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Eagles enter 2013 baseball season with a chip on their shoulder

Friday's Season Opener

Georgia at Georgia Southern
6 p.m.
J.I. Clements Stadium
Radio: 103.7 FM

    Georgia Southern has a lot to prove in 2013.
    After right fielder Victor Roache, the 2011 NCAA home run leader, was injured during the second weekend of the 2012 season, the wheels started coming off. The Eagles lost 10 of their next 12 games.
    They recovered, but lost an epic, four-hour, 10-inning game against Samford in the Southern Conference Championship game on May 27.
    The roller-coaster ride didn’t stop coach Rodney Hennon from reaching 30-plus wins, a feat he has accomplished in each of his 15 seasons as a head coach.
    Perhaps the best thing the Eagles (33-27 in 2012) have going for them this year is that everybody knows Roache — who was drafted in the first round by the Seattle Mariners — isn’t going to be in the lineup.
    “The one thing I get a good sense of is that it’s a very together group,” Hennon said about the 2013 squad, which begins its season Friday at 6 p.m., against Georgia in J.I. Clements Stadium. “They really work well together, they care about each other, they seem to have fun coming down to the field and working every day. I think that’s probably stood out the most throughout the season.”
    Right hander Justin Hess (5-3, 3.76 ERA, 85 K in 2012) will take the mound in the opener, replacing powerhouse righty Chris Beck as the Friday starter.
    Hennon is happy with the quality of pitching the Eagles have this season. He just wishes he had more. Veteran Will Middour and freshman Zack Schlosser both had Tommy John surgery in the offseason and will miss 2013.
    “We’ve got to stay healthy. Our numbers are not where we’d like them to be,” Hennon said. “On the flip side of that, all our guys are going to get to pitch. We have to solidify some of those roles, but they’re all going to have a part in it.”
    For now, sophomore Sam Howard will be the Saturday starter, and freshman Jason Richman will get the nod on Sunday.
    The biggest loss from the lineup is four-year every-day-man Eric Phillips, who played every position in the infield and graduated as the program’s all-time hits leader.
    All-American Chase Griffin (.320, 42 RBIs, 10 HR) returns to his duties at catcher, and will be backed up by Brent Pugh and Zac Lenns.
    Garren Palmer, who hit .309 and came on late a year ago, will resume his role at designated hitter.
    Hunter Thomas, who started 18 games last season as a freshman, takes over left field, redshirt freshman Kyle Streicher will man centerfield and everyday starter Scooter Williams will play right to start the season.
    Middle infielder Ben Morgan will slide over to third.
    “Physically, he’s probably not the prototype for a third baseman, but he gives you range over there,” Hennon said about the 5-foot-9 junior. “Ben’s got good arm strength, he’s got plenty of arm to play the position, and if anything, he’s one guy that’s really confident. He’s probably been our most consistent guy at the plate throughout fall until now.”
    Freshman Cole Watson inherits shortstop, sophomore Tyler Avera will play second, and T.D. Davis, a junior-college transfer last season, will resume his role at first.
    Pugh, Lenns, veteran outfielder Arthur Owens and sophomore Casey Kicklighter highlight the available guys on the bench.
    Nothing is in stone, and the Eagles will have a tough opening schedule to figure things out. The Eagles open the season with three against Georgia, then play a mid-week game at Florida, host Indiana in a weekend series then finish February at home with two against Georgia Tech.
    “I don’t think there’s ever been a year that I’ve coached that there hasn’t been one or two guys who weren’t in that opening-day lineup,” Hennon said, “who seem to step up and surprise you.”
    Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.