Expectations are high for Georgia Southern’s baseball team this season after the Eagles inched closer toward reaching the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., last season.
GSU finished 36-26, winning the Southern Conference Tournament championship for the second time in three years. The Eagles lost, 2-1, to eventual national champion South Carolina in the nightcap of the Columbia Regional’s first day of action. The next day, GSU lost, 5-2, to North Carolina State and was eliminated.
"We have the same goals, year in and year out," said GSU head coach Rodney Hennon, who guided the Eagles to their 12th consecutive 30-win season. "It starts in the Southern Conference. Our first goal is to try to win the regular-season championship and get the highest seed we possibly can going into the tournament.
"And then, obviously, win the (SoCon) tournament and put yourself in a position to get to the postseason with the opportunity to get to Omaha. Again, with all that being said, those are long-range goals for the season. None of the happens if we don’t focus on coming to the park every day ready to work, ready to play as hard as we can play."
GSU begins its season at 6 p.m. today at J.I. Clements Stadium with a three-game series against UT Martin. The teams will play at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. GSU will play host to Georgia Tech at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
GSU has 16 newcomers, and features Baseball America Preseason All-Americans Victor Roache and Chris Beck.
Roache, a 6-foot-1, 235-pound junior outfielder from Ypsilanti, Mich., led the NCAA with 30 home runs last season. Beck, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior right-handed pitcher from Jefferson, led GSU in wins (nine), starts (19), innings (103) and strikeouts (109).
Hennon said Beck will start tonight. Senior right-hander Josh Adams will start Saturday, and junior-college transfer Kyle Rowe, a right-hander, will start Sunday.
"We were not a consistent baseball team last year," Hennon said. "We were a good team in spurts and then we weren’t very good at times. We made a heck of a run at the end when it counted most last year, but we’ve got to be consistent."
Hennon said outfielder Arthur Owens is out for the season because of a leg injury (stress fracture).
"We just found out that we’ve lost him for the season," Hennon said Wednesday. "He’s going to take a medical redshirt. Unfortunately, he wasn’t healing as well as (the doctors) had hoped to see and he’s going to have to have surgery. But those are things you can’t control. And when those things happen, it’s an opportunity for other guys to step up and do the job."
In the outfield, Hennon said GSU will rely heavily on Roache and fellow juniors Scooter Williams and Michael Burruss.
"We’re probably as experienced in the outfield as anywhere else on the field," Hennon said. "The difference being Scooter Williams played a lot of left field last year. He’ll slide over to center with the absence of Shawn Payne, who graduated and went on to pro ball. And Victor Roache in right field, and Michael Burruss in left. Mike saw a lot of time out there as well. I think his defense has improved a lot."
In the infield, Hennon said GSU has several options thanks to players’ versatility.
"Eric Phillips played shortstop for us a year ago, and Ben Morgan was over at second base in his freshman year last year," Hennon said. "We’ve actually slid Ben over to short and moved Eric over to third. And that’s opened up the door at second base for a couple of guys: Tyler Avera, a true freshman from Appling County, and Stryker Brown.
T.D. Davis, a junior-college transfer, will start at first base, Hennon said.
"(Davis) has done very well coming back from Christmas break. Made a lot of improvement since the fall," Hennon said. "We’ve got some other guys we can throw over there as well."
At catcher, Hennon said GSU will start Griffin.
"It’s a lot of responsibility back there behind the plate, and we’ve got two young guys in Chase Griffin and Clint Clark," Hennon said. "Clint’s been a little banged up and is starting to come back off an injury, so Chase will get the nod. But he’s adjusted well to some of those responsibilities that come along with the position at this level. I think both of those guys will continue to develop and get better as the year goes."
GSU’s starting pitchers are right-handers Beck, Adams and Rowe.
"Obviously, Chris was in that role a year ago and is our most experienced starting pitcher returning," Hennon said. "It’s good to have a guy like that. He’s an outstanding leader for us, a very hard worker and really came along and developed last year. And he’s continuing to develop and improve, and has to continue to work to get better.
"And Josh Adams is a guy who was in the weekend rotation most of the year last season, and stepped up for us down the stretch there in the conference tournament … and Kyle Rowe just came into our program as a junior-college transfer. We feel like he’s going to be able to do some nice things for us as well."
In the bullpen, GSU has a host of pitchers who will be called upon frequently early in the season, including right-hander Chris Myers and left-handers Jarret Leverett, Taylor Burke and Drew Johnson. Hennon said he wants all of his pitchers’ roles defined when SoCon play begins March 9 at Elon.
"We hope that early on in the year we can use a lot of guys," Hennon said. "From a pitching standpoint, there should be a lot of opportunities for guys on that pitching staff this weekend and the first few weekends.
Hennon said he has cautioned his players about falling into a false sense of security based on last season’s success.
"Anybody in our league can beat us on any given day," Hennon said. "We dropped a home series last year to Wofford, who finished down near the bottom of the standings. Southern Conference baseball is very good baseball. This conference has evolved into probably one of the top 10 baseball conferences, year in and year out, in the country.
"Baseball is a very humbling game. If you’re not ready to play, you’ll be humbled real quick."
Noell Barnidge can be reached at (912) 489-9408.