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GSU opens at Hawaii today
ECONOMOS 5 col bw
Georgia Southern’s Mike Economos (above) is one of many key players returning in 2007. The Eagles open the season today at the University of Hawaii. First pitch is at 11:35 p.m. EST. - photo by FILE
    When eighth-year Georgia Southern coach Rodney Hennon looks at this year’s baseball team, he immediately sees something he likes — depth.
    The Eagles, who open their season at the University of Hawaii tonight, lost their top hitter and their two best pitchers from last year’s 31-27 team, but return numerous starters and welcome several promising newcomers. That’s enough to make Hennon optimistic for this year’s group.
    “I think we are in a good position,” he said. “I think this is a group of kids that love to play, and I think they’ve got something to prove. This has a chance to be a really good team. Is there going to be a first, second or third-round draft pick? No. There’s not really a high-profile guy when you look out there, but collectively I think we have a chance to have a solid team that can hopefully get back on top in the Southern Conference. That’s what this team is focused on — trying to win our league and get back into a regional.”
    Looking for their first postseason berth since 2002, the Eagles return seven starters, including the entire outfield, from last year’s squad which finished tied for third in the league (16-11).
    After three games in Hawaii, Southern returns home Feb. 10 for a two-game set against Georgia Tech, one of two Eagle foes (Clemson) that advanced to the College World Series a year ago. Of GSU’s 26 opponents, 16 won at least 30 games last year, 10 made trips to the NCAA Regionals.
    “I’d say it ranks right up there as one of the strongest since I’ve been here,” Hennon said of GSU’s schedule. “Top to bottom it’s a competitive schedule, from the midweek games to the programs we traditionally play, which have improved the last few years.”

Position players
    On the field and at the plate, the Eagles biggest void will be at first base, which was previously anchored by four-year starter and first-team All-SoCon selection Greg Dowling, who batted a team-high .377 last season.
    “Greg is not a guy you replace overnight,” Hennon said. “We feel like we have some quality guys capable of taking over at first base.”
    First base prospects include junior Jeremiah Parker — when he’s not catching — and sophomore Will Southwell. Two true freshmen, Kyle Blackburn and A.J. Wirnsberger, will also vie for time at the position as well as designated hitter. Wirnsberger is also likely to be used as a utility infielder.
    Junior Jeremy Beckham has slid from shortstop to second to fill in for GSU’s only other departed starter, Brett Pelfrey.
    “Jeremy seems really at home at second base,” Hennon said. “He’s played with a lot of confidence, and I think he’s more suited to be on the right side of the infield. He gives us a little more speed in the lineup and has outstanding range defensively.”
    Sophomores Brian Pierce and Chris Shehan (.350, 33RBI) return at shortstop and third base, respectively. Statesboro’s Kevin Bowles redshirted last year and will also give the Eagles some depth at second base.
    Seniors Mike Economos (.310, 51 RBI) and Chris Hollis (.324) and sophomore Matt Miller (.351) are the returning starters in the outfield, and will be backed up by junior David Richardson, sophomore Phillip Porter and freshman Brett Maxwell.
    Sophomore Griffin Benedict (.303) will be behind the plate.

    Georgia Southern’s pitching staff was hit hard by the MLB draft, which took its No. 1 and No. 2 starters, Everett Teaford and Dustin Evans. How roles will be defined on the pitching staff is a huge question, Hennon said.
    Senior Josh Lairsey will start today and is hoping to rebound from a disappointing junior season. Hennon has been encouraged by what he’s seen of Lairsey so far.
    “He’s been impressive in fall practice and early on,” Hennon said. “I think he’s really worked hard and is poised to bounce back and have a good year.”
    Drew Murray, a right-handed sophomore transfer from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, will open the season as the No. 2 starter, followed by Brian Wilkerson, a true freshman from Houston County. Also competing for starting roles are true freshman Charlie Strohecker and John Ducey, a senior transfer from Armstrong.
    “A lot of guys are capable of giving our team a chance to win, it’s just a matter of how it’s going to play out,” Hennon said. “I feel like we have a chance to be deeper on our pitching staff.”
    Like the starting rotation, the Eagles’ bullpen will welcome some much-needed help.
    “I think our bullpen has a chance to be in a situation where we are not solely relying on a couple guys,” Hennon said. “We can share the workload a little bit more this year.”
    Seniors A.J. Battisto and David Cogswell, last year’s closer, anchor GSU’s bullpen and will work primarily in late-inning, set-up roles. Savannah’s Kyle Kamppi transferred from Garner-Webb and will start the season as the Eagles’ closer.
    Junior Aaron Eubanks and Auburn transfer Burt Barto will work as middle relievers and could possibly spot start. Other options in the bullpen are sophomore Blake Nation, senior Mike Chiciak and sophomore Matt Shurley.
    As for newcomers contributing immediately, Hennon looks for good things from Kamppi and Murray as well as Wilkerson and Strohecker.
    “We feel like they are going to be very good pitchers at this level,” Hennon said. “It’s a matter of how quickly they develop. We realize going into the season it’s going to be baptism by fire for these guys. They are going to continue to improve and should get better as the season progresses.”
    After playing so many youngsters last year, Hennon hopes having a more experienced team will pay dividends this year.
    “I’ve really been impressed by the way this team has practiced consistently day in and day out,” he said. “That’s one thing we’ve talked about leading into the season — trying to be a consistent baseball team. We were not last year, and I think there were a couple reasons for that. This team has shown a lot of maturity by the way they’ve handled themselves throughout fall practice and off the field too.”

    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.