Saturday, May 29, 2010

Gibson Ties Together Two Seasons to End Title Drought

Craig Gibson watched the final out recorded and exhaled. The seventh-year head coach just saw Mercer baseball come full circle under his watch.

The program’s last championship came in 1983 when the Bears won their final six games of the season to claim the conference tournament title. Gibson helped anchor that team, playing first base for a team that swept its way through the tournament.

Sound familiar?

This year’s squad did the same thing on their way to clinching a spot in the NCAA Regionals.

“Offensively, we are very similar [to the 1983 team], we had three guys in the ’83 lineup with 20 home runs or more,” Gibson said. “This club with Moreland, Tanis, Langley and Carroll give us the same type of presence in the middle of the order. This year’s group is a lot more mentally tough. The group I played with played hard on and off the field. We have a little different group this year.”

While the last month has been a remarkable ride for Mercer, the journey to get there has not been easy.

In Gibson’s first year after taking over for Hall of Fame coach Barry Myers, the Bears finished last in the conference, managing just eight league wins. Within two years, Mercer was the two-seed in the 2006 conference tournament.

“As a coach, this validates all the work and the fight we have put into this thing for seven years,” reflected Gibson. “I am really happy for a lot of people: President Bill Underwood, our incoming Athletics Director Jim Cole and our long-time AD Bobby Pope. Hopefully, we validated what they have given us and we turned it into a championship tonight.”

While Gibson deflects most of the credit for the turnaround towards his players and assistant coaches, his players know the value of their head coach.

“I have been here six years and he has meant everything,” stated sixth-year senior Lath Guyer, who picked up the save in the title game. “He is always positive with the guys and rallies us up. Coach is on an even-keel and means a lot to us. I’m really happy we could help bring this to him and Mercer. Tonight is perfect!”

Don’t expect the Bears to fall off much anytime soon. The team’s 27-man tournament roster featured just six seniors. Tournament Most Valuable Player Jacob Tanis and All-Tournament selections Billy Burns, Brandon Love and David Teasley lead a group of talented returners who will join one of the most highly-touted recruiting classes in Mercer history.

Throw in a new stadium on the drawing board and the future looks as bright as the orange jerseys the Bears celebrated in on Saturday.

Love's "Roller Coaster" Season Back on Track

It was not the typical way games between the Mercer Bears and ETSU Buccaneers, the top offensive teams in the Atlantic Sun Conference have been played this season.

In every meeting between the two teams runs have been scored in double figures. The Bears lost 13-10 in the first of a three-game regular season series and then beat the Bucs 11-6 and 11-5. In the second day of the Atlantic Sun Baseball Championship at Ken Dugan Field at Stephen L. Marsh Stadium on the campus of Lipscomb University the Bears prevailed 10-7 with both teams getting 17 hits.

That hitting performance was on the mind of Mercer sophomore left-hander Brandon Love as he took the mound against ETSU Saturday morning. In the end Love and freshman right-handed reliever David Teasley combined to hold ETSU to six hits and one run in a 3-1 win.

“The strategy going in was to keep the ball down,” Love said. “They have a lot of guys who can hit the ball out of the park."

“Both teams can swing the bat. During the regular season our games with them were pound downs. And Thursday night it was another pound down. It came down this time to who made the least number of errors on the hill.”

Mercer, the only unbeaten team in the A-Sun Tournament, plays Jacksonville tonight at 6. A win by Mercer would clinch the championship. If Jacksonville wins the two teams face each other one more time Sunday at noon.

It is the first time Mercer had advanced to the championship game in the A-Sun Tournament in 16 years. The last time Mercer has won an A-Sun Championship was 2001 in men’s soccer.

Love, who started the season strong but faded in the middle of the season, got the call in order to use his left arm against a power lineup that includes Paul Hoilman and Bo Reeder, both hitters of 20 home runs this season.

“Brandon was our No. 1 pitcher for the first six weeks of the season and then he hit a little rocky spell in the middle of the road,” Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. “We had some options to put in the Friday night role, but he was great today against a great club.”

Love had not pitched since he went 2.2 innings against Belmont May 21. He made 11 starts this season and 16 appearances overall. Despite his midseason problems he led the team in wins with seven and in strikeouts with 59.

“It has been a roller coaster,” Love said. “I started out really hot. Midway through the season I hit a bump. I couldn’t get anybody out."

“I think my fastball got a little flat. The past few weeks I have worked really hard on my arm and trying to get more movement on the ball.”

In 6.2 innings Love gave up five hits and one unearned run. He struck out three and walked three. Teasley closed out the game by allowing only one hit, a double in the eighth, in 2.1 innings to earn the save, his fifth of the season.

“In the bullpen I felt the best I had felt in a couple of weeks,” Love said. “Today I had command of all four of my pitches and I wanted to mix it up. That has only happened a couple of times. My changeup was in and out, but I had a good idea about it. I like to throw cutters against lefties and that is what many people saw from me."

