the bullpen and some of those starting roles will be defined during the first few weeks of the season,” Hennon said.

    Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.