Saturday, May 26, 2012

Well-Worn Arms Guide Bruins to Title

One of the hardest things to do in team sports is to win a double-elimination baseball tournament. The biggest reason for that is the pressure it puts on a team’s pitching staff.

Belmont responded to that challenge by leaning on a couple of well-worn arms to capture its second-straight Atlantic Sun Conference Baseball Championship.

First Team All-Atlantic Sun pitcher Chase Brookshire started the title game after using 108 pitches to navigate his 7.2 innings of work against Stetson in Belmont’s tourney opener.

“I’ve been preparing for that on the last two days. All I’ve been thinking is ‘what do I have to do to be ready to throw on Saturday’. I’ve been very fortunate to get the chance to throw game one all year. I love being in that situation,” Brookshire said.

It looked like the preparation would only get the Bruins through a few innings initially. Kennesaw State put up two runs on four hits in the first three innings, but the southpaw found his groove long enough for the Belmont offense to get ramped up. By the time, the Owls scratched across their next runs, the Bruins claimed a four-run lead.

“Chase gave us a great performance,” said Matt Hamann. “After a rocky start, you could tell he had his good stuff and was going to give us a great opportunity tonight.”

Hamann would play a huge role in the game himself. After Garrett Fanchier held KSU scoreless in a 12-pitch seventh inning, the senior got the call to start the eighth. Kennesaw State managed a one-out double but the senior ended the threat with a pair of strikeouts.

“When Matt went out there on one day’s rest, he was so electric. We had Scotty Moses up ready to close the game out but we thought Matt deserved the chance to finish it. It was lights out after that,” reflected head coach Dave Jarvis.

Lights out was accurate as he set down the Owls in order to incite a dog-pile by the mound.

“When (Brookshire and Hamann) are on the mound, our team feels like good things are going to happen. They are going to throw strikes and pitch with a good tempo and pace to keep us in the game. When they are out there, it is almost always a good result for our kids,” reflected Jarvis.

And from the smiles on the faces of the team at the end, it looks like Jarvis was right.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Tournament Showcases A-Sun Strength

With just two games separating the No. 1 seed and the No. 6 seed heading into the championship and four one-run games on the season’s final day, most observers saw the tournament shaping up as one of the most competitive in A-Sun history.

They would have been right. The match-up between top-seeded Belmont and sixth-seeded Stetson on day one set the tone, lasting 15 innings before the Bruins escaped with a one-run victory. Two runs or less decided six of the tournament’s first nine games.  Three teams, each with one loss, advanced to championship Saturday as FGCU, Kennesaw State and Belmont will duke it out for the title.

“Every game is going to be against a quality opponent. These teams participating in the A-Sun Tournament are high quality teams that have been there and done that against other good teams,” Belmont head coach Dave Jarvis said. “This league stands on its own merits up and down, top to bottom on what it has accomplished.”

Jarvis is right. Only five conferences feature more teams in the RPI top-100 than the A-Sun which places all six tourney teams inside the top-100. The Atlantic Sun consistently ranked between 9th and 12th among the nation’s 31 conferences this season.

“This league is very strong and the players are very talented. To me, it’s not upsets or surprises, we are just competitive. Many of the teams in our league can play in some of the major conferences,” stated Kennesaw State’s Mike Sansing.

The strength of traditional powers like Stetson and Jacksonville forced programs like Belmont to improve or forget about entertaining title hopes. The league’s newest teams only added to the formidable lineup.

Not only were the teams great against each other, notable non-conference wins abounded. FGCU beat three ranked teams in a seven-day span in April including No. 2 Florida State while Belmont defeated 2011 College World Series participant Vanderbilt. Stetson took one from Florida State as well while North Florida knocked off Florida and Mercer claimed a win off Mississippi State just to name a few.

“In the last eight or 10 years, I have seen so many good wins against non-conference opponents and so many great programs in our league that it doesn’t surprise me to see the wins. Players in this league feel comfortable playing against other good teams,” added Jarvis.

Championship Saturday gives the A-Sun one more chance to showcase the excellence of its baseball.

Owls Add to Baseball History at A-Sun Championship

Two years stick out in the Kennesaw State annals; 1994 and 1996.

Those are the years that Head Coach Mike Sansing and the Owls first won the NAIA National Championship and followed with the NCAA Division II title.

The Owls are looking to add to their mantle with an appearance in the NCAA Regionals and a 2012 Atlantic Sun Baseball Championship trophy.

In their first appearance in the A-Sun Championship, the Owls went 0-2 in 2011 with losses to Mercer and Belmont and debuted the 2012 tournament with a 12-4 loss to FGCU. The Owls rebounded with a 3-1 win vs. the defending champion Bruins for the program’s first Division I postseason win.

Kennesaw State Head Coach Mike Sansing – in his 21st season as the Owls leader – downplayed the importance of the win and spoke more to the team’s and program’s goal.

“The win on Thursday was important but it wasn’t something we were striving for because our goal is to make it to regionals and it was just a step we had to take to get there. It wasn’t as much as thinking about the first win and celebrating it but more of it helping us get through the tournament and winning.”

KSU began its transition from Division II to D-I in 2006 with a 24-23 overall record and 12-18 in Atlantic Sun play. Over the next three seasons, the Owls climbed up the A-Sun standings to a runner-up finish in the 2008 and 2009 regular seasons, but had to sit out the conference tournament due to NCAA D-I Reclassification Rules. The Owls first appeared in the conference championship until the 2011 season when Sansing and his crew finished 18-11 in league game and earned the three seed.