“I really didn’t want to walk too many people. I wanted to force them to beat us. All of their batters are powerful. I knew I couldn’t make a mistake up in the zone or the ball was going to get out of here.”

This was only the fourth time this season that ETSU has been held to less than two runs in a game this season.

Love was quick to praise Teasley for an outstanding performance as well.

“I give all the credit for David coming in and helping me out in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.” Love said. “He got the job done. That is what he has done all year.”

Mercer was held to six hits as well, including a solo home run by third baseman Jacob Tanis in the eighth. Tanis leads the nation in RBI.

Mercer scored two runs in the second and ETSU came back with one run in the fifth. In eight of the nine games in the tournament the team that has scored first has won.

“We were just trying to piece some runs together,” Gibson said. “We kept scratching and tacking them on. We had two more runs than they had.

“We made our hits count with Jake stepping up and getting one out of the park late for us. I give their guy (Bo Burton) credit. He was really great today and kept us off balance.”

Gibson, unlike most of the other teams in the tournament, isn’t scratching his head trying to figure out who is left to pitch. He has a deep staff with a couple of choices for the Jacksonville game.

“I think our staff is deep,” Gibson said. “That is one of the strengths of our club. We haven’t had to rely on just one or two guys.

“Brandon was fresh. His arm was good. His velocity was good. He gave us a great start.”

Dolphins Turn Momentum Around Late to Advance

Somebody had to do it, but Jacksonville coach Terry Alexander wishes it could have been someone other than him.

Alexander’s Dolphins, the No. 5 seed in the Atlantic Sun Baseball Championship from Ken Dugan Field at Stephen L. Marsh Stadium on the campus of Lipscomb University, scored two runs in the ninth to take a 9-8 win over the UNF Ospreys Friday night.

The game marked the last for Ospreys’ coach Dusty Rhodes who decided to retire at the end of the season. It was the first A-Sun appearance for the Ospreys who had completed four years of re-classification to NCAA Division I.

“I’ve known Dusty for a long time,” Alexander said of his rival in both the conference and the City of Jacksonville. “He is friend of mine, but he is also a tremendous coach. He is a mentor of mine.

“I have always admired him. I have always enjoyed coaching against him. We have played a lot of games like this over the years. I just want to say what a great career he had. If I could do anything close to that it would be great.”

Alexander admitted he felt bad for Rhodes but was happy for his team which plays Saturday night at 6.

After waiting for almost two-and-a-half hours for the game to begin the Dolphins led 7-3 after three innings. Rain returned in the fourth inning and the game was delayed for two hours and six minutes.

“We got off to a good start,” Alexander said. “A couple of miscues by UNF led to big innings for us.”

When play resumed in the fourth the Dolphins hit into a double play on the first pitch and Jamaal Hawkins struck out swinging to end the inning. The Ospreys built momentum from that play and scored two runs in the sixth and three in the seventh for an 8-7 lead.

“Everything we threw at them they hit,” Alexander said. “We couldn’t get them out. Not only the balls they hit on the barrel, but even the ones they hit on the end of the bat were getting through.”

The Dolphins were unable to score in the fourth through eighth innings, but Alexander was confident someone would step up for his team.

“We had a pretty good lead and thought we had momentum, but we sat through that rain delay,” Alexander said. “With one pitch we hit into that double play.

“Their dugout erupted and we couldn’t get them stopped. They kept swinging the bats. This was a Dusty Rhodes’ baseball team so you knew there wasn’t going to be any quit in them.”

The Dolphins didn’t quit either. Alexander got his wish as more than one player stepped up in the end. Chuck Opachich opened the inning with a single through the left side and scored on a triple to right center by Hawkins to tie the game. Jimmy Howick singled to second to bring in Hawkins with the game-winning run.

“It was a close game,” Alexander said. “We kept on thinking something good was going to happen. We just had to keep thinking that until the ninth.”

Reliever Clay Kollenbaum pitched three scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out four of the 10 batters he faced to pick up his first win in four decisions this season.

“I’m happy that Hawkins came up with the big hit off a guy who was throwing very well,” Alexander said. “He has been playing very well.

“We only needed one for the tie. We were playing for the tie, and trying to get the momentum back. If it hadn’t been for the big lead we had early we certainly wouldn’t have won this game.”

Friday, May 28, 2010

ETSU's Byrne Continues to Pull Double Duty for Bucs

Outfielders won’t admit it but their minds will sometimes wander during a slow-paced baseball game.

However, that is not the case with ETSU's Chas Byrne. He doubles as a left fielder and a relief pitcher for the Buccaneers. He never knows when he is going to get the call to the mound so by necessity he intensely follows every aspect of a game

“It is a mindset,” Byrne said. “You have to be mentally focused. You have to go hard all the time. You can’t ever back off.

“Whether I am in the outfield or on the bench I have to know every situation in the game. You have to know where the runners are, who is coming up to bat and how hot that hitter is. It is a grind.”