“The reclassification period was a difficult time because we weren’t able to get to the postseason and the fact we had been to so many prior to that. We worked through that time and now it’s good to look at where we are now.”

Helping Sansing’s cause this year is a collection of nine seniors to go along a talented freshman crew, which features two A-Sun All-Freshman performers—Max Pentecost and Justin McCalvin.

“It’s a senior group of guys, but our captains are two juniors with Peyton Hart and Ronnie Freeman,” Sansing said of his junior leaders. “However, they are guys that have been in our program for a few years and are leaders on our squad so they act like seniors.”

Despite the senior-laden group of Owls it was the freshmen honorees that stole the show. McCalvin tossed four innings of scoreless relief, while Pentecost delivered the knockout punch with a bases-clearing three-RBI double in the eighth inning.

“Max has caught for us some this year and been our designated hitter throughout the tournament and he has produced big hits for us this year. You have to look at that hit and it’s definitely the biggest one he has had.”

With a steady mix of leaders and break-through freshmen, Kennesaw State can reach their goal of a regional as quickly as two more wins in the A-Sun Championship.

Records Continue to Fall as Craig Caps Career

Belmont’s Dylan Craig put the conference on notice with his first season in Nashville that he would to be a force to be reckoned with throughout his career in the Atlantic Sun.

In 2009, Craig led the Bruins in batting at .397, while recording a league-high nine triples and 92 hits – both program records. The standout season earned the Signal Mountain, Tenn. native A-Sun Freshman of the Year honors.

As his career continued Craig and his fellow six seniors have helped the Bruins and Head Coach Dave Jarvis to several program firsts including; the 2011 A-Sun Baseball Championship Title, two wins in the NCAA Regional – the first-ever victories for the institution in the Division-I era and the 2012 A-Sun Regular-Season crown.

Craig has left his mark on the A-Sun record books as well as on Belmont’s mantle, amassing 327 hits, 191 runs scored, 23 triples, 430 total bases and 942 at-bats. All of which rank in the A-Sun career record books, while his triple and hit totals rank first and fourth, respectively.

Friday’s game with Mercer showcased Craig’s all-around effort as the senior centerfielder recorded two hits, two runs scored and two putouts in center to help Belmont to its sixth A-Sun Championship win in the past two seasons.

“As you watch Dylan work on a day-to-day basis in practices and in games he is always mentally in the game and working hard,” stated Belmont Head Coach Dave Jarvis. “The thing that sticks out the most in my mind for Dylan is his consistency at the plate has been his trademark to go along with his speed from the left side of the plate prevents him from slumping.”

Throughout his career, Craig has been a stable force in centerfield as he has appeared in the starting lineup in all but one of Belmont’s contests in his four-year career and as Jarvis can attest it allows the Bruins Head Coach to rest easy.

“It’s a tribute to his work ethic in the weight room, his conditioning program and his toughness because there have been several games where Dylan has been a little banged up and he has played through it,” Jarvis added of his centerfielder. “One thing that has been a steady force throughout his four years here is when I write his name in on the lineup for centerfield I know that part of the defense is completely covered.”

Last season, Craig sat out the first game of a doubleheader on May 3rd for the first time in his career. It was a feeling unbeknownst to the senior and one that he hasn’t felt since as he has been in the starting lineup in all of the Bruins’ 59 contests this season.

“I love being out here and my body has adapted to playing every day and I get sore sometimes but I just push through it. It’s a good toll it takes on my body because I’m out here doing what I love and I have fun out here.”

With Craig covering center and leading off the lineup, Belmont is 2-1 at the A-Sun Championship and looking to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since 2006.

“Every year our team has improved since my freshman year and we have had a lot of young pitchers step up. Now I think we have what it takes and we have always had what it takes, but we are stepping up and playing together the way we should.”

However, the remainder of the 2012 Atlantic Sun Baseball Championship plays out Jarvis knows the impact that Craig has had on Belmont’s program and in the A-Sun.

“I’m so proud that his career here at Belmont University has been a success and I’m so proud that he has been a Bruin.”

Thursday, May 24, 2012

FGCU Is Making the Most of Its Youth Movement

FGCU senior Jason Forjet is enjoying his role in the Eagles' youth movement.
A quote attributed to Rosalyn S. Yalow shares that “The excitement of learning separates the young from the old.”

In a battle of two of the hottest teams in the A-Sun, one of its youngest teams continued its education of how to win big games in one of the toughest conferences in collegiate baseball.

With a starting nine that included three freshmen and three sophomores, FGCU fanned the flames of its hot streak and continued it maturation process by winning perhaps its biggest game of the year, knocking off the also red-hot Mercer Bears, 4-3, in dramatic fashion.

In the bottom of the ninth, graduate student Ryan Gebhart singled and then a trio of Eagle sophomores took over. A Sean Dwyer single, followed by a Brandon Bednar sacrifice fly scored Ryan Gebhart to tie the game at 3. A sacrifice bunt by freshman Zack Tillery, followed by an intentional walk of Mike Reeves, advanced Dwyer to third. Andrew Valencia, the third member of the trio of starting sophomores, singled to right center and Dwyer crossed the plate for the Eagles’ dramatic victory.

The young Eagles are becoming used to late-season drama, as they won nine of their last 12 A-Sun games to earn a berth into the tournament. On top of that, now five of their last seven victories have been by one run.

FGCU’s late-season push also includes a dramatic three-game sweep of preseason favorite Stetson last weekend in DeLand. Stetson, preparing to host the A-Sun championship, entered the weekend looking to clinch the regular-season title. The Eagles would have none of it, sweeping a doubleheader and dropping the Hatters to the No. 6 seed.

But for FGCU it wasn’t always this dramatic or exciting. With so many young players and new faces, there were plenty of growing pains. The Eagles lost three of their first four games, all at home, and opened A-Sun play 4-7.

Jason Forjet, one of only five seniors on the 35-man roster, has seen this team seemingly grow up before his eyes. He has witnessed the development of its chemistry and has joined with his teammates in playing with a new level of focus. Forjet believes that the Eagles’ early season struggles in some big games have proven to be a catalyst for their current success.

“Like Coach (Tollett) says, it’s good to play those bigger schools so you can gain that experience,” says Forjet. “We have grown a lot, not just on the field but off the field and it showed tonight as we came out with a great win.”

Forjet’s complete-game performance (2-4, 3.01 ERA) sprinkled in a bit of experience amidst the drama to help keep the Eagles within striking distance. Through nine innings he allowed three runs on four hits, struck out 11 and walked two.

“I wanted to go out there and give my best effort and let the defense work,” says Forjet. “They did a great job for us tonight while we waited for the offense to come through. Overall, it was a great night.” 

As has been the case most of the season, the majority of the damage done by FGCU in the win came from its younger players. Dwyer was 3-for-5 with a run scored; Bednar was 3-for-3 with a walk, two RBI and a run scored; Tillery was 1-for-3 with a walk; and Valencia was 1-for-5 with the game-winning RBI.

The season statistics and FGCU’s presence on the A-Sun’s All-Conference teams bear out the leadership of this team’s younger players even further. Dwyer leads the team in seven offensive categories, and the top two players in eight offensive categories and five defensive categories are freshmen or sophomores. The only exception is Gebhart, whose experience has provided a stabilizing consistency. He leads the team in 10 offensive categories and was 2-for-4 with two runs scored in tonight’s victory.

On the All-Conference Team, Sophomore Ricky Knapp was a unanimous selection as Pitcher of the Year. Knapp posted the best ERA in the A-Sun (2.12) and earned eight wins during the regular season, which ranks second in the A-Sun. His three complete-game shutouts topped the conference, while his 106.1 innings pitched was second-best. Knapp enters the A-Sun Championship with FGCU as the four-seed and a .243 opposing batting average - eighth-best in the conference. He picked up the win in the Eagles’ dominating victory over USC Upstate.

Freshmen Brady Anderson, Zach Tillery and Kirby Retzer were also members of the A-Sun All-Freshmen Team. FGCU joined Belmont as the only teams with three players on the 14-man team.

As if they needed any additional confidence, the Eagles entered the championship with a mark of 10-5 against the five other teams in the field. Now as they begin day three 2-0 in the A-Sun Championship, they know they have at least one win over the remaining teams in the bracket.

As an outgoing leader, Forjet expects big wins and postseason opportunities to become more plentiful for FGCU. He understands that these players will be able to look back at what this season and this championship has meant and will mean for the future of this program.

“These young guys coming this far will be a great experience,” he says. “Next year, they will go through some of the same things. Our goal is to always go to Omaha, and it’s no different this year."

Freeman Helps Keep KSU's Owls in Flight

KSU Junior Catcher Ronnie Freeman
For a team to have success in the postseason its stars need to shine, and that is exactly what junior Ronnie Freeman has done in his brief postseason career for Kennesaw State.

In his two games in the 2010-11 A-Sun Championship, Freeman went 6-for-9 with a homerun, two runs scored and two RBI. Playing in the Owls’ second consecutive Championship appearance this season, Freeman is 4-for-8 with the RBI that gave the Owls the lead over Belmont in the 3-1 victory that saved KSU from elimination.

The Lawrenceville, Ga., native also entered this year’s championship on a tear, hitting .411 (30-for-73) over his final 18 games of the regular season. A preseason All-Conference honoree, Freeman did not disappoint this season as he finished in the top 10 of A-Sun statistics, including fifth in the A-Sun in batting average (.353), eighth in on-base percentage (.425), sixth in hits (76), tied for second in RBI (52) with teammate Andy Chriscaden, and 10th in total bases (107).

But what else would you expect from one of the A-Sun’s top players in 2011-12, one that is expected to be one of the conference’s top draft picks in the next month?

According to Perfect Game, KSU leads the A-Sun with seven of the conference’s top-25 prospects for the upcoming 2012 MLB draft: No.2 prospect Max Pentecost (projected rd. 2-4), No.3 Ronnie Freeman (rd. 2-4), No. 6 Steve Janas (rd. 4-6), No.12 Catlan Kendrick (rd. 10-15), No. 18 Travis Dean (rd. 12-20), No.21 Nathan Harsh (rd. 12-20), No. 22 Andy Chriscaden (rd. 15-25).

As a team player, Freeman’s play and leadership helped the Owls finish 32-24 (15-11) and secure the No. 3 seed in the A-Sun Championship. His Owls knocked off ACC foe Virginia Tech, 6-3, in early February and won series from Jacksonville State, Jacksonville, and ETSU and from three of the five teams in the A-Sun championship (Stetson, Belmont, and Mercer). KSU also swept Georgia State, UAB, and A-Sun foe North Florida.