Friday afternoon he entered the game in the sixth inning with ETSU trailing 10-9. He shut down the top-seeded FGCU Eagles in the final 3.2 innings, allowing only one hit and striking out three of the 12 batters he faced. While he was on the mound his teammates rallied for three runs to steal a 12-10 victory.

Byrne, a right-hander, makes a few extra throws in the outfield between innings to keep his arm warm. He throws a split-finger fastball in the low-to-mid-90s range and also has a slider.

“I love coming into a game in relief,” Byrne said. “I love being the guy the coach calls on to come in and close it out and get the game over with. Whatever the coach asks I’m going to do.”

ETSU, the No. 3 seed, stayed alive in the tournament and will meet Mercer for the second time in as many days tonight at 7:00 p.m. CT at Ken Dugan Field at Stephen L. Marsh Stadium on the Lipscomb University campus.

It was the first time in the history of the series that ETSU beat FGCU. The Eagles had won the previous nine meetings. FGCU was the only A-Sun school the Buccaneers had not beaten in at least one game.

“It has been a very lopsided rivalry,” ETSU coach Tony Skole said. “In the tournament atmosphere there is so much pressure. We wanted to try to apply pressure on them every inning.

“We had some guys that had some great efforts and big hits. Chas Byrne was phenomenal. It was a Herculean-type effort. He is such a great athlete and a great competitor. He has been doing this all his life.”

ETSU fell to Mercer 10-7 Friday night. ETSU had 17 hits in that loss and 16 hits in the FGCU win. On the other side of the ledger, ETSU’s pitchers allowed 17 hits against Mercer and 14 in the FGCU win.

“When you get into the tournament atmosphere it is very pressure packed,” Skole said. “Everything you do well is magnified. Every mistake is magnified.

“You have to keep going. Teams constantly make runs. It is almost like basketball where teams make runs and you have to withstand them.”

Byrne is one of the two pitchers on the ETSU staff who also plays in the field. Skole admits his pitching is a little thin. He is undecided on who will go the mound against Mercer.

ETSU has several major offensive weapons, led by Paul Hoilman, A-Sun Player of the Year, and Bo Reeder. Byrne appreciates that offensive ability, especially when he is on the mound.

“We are just a great hitting team,” Byrne said. “I don’t know how many sac bunts we have on the year, but we don’t have many. We like to hit and our coach loves for us to be real aggressive. It is tough to pitch around our lineup.”

Offensive Explosion, Late Inning Drama Caps Day Two of A-Sun Championship

It was an exciting game for the fans, even if you weren’t cheering for the Mercer Bears or ETSU Buccaneers, but a little hard on the coaches.

Mercer jumped out to a 6-3 lead in the first three innings Thursday night against ETSU in the Atlantic Sun Baseball Championship. ETSU scored four runs over the fourth, fifth and sixth innings to take a 7-6 lead. But Mercer bounced back in the final two innings to add four runs and held on for a 10-7 win.

“The momentum kept shifting back and forth,” Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. “We have a little maturity on our team. I always tell our guys you are not a great club until you can come from behind and we were able to do that.

“It was great to be a part of it. It got a little nerve-wracking in this dugout. We were sorry before the game that we were the visitors. I thought it could go that way where we had to battle back. It just happened to be our night.”

Each team had 17 hits with a combined eight doubles, two triples and three home runs.
Mercer is the only remaining unbeaten team in the tournament being held at Ken Dugan Field at Stephen L. Marsh Stadium on the campus of Lipscomb University in Nashville.

The Bears will get a late wake-up call Friday since they will not play until 7 p.m., facing the winner of the 11 a.m. game between ETSU and FGCU.

“ETSU is a great club,” Gibson said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they battle back and we meet them again. I love great competition. That is what the Atlantic Sun is all about.

“We have been pretty good at the end of games. J.T. Odom, David Teasley and Lath Guyer have been pretty good for us. Generally, when we have held the lead late we have had success.”

This was the fourth time Mercer and ETSU have met this season. It was also the fourth time Mercer has scored in double figures against ETSU with 10 runs in a 13-10 loss April 16 and 11 runs in each game (22-6, 11-5) of a doubleheader sweep April 17, all in Johnson City.

“It seems like whenever we get together they are high-scoring games for whatever reasons,” Gibson said. “We are two good offensive clubs. Every time we play ETSU we fight, fight and fight.”

“It was great competition and a great environment for college baseball here at Lipscomb. I hope the fans enjoyed it.”

In the eighth senior Tyler McCarty singled home the tying run followed by junior Thomas Carroll who drove in what proved to be the game-winning run with a double to right center, his second hit of the game. Carroll scored the ninth run of the game when he was driven home by a single from senior Michael Langley.

Carroll entered the tournament batting .314 for the season with 56 runs batted in. He has played the season in the shadows of junior John Moreland and sophomore Jacob Tanis who each hit 20 home runs during the regular season.