Individually the honors keep on coming for the junior catcher, as he was one of 13 players voted to the A-Sun Baseball Academic All-Conference Team. Freeman posted a cumulative GPA of 3.88 while majoring in exercise and health science at KSU.

He is also an All-Atlantic Sun First Team selection this season, one of only three players to be unanimously selected for the honor. Freeman was also selected as Player of the Week on March 19 as he went 9-for-23 on the week with 12 RBI and two runs scored in the wins over UAB and Mercer. It was his fourth POW career POW honor. 
 Standout catcher Ronnie Freeman’s success has not just happened overnight. As a sophomore he batted .392 while earning Second Team All-Atlantic Sun Conference honors. He played this summer in the NECBL and was named one of the top prospects in the league while also enjoying a stint playing for the USA Collegiate National Team, where he hit .500 (5 for 10).
Freeman also made headlines last season as he set the Kennesaw State record with a 42-game hitting streak. The streak is the 12th longest in the history of the NCAA and the fifth longest in NCAA Division I history. It is also the longest Division I hitting streak in the state of Georgia.
As a freshman, Freeman enjoyed one of the best freshman seasons in the program’s history. His laundry list of awards included: 2010 Collegiate Baseball/Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American; Ping!Baseball First Team Freshman All-America Squad; Second Team Freshman All-American by the College Baseball Writer’s Association; and Second Team All-Atlantic Sun Conference selection.
Like this season, the freshman peaked at the right time and ended the season with a 29-game active hitting streak and led the team overall in batting with a .365 mark. He topped the Owls with 26 multi-hit games, including a team-high seven three-hit games. Additionally, Freeman posted and enjoyed a streak of six consecutive multi-hit games during the season.
But to Freeman, all that mattered on Thursday was that his Owls got their first win in the A-Sun Championship and lived to play another day.
“I felt good about today. I felt like we battled the whole time,” said Freeman. “Our defense is a little shaky right now, but getting that first win will give us some confidence. We are just going to play hard and just take it one day at a time.”
The Owls will face host No. 6 Stetson at 3 p.m. on Friday in the second elimination game for both teams. KSU took two of three from Stetson during the season, outscoring the Hatters 18-9 in the pair of wins in Kennesaw.

Dean of A-Sun Coaches Happiest at Stetson

The year is 1977.

The first Apple Computer goes on sale. Jimmy Carter is elected as the President of United States and the first oil flows through the Trans Alaskan Oil Pipeline. The precursor to the GPS system in use today is started by US Department of Defense. Elvis Presley dies from a heart attack at age 42. “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” is released and the Eagles are topping the charts with “Hotel California.”

The average cost of new house is $49,300.00, the average income per year is $15,000.00 and the cost of a gallon of gas is $.65.

And Pete Dunn is in his first year at Stetson University as a coach.

More than three decades later, the veteran Dunn is still leading the Hatters, one of the Atlantic Sun Conference’s most prolific programs. As a master teacher, Dunn has guided the Stetson baseball program to great successes on the field. The numbers speak for themselves:

•   He has led Stetson to 1,202 victories, which ranks eighth on the list of active coaches.
•   His Stetson teams have averaged 36.5 wins a year over his 32 seasons.
•   He has taken the Hatters to 16 NCAA Regional Tournament appearances.
•   He has helped Stetson to eight Atlantic Sun Conference titles and has been named league coach of the year a record six times.
•   He has sent 72 players on to play professional baseball. Five of those players were drafted in the first four rounds of the MLB Amateur Draft, and seven went on to reach the Major Leagues. 

But Pete Dunn is more than just a baseball coach, although being a baseball coach is all he ever really wanted to do. Looking beyond the wins, conference titles, and all of the other accolades that have come along with guiding a successful program, Dunn is still excited about his profession because he enjoys having an impact on the lives of the young men who play for him. He enjoys being a teacher – whether he is teaching a player how to bunt properly, or teaching a life lesson.

“I like teaching. That’s what coaches are, teachers,” Dunn says. “I have my teaching certificate and taught in the public schools prior to coming back to Stetson to coach, so I’m a teacher by trade. I think it’s rewarding to take these young men and not only mold them into good players who are team oriented but, more importantly, teach them life skills which will make them better people.”

While Dunn’s tenure makes him the dean of the conference, he also leads of list of many veteran coaches that continue to drive the A-Sun forward and into the national spotlight. Dunn and his nine other colleagues represent more than 5,400 victories, and their careers span 190 years of coaching.

Included in that list is Jacksonville’s Terry Alexander, who is in his 33rd year as JU, the 22nd as head coach. Belmont’s Dave Jarvis is in his 30th year of coaching, the last 15 of which have been in Nashville.

KSU’s Mike Sansing has been at it for 21 years. USC Upstate’s Matt Fincher and ETSU’s Tony Skole have been coaches for 15 years. Although in his second season at North Florida, Smoke Laval is in his 13th season as a coach. The “babies” of the group include Lipscomb’s Jeff Forehand (11 years, 5 at LU), FGCU’s Dave Tollett (10) and Mercer’s Craig Gibson (9). 

Dunn has opportunities to experience much in the sport that he loves so much. He played professional baseball, taught and coached at the high school level, coached with legendary coach Ron Polk at Georgia Southern and as an assistant with the 1998 United States National Team, and he has continued to teach the game to international players.