“Thomas was good tonight,” Gibson said. “He is kind of the unsung hero of this group.
“He doesn’t get a lot of notoriety because of the two 20-home run guys. But I always say that Thomas is the guy who will get you the big hit when you need it and he came through.”

Carroll admits that for the past two or three weeks he has not been as sharp as he
would like to be at the plate, but got back into a hitting groove at a great time for the Bears.

“I’m fine being the unsung hero,” Carroll said. “I’ve had confidence in my abilities the whole year. Our team is going to have confidence in whoever is up in that situation.

“I had been struggling lately. I got a hit in the third so I was able to be more relaxed. I knew it was going to take a situation like the one in the eighth to get me out of my funk. I knew I was going to come around eventually. I’m glad it came around in a big situation.”

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ospreys Bats Come Alive in Rout of Eagles

UNF entered Thursday's elimination game with top-seeded FGCU having dropped six straight games and the offense had produced only 21 runs during the recent skid. The Osprey bats came alive against Second-Team All-Atlantic Sun starter, Richie Erath, to the tune of eight hits in three of work - part of a 19-hit attack - in a 13-2 win.

T.J. Thompson led six Ospreys recording multi-hit performances in the contest. They collected four hits and drove in three runs.

"We have been struggling the past couple of weeks," Thompson said "We have just been working on making solid contact, not really caring where the ball goes, just making solid contact and hoping it gets the job done."

FGCU contributed to UNF's struggles, as the Eagles swept a three-game from the Ospreys to close out the regular season. In the series, FGCU outscored UNF 31-10. The Ospreys bettered that three-game run total by three in Thursday's game alone

"During the last week, we were hitting balls right on the screws [but] just right at people," Thompson said. "Last weekend the FGCU center fielder robbed us three or four times. We have been hitting the ball hard the last week. We knew it was just a matter of time before they were going to drop and we were going to score some runs."

"In the last two or three weeks, we've had some really bad injuries, so we've been struggling," UNF head coach Dusty Rhodes said. "We've just been trying to hang. We made the tournament because we did a lot early in the year. But today, when we swing the bat, we can beat anybody. FGCU is a great team - they're ranked in the top 30 in the country - when you get into tournaments you've got to hit to win."

After sending the regular-season champions to the losers bracket, the Ospreys can knock out the defending champions, and their crosstown rival, the Dolphins of Jacksonville. In the process, each win extends the career of head coach Dusty Rhodes, who announced prior to the season that 2010 would be his last in the dugout.

"For the 23 years that I've been here, we've played JU every year, even when they were Division I and we were NAIA - they would always play us," Rhodes said."We have a lot of rivalry and we have a lot of guys on both teams that have played each other in high school so it's going to be a good game. It's a one-game season and we've got to play as hard as we can."

If the bats the Ospreys brought to Thursday's contest make it back for Friday's showdown, they might still have multiple "seasons" left to play.

Reigning MVP Martinez Excels Late

Jacksonville's Alex Martinez experienced a moment all little kids dream of when they start playing the game of baseball - a game-winning hit followed by your teammates mobbing you in celebration.

His game-winning double in the bottom of the ninth kept the Dolphins' hopes of back-to-back Atlantic Sun Baseball Championships alive as they eliminated the Stetson Hatters, 3-2, on Thursday.

A season ago, Martinez hit a two-run home run in the top of the ninth inning of the A-Sun Championship title game with Lipscomb giving the Dolphins a 6-4 lead en route to a 7-4 victory and their fourth A-Sun Championship. Though that blast came in the top of the inning and did not end the game like his double did on Thursday, he was able to rank the two shortly after the game.

"I don't know, that's a tough one...depending I guess on what we do from here on out," Martinez said. "I guess right now last year. I mean it was a big home run and it felt great. I mean they all feel good."

With the Dolphins suffering a 10-1 loss on Wednesday to Mercer and having just allowed Stetson to tie the score in the top half of the ninth, Martinez, a senior, came to the plate with perhaps a greater sense of the moment.

"This [year] is my last year of playing college I was just thinking this might be the last at bat of my career, so I better make it count," he said. "In those situations I just for some reason tend to focus a little more."

Martinez had struggled through the first two games of the A-Sun Championship, going hitless in his first six at bats. However, he applied knowledge he remembered from when the Dolphins and Hatters met in the final week of the regular season.

"Last weekend they kept beating me with fastballs and today they were taking the same approach so I sat on one and just hit it," he said. "I've learned throughout all the years of playing baseball that if you're so antsy in those situations, you're only going to get yourself out. I talk to myself, breathe deep and just try to lock in as much as I can. When I first got [to Jacksonville], I pressed a lot and the coaches all along with [Terry Alexander], they've all helped me, instead of trying so hard, to just let it happen."

Martinez wasted little in providing the winning tally and now the Dolphins can only hope their next ninth-inning rally ends with Martinez at the plate.