In honor of his 1,000th win, the City of DeLand proclaimed February 9, 2007 (opening day) as“Pete Dunn Day.” Later in that same year he was inducted, along with his God-son Chipper Jones, into the Central Florida Sports Hall of Fame.

His vision and hard work helped Stetson build a stadium that quickly garnered acclaim as one of the nation’s finest collegiate facilities. Melching Field at Conrad Park, a$4.5 million stadium jointly built by Stetson University and the City of DeLand, opened on Feb. 12, 1999. The facility once again hosts the Atlantic Sun Conference Baseball Championship, the ninth time the event has been in DeLand in the facilities’ 14 years of existence.

In the years since first getting the chance to lead the baseball program at his alma mater, there have been many personal and professional accomplishments. There have also been opportunities to take his coaching talents elsewhere.

“I have had several opportunities to leave,” says Dunn. “It was exciting and nice to be courted other schools, especially by an SEC school. But, it all goes back to the fact that I think this is one of the best spots in the nation to be. Stetson has great geography, great facilities and a very supportive administration.

“For me, the reward has been to be able to be as successful as we have, for as long as we have, at the school that I played at and graduated from. There are not a whole lot of guys who have done that.

“It has been a great ride,” Dunn continues. “There have been a lot of changes, but that is life. I say this in all sincerity, I have been very, very blessed and fortunate that I have been able to surround myself with awfully good people.”

The challenges that come with coaching have also changed over the years, but Dunn says he still relishes the opportunities he has to have an impact on young players.

“One of the things that’s remained constant is that the guys who play on this level still love the game,” says Dunn. “Most of them want to play at the next level, but obviously most don’t get that opportunity. The nice thing is that the players we get here at Stetson are academically oriented, which means their parents have pushed them to be good students as well as good baseball players. You have to be disciplined in order to be a good enough student to get into Stetson and do well.

“I think we get a higher-caliber kid. I’ve always believed we have higher-caliber kids here at Stetson because of the academics.”

Dunn is asked often about how much longer he wants to coach. He has a passion outside of baseball, but his commitment to the Hatters’ baseball program prevents him from spending as much time as he would like on his boat.

“I love to fish,” Dunn says. “I have always said that baseball is my profession and fishing is my passion. One of these days I look forward to my only worry being where I am I going to fish today.”

Childhood Friends and Teammates Contributing to No. 1 Belmont

Belmont Freshmen Jamie Ritchie (L) and Matt Beaty (R)
As eight and nine-year olds growing up in Buford, Georgia, Matt Beaty and Jamie Ritchie did all of the things that good friends do. They hung out a lot and spent the night at each other’s homes, often staying up all night playing video games. Ritchie’s mom was actually Beaty’s fourth-grade teacher, so they also had that in common. And of course they played baseball together.

Beaty and Ritchie played together four years until prior to their seventh grade year when Beaty’s family moved to Northwest Tennessee. Ritchie says that while he had a speed advantage over Beaty, Beaty was superior on other areas, including at the plate.

The two kept in rare contact through MySpace over the next four years, but didn’t see one another or really talk until their junior year in high school. That is when, in an interesting twist of fate, Belmont assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Scott Hall began recruiting Beaty and Ritchie. As Hall began contacting them, how could he know that the two knew each other and had been good friends? Ritchie recalls that it was during a conversation with Hall that he learned about the possibility of playing once again with an old friend.

“Coach Hall and I were talking, and he said ‘I am going to tell you a name, and you tell me what you think.’ I got excited and told him that Matt was a really good player and that he definitely should keep recruiting him. He had no idea that we knew each other.”

The recruiting process continued, and a trip was orchestrated so that they both visited on the same weekend. They saw each other for the first time in years at the hotel, and they immediately began catching up.

“The experience was very exciting. I really enjoyed the visit to Belmont and liked what it had to offer, so I committed first,” Ritchie says. “Matt had other schools looking at him, so it took him longer to commit, but I like to think that I had a little influence on his decision to come to Belmont.”

As freshmen both have made an immediate impact on the Bruins. Beaty earned membership to the A-Sun All-Freshman Team after leading Belmont in triples (5), home runs (7), and RBI (42) during his first season in Nashville.

“I was a little surprised about making the All-Freshman team, because I didn’t have the year I wanted to at the plate,” says Beaty. “But I was able to come in immediately and have some success and contribute to a good season for us, and now we are the No. 1 seed in the championship.”

Beaty started 54 of the 55 games in which he played, while Ritchie also started in 38 of the 48 games in which he saw action. Beaty was sixth on the team with a .257 average, while Ritchie hit .217 with 15 RBI.

“Jamie did a spectacular job behind the plate this year, and he deserves a lot of credit for the success of our pitching staff as he directed and kept things under control behind the plate,” says Beaty.

Ritchie echoes praise for his long-time friend and teammate. “We lost a few seniors who were hitters from last year’s team, and Matt filled in very well as a freshman with power. He is also a versatile infielder and he has done a great job at third base, which is his natural position.”

The two are also roommates, which Ritchie says had made the transition from high school to college life easier for both of them.

“The great thing about a team is that it is about camaraderie,” Ritchie says. “The closer to your teammates that you feel, the better you play. Even though Matt and I had not seen each other for a while, it makes it easier to adjust to college life when you already know someone coming in. That has been a key for us feeling at home here.