Bucs, Bears to Face Off in Offensive Showdown

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Following his team’s 7-5 opening round victory against UNF, ETSU head coach Tony Skole immediately turned his thoughts to the next challenge; slowing down the only other team in this year’s tournament field with as much offensive firepower as his Buccaneers.

The second-seeded Mercer Bears await ETSU on day two of the 2010 Atlantic Sun Baseball Championship, and after their 10-1 beating of Jacksonville to open the tournament, have won 14 of their last 17 contests. Blazing bats deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the Bears streak, just as the Bucs’ offensive prowess powered them to their highest tournament seeding since 1992.

The two squads rank one-two among the tournament field in slugging percentage, on base percentage, hits, runs, RBI and home runs. Mercer took two-of-three from the Bucs during the regular season in a series that saw the teams combine for 56 runs.

“Mercer is the hottest team in the league right now,” Skole said. “They put a lot of pressure on you at all nine positions in the lineup. They’re well-coached, and have great hitters up and down their order.”

Since joining the Atlantic Sun in 2006, the Bucs are just 4-12 against Mercer, including an 11-3 defeat to open the 2006 tournament. Neither team has won their first two postseason games in more than a decade (Mercer 1999, ETSU 1992), so the Bucs will be attempting to buck both recent and longstanding history Thursday night.

“Mercer has had our number for sure,” said Skole. “Now we’re in the tournament though, and we don’t have to win a series against them; we just have to win once. I like the energy and passions our guys are bringing to the ballpark, and this team can hit all speeds, they put the ball in play and they find ways to score.”

Skole already picked up one big win against the Bears in the tournament: immediately following the UNF game, he won a coin toss with the Bears allowing his squad to be the designated home team tomorrow night. In a game with two explosive offenses, having the luxury of the last at bat may be the Bucs’ biggest win of the week.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

DiMauro's Hot Bat Carries into Championship Play

On a team that features the third-best team batting average in conference history, Mercer's Nick DiMauro's overall average of .353 was good enough to only rank fifth on his own squad, but his bat came up large on Wednesday, to the tune of a Championship record-tying five hits.

He provided the big blow in Mercer's five-run first inning, delivering a two-run double. DiMauro added singles in the third, seventh and eighth innings to a fifth-inning double to complete his 5-for-5 performance.

"It was important because we had a freshman pitcher out there and we got all the jitters out," DiMauro said. "To put five on the board really relaxed everyone which helped us out a lot."

He became the sixth player in A-Sun Championship history to collect five hits in a game and the first since Belmont’s Jason Warpool accomplished the feat against Jacksonville State in 2003.

"We had good preparation and we wanted to come out and score some runs in the first couple of innings," DiMauro said "We did that [which really ] helped out our pitchers."

DiMauro hit only .274 against non-conference foes, but when it mattered most, he turned in the sixth-best average in the A-Sun in conference play, hitting .420. Against the Dolphins, he bolstered that mark, collecting five hits in 10 at bats during their three-game set back in March. As he came to the plate in the eighth, he faced the Dolphins' Baker Chapman, the fourth different Dolphin who tried to cool DiMauro's bat.

"They had a [side-armed pitcher] in as that last pitcher and I'm not really good at hitting off side-armers so I was just trying to put the ball in play," DiMauro said.

With his perfect day at the dish, DiMauro improved his average 17 points in helping the Bears to their first win at the A-Sun Championships since 2007. Though unlikely to face the Dolphins again, three more days like Wednesday from DiMauro could give the Bears their first A-Sun Championship in the sport since 1983.

Sale Family Share in Run-up to the MLB Draft

Allen Sale's shirt stood out from the Wednesday morning crowd taking in FGCU and Stetson. First of all, it was a long-sleeved shirt, hardly befitting the mid-80s temperatures in Nashville, but it was the script on the back that drew the most attention.

His son, Chris, a top pitching prospect, boasts many features that has made the professional scouts drool. He combines a mid-90's fastball and devastating breaking pitches with a 6-foot-6 frame. One of the few negatives the scouts will point out is Sale's lean frame. The FGCU Web site lists him at 183 pounds and from early in the MLB Draft process, both father and son have dealt with questions about Chris' ability to fill out the frame.

In a response to the criticism, Allen added text to the back of his gray shirt. To paraphrase, the shirt reads "my fat [butt] is proof my son can put on weight." Allen volunteered he carried a 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame and like his son, entered college on the light side of the scale.

"I just got kind of tired of hearing them talk about how skinny he was and how he needed to put weight on," Allen Sale said. "I've put 80 pounds since high school and it hasn't done anything for me."

The shirt made its debut in the third week of the season.

"I've told Chris to have fun with this and when you watch him between innings and he is enjoying it," Allen Sale said. "It would be hard for me to tell him to do that and not do it myself, so I figured it would be a fun thing to do."