“Being roommates is an interesting situation, because I am more laid back, while Matt likes to change the way the room is arranged every two or three months. We both keep things in order, but I just go along with whatever changes he makes.”

Even though the duo played in their first A-Sun Championship tonight, they understand that their efforts were a part of defending last year’s title. Last year Belmont won the championship as a No. 6 seed, but this year their fortune places more pressure as the top seed. The Bruins entered the championship winners of their last five and six of their last eight, along with two wins against the Hatters in the regular season (23-4, 5-0 on March 23-24).

“Lately we have been trying to get back to playing the caliber of ball that we are capable of,” says Ritchie. “We hit a rough patch mid-season, but we have picked it up lately. We have won several in a row now, plus we had some success against Stetson during the season so I think that gives us an edge.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

FGCU's Ricky Knapp Aims the Eagles at Another Championship

A-Sun Pitcher of the Year Ricky Knapp
Atlantic Sun Conference Pitcher of the Year Ricky Knapp has been around baseball his entire life. 

His father, Rick, made his career in baseball. The elder Knapp played for Virginia Tech and was selected in the 41st round of the 1983 Major League Baseball Draft. He then pitched five seasons in the Minor Leagues for the Texas Rangers organization, and has served as the minor league pitching coordinator for the Minnesota Twins, the pitching coach for the Detroit Tigers, and is currently the minor league pitching coordinator for the Kansas City Royals

What began as just a good time being at the ballpark with Dad and around players and coaches eventually would come to serve as a tremendous benefit for Ricky.

“At first it was all about just being around him, plus the atmosphere was fun to be around as a kid,” says Knapp. “His job is to be a coach’s coach, to figure out how to best develop the players he is working with and get them to the major leagues as quickly as possible.

“As I got older I started picking up on what he would tell them. I learned about the mental approach to the game, particularly as a pitcher, and how to develop your plan of attack. I learned so much about the importance of keeping yourself composed. If you can do that at that level, you have a good shot of staying around. As a pitcher, there is only so much that you can control – and mainly it is yourself.

“How you react to situations, keeping to your plan, approaching the next pitch, adjusting to what comes your way – those are all components to success as a pitcher. It definitely made a difference in my development.”

A sophomore from Port Charlotte, Fla., Knapp posted the best ERA in the A-Sun (2.12) and earned eight wins on the season, which ranks second in the A-Sun. His three complete-game shutouts topped the conference, while his 106.1 innings pitched was second best. Knapp enters the A-Sun Championship with FGCU as the four-seed and a .243 opposing batting average - eighth best in the conference.

Knapp has already etched his name in the FGCU record books in just his second year on campus. He becomes the third FGCU pitcher in just its fifth season as a member of the A-Sun to earn Pitcher of the Year honors, joining 2008 honoree Richard Bleier and 2010 Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year and current Chicago White Sox starter Chris Sale.

Comparing sophomore seasons with Sale, Knapp finished the regular season with an 8-4 record through 14 appearances, including 13 starts, owning a 2.12 ERA in 106.1 innings of work with a .243 opponent batting average. On the flip side, Sale finished with a 7-4 record through 14 appearances, including 12 starts, holding a 2.72 ERA in 89.1 innings pitched with a .246 opponent batting average. Additionally, Knapp passed Sale’s single-season record for innings pitched (103.0) which he set in the 2010 campaign. 

As you would expect from the son of a coach, Knapp attributes his hard work prior to the season to his accomplishments. He says that while he put in the physical preparation as well, sharpening his mental game is what he believes led him to a successful season and postseason honors.

“Everything that I was able to accomplish this spring started long before the season began. I had a good summer working on pitches and locations, and that carried over into the fall. During the season there really wasn’t a time when things ‘clicked,’ it was more of being consistent.

“I had a good start against Miami, and from there I was really able to execute every game, not worry about overpowering hitters but preparing for them, preparing for each start and then remembering the successes and repeat what I did.”

Knapp is also the third Eagle in program history to earn a unanimous first team selection, and becomes the 13th FGCU selection all-time to earn a first team nod. The two-time A-Sun Pitcher of the Week leads the A-Sun and is 42nd nationally in overall ERA, leads in A-Sun-only ERA (1.56), and is second in conference in innings pitched and wins.

Also among the league’s top 10 in opponent batting average, Knapp has started the first game of all nine A-Sun series, and also set an FGCU single-season record with three shutouts and a D-1 program record with four complete games. This season marks the second time in which Knapp has earned league recognition, following his All-Freshmen team honor last year.

Knapp chose FGCU for several reasons. Being a Port Charlotte native, the school was less than an hour from home. Plus, at this time his Dad was with the Tigers so being in Fort Myers also meant that he was closer to him during spring training as well. Plus, FGCU was, as Ricky puts it, “playing good ball, and winning a lot of games.” Last but not least, the school had his major of choice – civil engineering – so FGCU became a lock.

Given the Eagles’ success in the last few years, Knapp entered the A-Sun Championship with just a few things on his mind.

“I am looking forward to the high caliber of baseball that will be played in this championship,” Knapp says. “Every team here has a chance to win. We always seem to rise to the occasion when we play teams at this level, so I think we just need to play in the moment and execute.

“Personally, I am going to worry about winning ‘this’ pitch, and executing as I have all season.”

Streaking Mercer Similar to Its 2010 Championship Team

Mercer's Brandon Love

What a difference a month can make.