The volume rose after Chris turned a dominant summer at the Cape Cod League. It was at that time that the scouts started to hone in on every facet of his measurables.

"He's skinny like Tim Lincecum and he seems to be holding up just fine," Allen said. "[Chris] is whatever weight he is, and with that weight he is able to throw in the mid- to high-90's and he's got this outrageous strikeout-to-walk ratio and low ERA."

The run-up to next month's MLB Draft will actually conclude a three-year process for the Sales. Out of high school, the Colorado Rockies selected him in the 21st round in 2007. His stock gradually rose with Allen guessing Chris had moved into fifth or sixth round status after his freshman season and up the third or fourth round after pitching in the Northwoods League. His stock shot up to the first or second round after dueling with future first-round pick Rex Brothers, from Lipscomb in front of close to 40 scouts and reached its peak during his MVP performance in the Cape Cod League.

"Everytime he pitched in Cape Cod, it seems like I kept hearing a different number as to how high in the first round he could go," Sale said. "We're being told he could go as high as second, as low as 14th. I haven't seen the Nationals' scout around, so I don't think he's a threat to go first."

While Bryce Harper appears to have the first position locked up, it looks like Sale won't be waiting long to hear his name as a pair of mock drafts place him in the top five. Mock Draft Mock Draft (Insider Access Required)

Dugan Field at Marsh Stadium a Profile

The Atlantic Sun Baseball Championship get underway today but before the first pitch lets take a look at at Dugan Field at Marsh Stadium on the campus of Lipscomb University.

FGCU enters the championship as the No. 1 seed after claiming it third consecutive A-Sun regular season title. The Eagles open the A-Sun Championship at 11:00 a.m. CT Wednesday against in-state rival Stetson. All the games are live and free on ASun.TV.

Friday, May 21, 2010

VIDEO BLOG: Lipscomb's Kristin Ryman and Brandon Rosenthal

Lipscomb head softball coach Kristin Ryman played both softball and volleyball for the Lady Bisons. Current Lipscomb volleyball coach Brandon Rosenthal coached Ryman during her senior year on the court (2003), and this season led the Lady Bisons to an unblemished conference mark. The pair of now colleagues both set school wins records during their spectacular campaigns, and below, they discuss their respective seasons.

Pupil Matches Teacher in Lipscomb's Opening Win

Every player on the Lipscomb softball roster is older than the program itself. Softball began at Lipscomb in 1996, at the NAIA level, under the direction of Andy Lane. By the program's second year, the Lady Bisons won 49 games, establishing the program's mark for wins in a single season - a record joined on Friday by the 2010 edition, who reached that milestone with a 4-1 victory against UAB to open NCAA Regional play from Tuscaloosa, Ala.

In the fifth year of the program, a young shortstop/center fielder by the name of Kristin Peck joined the Bisons. From 2000 through 2003 she was part of a program that won 122 games during her career.

Individually, she finished her career with a .300 batting average, 150 runs, 187 hits, 69 runs batted in and 41 stolen bases. She twice earned All-Conference and All-Region honors and served as team captain in 2003.

Upon finishing her career, Peck (now Ryman) moved into coaching, first as an assistant to Lane and later under interim coach Cheryl Smith. In 2006, she took over the head position. She has improved her win total every season, on three occasions the team has improved their win total from the season before by at least 10. With Friday's win, the Lady Bisons moved to within one of the nice, round 50-win total - a mark reached by only one A-Sun team in league history. Florida Atlantic topped 50 wins three times. The win also marked the first time since 2006 that an A-Sun team won its opening NCAA game.

"There's no comparison [between the two years]," Lane said. "Forty-nine wins at this level is just incredible."

Lane, now the Executive Director, National Bison Club, attended Friday's contest and watched first-hand his wins record tied and will be around to see the Lady Bisons go for 50.

"I think [Ryman] has gone out and surrounded herself with players who play like she did," Lane said. "She was always focused and was the ultimate competitor. She wasn't a vocal player, but she led by her work ethic and her intensity."

Ryman entered Lipscomb looking at medicine as a future endeavor, but quickly realized she had a passion for teaching and coaching that could not be ignored.

"I really enjoy being a leader," Ryman said. "I like to get involved emotionally and I always thought strategically when I was a player. I've tried to go out and find players that will get after it."

With Friday's win, the Lady Bisons assured themselves of two cracks at reaching that 50-win mark. Their first chance will come against the No. 1 team in the tournament, the hosting Alabama Crimson Tide.

"It will be a tremendous opportunity," Ryman said. "Having one game under our belt helps us. We don't have to any any individual heroes, no one has to do too much."

When the Lipscomb baseball team advanced to NCAA Regional play in 2008, the Bisons made news by upsetting a hosting SEC power, No. 8 Georgia (who went on to the College World Series and finished runner up) in the opening game. An upset by the Lady Bisons Saturday afternoon would do more than re-write the record book; newspapers and Web sites might be re-writing their headlines.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A-Sun Baseball Knows How to Pack the Stat Sheet

The Atlantic Sun Conference entered action Tuesday with more baseball individual statistical leaders than any other conference in the country.