On the afternoon of April 22, Mercer closed out a 7-2 loss to ETSU and fell to 7-11 in the A-Sun standings. Given the strength of the conference, the young Bears faced an uphill climb to qualify for the 2012 A-Sun Baseball Championship.

Fast forward to the afternoon of May 23. Behind seven strong innings of work by southpaw senior Brandon Love and an offense that took advantage of every opportunity, the fifth-seeded Bears cruised to a 11-2 victory over No. 2 USC Upstate in game one of their seventh straight A-Sun Championship. With the win, Mercer (38-19) won for the 14th time in its last 15 games and has to be considered one of the favorites to capture the championship title.

Head Coach Craig Gibson liked what he saw from his team today, and despite the fact that a No. 5 seed has never won the A-Sun Championship, he likes his chances as his Bears plan to extend their hot streak as they face the winner of FGCU/Kennesaw State.

“Today we pitched well, we defended well with no errors and we got some timely hitting, so hopefully we will continue to play well,” Gibson said.

“I think at this point in time the seeds don’t really mean a whole lot, there is so much parity out here. We are just glad to be 1-0.”

This Bears team is reminiscent of the one that just two years ago incorporated the A-Sun Championship into its hot streak and claimed the 2010 title. That Mercer team entered the A-Sun championship with a 13-3 record in its last 16 games and was the No. 2 seed in the championship. The Bears went 4-0 to win that title, then moved on to the NCAA Regional at Georgia Tech, where Mercer went 1-2 with a win vs. Elon.

How do the two squads compare?

During this current 15-game stretch, the Bears set a new mark with 37 regular season wins and have posted some impressive numbers. At the plate, Mercer has scored 11 first-inning runs while not allowing the opposition to dent the scoreboard. Mercer has hit .329 as a team, with Austin Barrett (.467) and Chesny Young (.466) blistering the way for the Bears, followed by DJ Johnson (.373) and Evan Boyd (.306). The Bears have hit 16 home runs and tallied 85 RBI as well.

In 2010, the Bears hit .361 at the plate during their 13-3 streak, with 32 home runs and 136 RBI. All but one of the 11 Bears who played during that stretch had a batting average better than .300. 

The Bears’ pitching, superior in its numbers to the 2010 team, has also been dominant in this current streak. The hurlers have posted a team ERA of 2.42 with Brandon Barker (1.12, 24 IP), David Randall (1.19, 22.2 IP) and David Teasley (1.29, 14 IP) leading the way. Love, who dominated the Spartans in the championship opener, posted a 2.95 ERA in 21.1 innings pitched. This year opponents have driven in only 39 runs, compared to 85 against the 2010 squad.

In 2010, the Bears posted a 5.29 mark over their 13-3 streak, led by Justice French (4.41, 32.2 IP) and Matt McCall (4.88, 31.1 IP). No pitcher had an ERA below 3.52 and six different pitchers tallied double-digit innings pitched, compared to five from this year’s team. In 2010, as a sophomore Love posted a 2-1 record with a 6.75 during their successful stretch.

Not to be lost in the Bears’s current streak is the consistency with which Gibson and his Mercer team has played over the last few years. Over the past two seasons, Mercer has won 76 games, ranking them 21st among the nation’s best programs for wins. The Bears trail only Stetson among A-Sun teams, as the Hatters tallied 77 wins in the same period.

Another byproduct of the Bears’ hot play is the fact that, after receiving votes in the poll for the majority of the season, Mercer finally broke into the College Baseball Daily Mid-Major Top-25 Poll released on May 21. The Bears entered the rankings as the 22nd ranked team after a perfect 4-0 last week, joining Stetson in the poll from the A-Sun Conference.

Next for the Bears is the winner of the FGCU/Kennesaw State game. Mercer tallied marks of 1-2 vs. the Owls and 2-1 vs. the Eagles this season. Gibson says he really is looking for nothing in particular from the game that coud help his team, he just wants the Bears to continue to play well.

“I think the best team is going to win this thing. You really have to play four or five great days of baseball," says Gibson. "We just survived to play tomorrow night against whoever wins this next game.”

Grigg's Guidance Propels the Dolphins to New Heights

Jacksonville Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Ron Grigg and his Dolphins are becoming a fixture at the NCAA Championships. This year he returns with JU student-athletes for the seventh year in a row. This year, however, feels different, almost surreal.

Perhaps that is because winning seven consecutive outdoor championships, coupled with seven consecutive indoor titles, stretched beyond even Grigg’s imagination. Even when the Dolphins won their seventh indoor championship in February, that lucky number seven to Grigg didn’t have the same feel as the previous six; he seemed even a bit disappointed by the feel of a 164-143 win over Kennesaw State.  

“We won and it didn’t feel like it used to feel. I thought we didn’t have the same team chemistry as we had in the past and we’ve been spoiled that way,’’ Grigg said. “The reality is we had more than a third of our team graduate and when you have that much talent and continuity graduate and bring in a new group there’s growing pains we haven’t been accustomed to."

Regardless of how it feels, Ron Grigg continues to raise the level of the Dolphins’ success in his 10th season as the director and his 13th overall at JU.

Grigg became the director of track and field and cross country at JU in 2002 after serving as the associate head coach under former head coach Becky Motley for a year. Grigg originally came to JU in 1998 before leaving to serve as an assistant coach at Kansas State from 1999 to 2001.