Four different student-athletes from the Atlantic Sun lead the nation in five statistical categories. No other conference in the nation has more than four NCAA stats leaders. The Big South ranks second with four, then the SWAC, Mountain West, Big East, Pac-10 and the SEC sit third with three each.

The Big Ten and Big 12 place no student-athletes among the nation’s leaders while the Atlantic Coast Conference boasts just one. The NCAA keeps track of 32 statistical categories and updates them once a week.

Mercer’s Jacob Tanis of leads the nation in RBIs. Three of the top six players in the nation in RBIs reside in the A-Sun. Belmont’s Nate Woods ranks sixth in the nation in RBIs, but ranks only third in the conference. ETSU’s Paul Hoilman entered action Tuesday ranked second in the conference and second nationally.

Hoilman ranks as one of the top offensive threats in the nation this season. In addition to ranking second in RBIs, the Bucs’ junior first baseman leads the country in slugging percentage and total bases. He rates second in runs, third in home runs, sixth in hits and 10th in batting average. If Hoilman can make up his two-RBI deficient to Tanis, he has an excellent shot at claiming the Atlantic Sun triple crown.

Campbell’s Ellis Lowe ranks first in the nation in doubles. The Camels’ Zach Johnson led the NCAA in two baggers a season ago. Lowe’s production has helped Campbell rank second in the nation as a team in double in 2010.

FGCU’s Chris Sale leads the nation in strikeouts, showing that the A-Sun leaders are not limited to just offense. Lipscomb’s Josh Smith stands fourth in the nation in strikeouts and sixth in the league history in punch outs, with 341 career K’s.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dance Dance

After capturing the program’s first-ever Atlantic Sun Softball Championship, the Lipscomb players celebrated briefly, retook the field and requested that the operations staff in the Patricia Wilson Field press box play Justin Bieber’s “Baby” over the stadium’s loud speakers.

The resulting video clip became the Atlantic Sun’s most successful viral video in the nine months since the league launched its own YouTube channel. As of Wednesday afternoon, the total views count topped 5,000 through the A-Sun’s channel, while the popular sports blog accounted for almost 8,500 more views after linking to the video Monday afternoon.

“Video initiatives have been a pet project of ours throughout this year,” said A-Sun Director of Sports Services John Roberts. “Going back to last summer, the entire communications staff began discussing ways to raise awareness and get A-Sun message out to a larger audience, and the YouTube channel was one of the ideas we generated.”

The channel enjoyed modest success throughout the year, with viewership ranging from 75-400, depending on the content. The league produced a weekly highlight package for both men’s and women’s basketball, as well as conducting video interviews at all A-Sun Championships. Highlight packages at the men’s and women’s golf championships were also well-received. Nothing, however, approached the popularity of the Lipscomb dance routine.

“It’s really nice to see us have that kind of success with a video clip,” Roberts said. “Hopefully a few more people know about the league now, and they’ll keep coming back to see what’s new. I’m most happy that the Lipscomb ladies received some additional exposure from this; that’s really what it’s all about for me. They have had a spectacular season, and anything we can do to let more people know about them, I want us to do.”

In addition to the YouTube channel, fans of the A-Sun can also follow the league and its schools through other social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lady Bisons Dream Season Continues

After falling to USC Upstate in their second game of the A-Sun Softball Championship, the Lipscomb Lady Bisons powered their way through the loser’s bracket, defeating their next three opponents by a combined score of 25-1. An 11-0 five inning rout of USC Upstate in the championship game punctuated the Lady Bisons’ resurgence, avenged the earlier loss and handed Lipscomb the first conference championship in program history.

Lipscomb entered the tournament as the top-seed after a dominant run through the A-Sun regular season, winning 18 of 20 games against league competition, but had historically found little success in postseason play, owning a 1-8 mark in school history. Following the loss to USC Upstate, the Lady Bisons entered day two of the three day event on the brink of elimination.

“We told the girls that they had to have a short memory,” said head softball coach Kristin Ryman. “Our seniors knew not to press; that they just needed to keep doing what they had been doing all season long.”

The victory completed a tremendous turnaround for a program that won just 14 games in Ryman’s first season in 2006. Ryman guided the Lady Bisons to their first 40-win season in the NCAA era, and the 48 wins are the most in the A-Sun since Florida Atlantic won 56 games in 2004.

“My goal for the season was to get to 40 wins,” Ryman said. “After winning 39 games last year, I wanted to continue improving on the win total, and I though we’d have a great chance since we returned almost everybody from last year’s squad.”

The Lady Bisons posted early season victories over Kansas, Kentucky and perennial Pac 10 power California, and Ryman watched the team’s confidence skyrocket with each victory.