He has made the Dolphins track program a beacon in the Atlantic Sun Conference by winning the A-Sun Indoor and Outdoor Championships in each of the last seven seasons – earning “Coach of the Year” honors in all 14 of those titles, as well as earning the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association South Region Women’s “Coach of the Year” recognition in 2008.

Besides the four All-America honorees and the 18 NCAA Division I Championship qualifiers, Grigg has coached more than 100 A-Sun Conference champions and 200 all-conference performers. School records have been set in 20 of 23 outdoor events and 19 out of 21 indoor track events during Grigg's tenure as assistant and head coach.

His teams have also shown success in the classroom, receiving the USTFCCCA All-Academic Team award for 10 consecutive years (2002-11). Since his return in 2001, the Dolphins have had more than 200 academic all-conference selections among the cross country and track teams.

This season the Dolphins swept the indoor and outdoor titles for the seventh straight year, a conference record they took ownership of last season with their sixth consecutive victory. The Dolphins have yet to lose an indoor title since its inception in 2006, while JU’s outdoor championship surpassed UCF (2000-05) for the most consecutive titles in A-Sun history. 

So why, then, is Grigg dissatisfied this season despite such an amazing list of accomplishments? Part of Grigg’s reasoning centered around his team’s sense of purpose.

“The meet would go off and we’d have a good performance or two right away and it would stay that way,’’ Grigg said. “We’d just stay hot. Everybody expected it and they came very business-like to get the job done.’’

In Grigg’s mind, that wasn’t happening this year and that meant more adjustment.

“There are a couple of things happening simultaneously,’’ he said. “First, the other teams are getting better and it’s not as easy to have the margins of victories that we’ve had in the past. And really, those margins of victory aren't very realistic. We’ve done it so much we’ve created a level of expectation where it’s become normal. So, when we have a 25-point or 24-point victory and people believe that is close, it’s close relative to what we’ve done in the past.’’

During the outdoor season, Grigg wasn't seeing a significant difference from the indoor performance which is why his expectation for this meet outdoors championship were very different from the actual outcome.

“We worked hard to point out what I thought the issues were,’’ he said. “Ultimately, the girls have to work through it. I can’t make them act a certain way. When the gun goes off, it’s up to them to execute.’’

Finally, on Wednesday before the UNF meet on March 30, Grigg and the staff walked out of a team meeting at the Davis College of Business and let the athletes work any chemistry issues out among themselves.

“I said ‘A lot of you new kids haven’t been around to know what it’s like. The seniors have been’ and I left the room. I told the seniors to explain it to new kids because my explanations haven’t seemed to work. I called the five seniors to the front of the room and I said ‘I am going to let you sort it out’ and left.’’

Something worked because early in the A-Sun outdoor championships the throwers had early success, just as in the past, and the remainder of the team, just as in the past, followed suit for the lopsided win. The Dolphins scored 178 points on the final day to finish with 242 points, 91 points better than second-place Kennesaw State.

“I think a key was them recognizing they are talented and that if they allowed themselves to be who they are we’ll handle our business,’’ Grigg said. “It was darn near perfect the way they competed. We worked really hard to coach them up but I wasn’t seeing it the way I thought I would during the regular season so I was pleasantly surprised that the talent I knew we had came to the surface at the right time."

So once again Grigg has his Dolphins take their places in another NCAA event, as eight JU student-athletes will compete in six events beginning today at the NCAA East Preliminary Round at North Florida’s Hodges Stadium in Jacksonville.

Freshman Courtney Walker is in the 100-meter for the Dolphins, while juniors Bienna Freeman and Joane Pierre are running in the 800-meter for the second straight season. Senior Stacey Young (100-meter hurdles) and junior LaTonya Payne (400-meter hurdles) are in the hurdles for the Dolphins.

Walker, a local native, ran a Hodges Stadium record time of 11.57 at the A-Sun Championships in April to earn her first postseason spot. Freeman had an A-Sun best time of 2:07.16 at the Pepsi Florida Relays before bettering it at the Georgia Tech Invitational in 2:07.07 (program record) on May 12. Pierre ran a 2:07.67 at the UNF Invitational in March.

Junior Charlene Charles will compete in the long jump and freshman Shanique Walker can run in the 100-meter hurdles if someone drops out. JU is also running in the 4x100-relay. Junior Charlene Charles will also represent the JU track & field team in the heptathlon at the NCAA Championships in Des Moines, Iowa June 6.

“I am so proud of and happy for Charlene,” JU head coach Ron Grigg said. “She has been so unlucky with injuries. She has worked so to get back to the NCAA Championships. Being in the meet is a great reward, but she has goals for becoming All American.

Young posted a team-best time in winning the 100-meter hurdles (13.55) at the A-Sun Championships. Like Freeman, Payne bettered her time at the Georgia Tech Invitational by running the 400-meter hurdles in 59.91, the second fastest all-time at JU.

Both Walkers, freshman Shadaey Campbell and Payne posted a winning time of 45.28 in relay at the conference meet in April. Charles may join the Dolphins in running a leg at the meet.

Charles recorded a personal-best leap of 20' 0.25" in the long jump at the UCF Black & Golf Challenge in March. Shanique Walker ran a time of 13.72 for the Dolphins in the 100-meter hurdles at the Georgia Tech Invitational.

“Having eight athletes in six different events qualify for the NCAA East Preliminary Round is a milestone achievement for our program,” Grigg said. “Those eight athletes represent 40 percent of our roster advancing to the post season. This group has accomplished a lot with which to be proud.”