“Our seniors maturity level really improved, and they took a giant step forward from a leadership standpoint, and that translated into a lot more confidence,” Ryman said. “We beat Kansas and Kentucky on the same day, and everyone really started believing we could play with and beat the nation’s best. We made believers out of a lot of people with those wins.”

Lipscomb now turns its attention to NCAA Tournament play for the first time in school history, and, far from just being happy be there, hope to continue this magical season with a regional championship.

“The girls are already talking about where we might go and who we might play,” Ryman said. “This group is special enough that they want to prove that we can compete at that level; that our big wins earlier this season weren’t flukes. We’re definitely on the right track, and I know we can put ourselves in a position to win these games.”

Friday, May 14, 2010

Howe's Record Sends a Message

Kennesaw State’s Mackenzie Howe placed an exclamation point on the Owls’ performance in day one of the Atlantic Sun Track and Field Championship.

The junior repeated as the A-Sun 10,000-meter champion and set a meet record in the final event of the day in a time of 35:16.97. The win gave Howe the best time in the Atlantic Sun this season and might propel her in the NCAA East Regional.

“I felt good today,” Howe said. “I wanted to run under a 35:45 because I think that is the time I would need to make regionals.”

The junior not only accomplished her goal but put conference foe Jacksonville in an unfamiliar position. The Dolphins have claimed the last nine Atlantic Sun Track and Field Championships (five indoor, four outdoor). The win by Howe, combined with a second-place showing in the race by Erin Sutton, moved the Owls 33.5 points clear of the Dolphins entering Saturday’s final day.

“I wanted to run 85-second quarters,” Howe said. “I started off a little fast but I felt good so I kept going. The competition here is tough you never know what to expect and I was just able to have one of my best races today.”

The win gives Howe two consecutive in the 10,000-meters and moves the Owls into a position to contend with Jacksonville Saturday. Howe will compete in the 5,000 meters and another performance like the one on Friday could may leave people asking “Howe does she do it?”

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A-Sun Packs “Punch Out” Power

The Atlantic Sun Conference ranks as the only conference in the nation with two players in the national Top 10 in total strikeouts in both baseball and softball.

FGCU’s Chris Sale entered action Tuesday leading the nation in strikeouts with 114 but not to be outdone, Lipscomb’s Josh Smith ranks third with 110. On the softball side, USC Upstate’s Morgan Childers entered Tuesday with the third most punch-outs in the nation, while Mercer’s Jenni Holtz ranks seventh.

“Strikeouts are fun,” according to Childers, whose 405 strikeouts rank as the second-best single season total in A-Sun history. “When you can strikeout one of the best hitters on the opposing team, it is really fun and that is what it is all about.”

Despite the huge number of punch outs for A-Sun hurlers, all four agree it is not something they usually strive to accomplish.

“It just happen in the flow of the game,” Sale, NCAA Baseball’s national strikeout leader, said. “When you have your pitches working it is part of the game. However I am still a big fan of the bad swing. That is when you know you really have it working.”

Sale holds the national strikeout lead but Smith remains right on his heels, ranking third in the nation and only four behind the junior from FGCU.

“When it comes to strikeouts you really have to see how the game goes,” Smith said. “I just want to do what I can to help the team win.”

While some baseball pitchers tend to have an “out pitch” the softball player say that is not something they on which they rely.

“There really isn’t a pitch I like to go with when I have two strikes on someone,” Childers said. “I like to use all four of my pitches.”

Holtz agrees.

“It really depends on the batter,” Holtz said. “But when you strike out the other team’s best hitter it can really give you team a boost of energy.”

Smith thinks things can be a little bit different in baseball.

“When I have someone two strikes I tend to go to my curve.” Smith said. “I have been working this year to mix in more of my fastball and I am starting to trust it more and more.”

Clearly Smith’s trust in more of his pitches has paid off. The senior ranks seventh in A-Sun history in career strikeouts with 336.

“It really depends on the day and the lineup I’m facing,” Sale said. “When I faced Clemson, I really had my slider working with so many lefties in the lineup. My favorite pitch to strike people remains the hard inside fastball.”

Even players like these still find joy in sitting another player down. Sometimes they even surprise themselves.

Holtz got the chance to face softball's national leader in batting average, Jen Yee from Georgia Tech, earlier in the season. Holtz struck her out and held her to one of her worst hitting nights of the season. In case you were wondering Yee has only been struck out four times this season and only 34 times in her four-year career.

Childers, Sale and Smith have faced challenges of their own.

“When I faced Lipscomb I felt lucky to strike any of them out,” Childers said. “They are such a great team of hitters, anyone of them can burn you.”

“ETSU’s Paul Hoilman is one of the best hitters I have ever faced,” Smith said. “He is very dangerous.”

“I would not want to face anyone in our (FGCU’s) lineup,” Sale said. “I think (Steven) Wickens and (Mikel) Alverez could be the toughest shortstop and second baseman to strikeout in the nation and a player like (Zach) Maxfield can take you deep at anytime.”