Sunday, May 26, 2013

A-Sun Competition Preps Bucs for Regional Run

The ETSU Buccaneers have seen a resurgence since joining the Atlantic Sun Conference, capped by today’s tournament championship which vaults the Bucs to the NCAA Regionals for the first time in three decades.

In 2011, Head Coach Tony Skole and the Bucs nearly secured the program’s first at-large bid to the NCAA Regionals. ETSU finished the season as the 39th ranked RPI team with a 36-21 record, which included a 17-14 record in A-Sun play and seven overall wins against the nation’s top-100 teams.

However, the NCAA selection committee left the Bucs out of the fray as three other A-Sun teams earned regional bids to give the conference multiple squads in postseason play for the first time since 2007. The Atlantic Sun ranked as the ninth-best conference in the nation in 2011 with six teams in the NCAA RPI Top-100.

“The league is so good and so deep every single year. All the coaches and all the programs get after it and recruit great players,” Skole said. “If you don’t work hard and recruit well, you will get left behind so it has forced us to match that effort.”

The following year, the Johnson City lineup saw a slight dip in wins as the team was shifting onto a new home field in Thomas Stadium, which was still under construction at the time. The Bucs finished 23-32 and missed the conference tournament for the first time in three seasons.

A new motto entered the ETSU clubhouse of Thomas Stadium “The Game Honors Toughness” which was shortened down to “TGHT” and placed on the back of the Buccaneers apparel.

With the new stadium and mantra, the Buccaneers thrived at home with a 20-9 record in their friendly confines, including a 9-3 mark in league play. By the end of the year ETSU racked up a 32-22 tally overall and floated around the top-100 mark of the RPI.

The 2013 Atlantic Sun Baseball Championship at Stetson’s Melching Field seemed like a home away from home as the Buccaneers thrived with two extra-inning victories vs. Stetson followed by Mercer two nights later.

The additional wins pushed the Bucs into the top-100 of the RPI as the victory vs. the Bears gave ETSU its fifth win vs. a top-50 RPI squad and ninth against the best 100 teams in the nation.

Another dramatic victory in the tournament – this time against USC Upstate in walk-off fashion – propelled the Bucs into the championship final where they awaited Kennesaw State. The Tournament MVP Kerry Doane quieted the Owls in a complete game effort while the offense kept the Bucs on top the whole way to claim the title.

“I’m proud of our guys. They really rose to the occasion and played very well the last five or six weeks of the season,” reflected Skole. “We got some momentum this week and rode it all the way out to the end.”

The impetus of playing in one of the best conferences in the country will have long lasting effects on the health of ETSU.

“When we got into the A-Sun, it gave us a chance to create an identity. We had an identity in Southern Conference baseball and it wasn’t the best,” Sokle continued. “Once we got into the A-Sun, we had to break through that to create our own identity.”

The first year in the conference, the Buccaneers made quite the splash in the A-Sun by finishing fifth in the regular season and worked their way into the championship final of the tournament before falling 6-2 to Stetson.

“Over the years, we have had some good teams and really great players. It wasn’t in the cards for those players to break the barrier and reach postseason, but these guys found a way,” commented Skole.

Starting with Bucs’ inaugural A-Sun season in 2006 and now eight years later, ETSU and Skole have created a new identity for themselves; that of a championship program.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Skole's Past Helping in ETSU's Present

Tony Skole knows clutch batting.

In 1990, Skole then a sophomore for The Citadel was a major part of the Bulldogs’ squad that reached the College World Series in Omaha after defeating Miami, 4-1, in Coral Gables. The starting third baseman for the team, Skole and teammate Chris Coker both hit homers in the Atlantic Regional title game vs. the Hurricanes to send the Bulldogs to Rosenblatt Stadium

After an opening loss to LSU in Omaha, The Citadel and Skole rallied from a 4-1 deficit against Cal State Fullerton to capture an 8-7 win. Skole went 2-for-6 in that game with two RBIs with a go-ahead run in the 10th inning, but the Titans rallied to tie the game and extend the contest.

However, Skole came to the plate once again in the 12th inning and gave Citadel the lead for good with his second RBI single of the contest and lock up the Bulldogs’ victory in front of 5,000 fans in attendance at Rosenblatt Stadium.

“I remember everything about that season,” Skole said. “From the conference championship, the regional championship, to the sights, sounds and smells of Omaha, not much of that has faded at all.”

Fast-forward twenty-three years, Skole – now the Head Coach at ETSU - is leading the Buccaneers to its second Atlantic Sun Championship Final as ETSU has captured two extra-inning triumphs – the first A-Sun team to do so in tournament history – after trailing in both games.

No one in attendance at Conrad Park should have expected a different outcome than another dramatic finish to ETSU’s contest against USC Upstate. The Buccaneers trailed twice to the Spartans before fighting back in the fourth and eighth innings.

Eventually, senior Andrew Green sent the Bucs to the conference finale with a RBI single to right field in the bottom of the ninth inning.

“I’m proud of our guys, we hung in there against USC Upstate and found a way to get it done late.” Skole said of his resilient team. “Upstate played well and David Roseboom pitched a great ballgame and made it tough on us early, but our guys hung in there and we had some quality at-bats late in the game.”

Now, ETSU has the chance to capture its first-ever A-Sun Championship title and head to the NCAA Regionals for the first time in program history since 1981.

“We’ve only been here a couple times in the history of ETSU so it’s exciting,” added Skole. “I’m proud of our kids they have worked hard to get to this point and they deserve every bit of it, but we still have a little bit of work to do.”

Green, a second team all-conference outfielder, has been under the tutelage of Skole for four seasons since arriving in Johnson City from Powell, Tenn. as a freshman in 2010.

“I hope I have made an impact,” Green said of his role with the team. “We have a lot of young guys playing so I think my leadership and my experience have made an impact on them on and off the field.”

With the automatic bid on the line tomorrow, Green and the entire ETSU roster are excited about the possibilities that lay ahead for them.

“This team knows its identity,” Skole said. “We’ve really stressed this season that everyone is going to have the opportunity to rise to the occasion and win a ballgame for us.”

No matter how the rest of the A-Sun Championship plays out, Coach Skole and ETSU know that these lasting memories won’t fade anytime soon.

Polar Opposite Starts for Kyle Guide Owls to Win

Imagine your worst fears now multiply it by seven.

That’s what Kennesaw State’s senior pitcher, Kevin Kyle, faced in his last start on May 18th. The Atlanta, Ga., native squared off with Lipscomb in the team’s regular-season series finale with postseason implications on the line.

Kyle faced seven batters in the opening inning. All seven tallied hits. Seven crossed the plate; all of which were credited to his final line. His 37-pitch outing initiated a 16-6 victory for Lipscomb in game two of the series which eventually resulted in the Owls being swept on the final day with a 4-3 loss in the second game of the doubleheader.

“That was a rough outing for me,” Kyle bluntly said of his nightmare start. “I think it kind of goes without saying that it’s not a good feeling not to get an out when you are the starter but the positive that came from that is I had a lot to make up for and had just a little chip on my shoulder today.”

The three-game sweep at the hands of the Bisons dropped KSU to the No. 7 seed in the A-Sun Baseball Championship, which possibly put the Owls as an afterthought when looking at the title contenders in play this week.

“We came in as the seven seed and we’ve been back and forth all year with our offense and pitching,” Kyle continued. “I’m not sure many people really expect much out of us in this tournament, but I’m just so proud of the guys. We have just kept battling, kept our heads down and just fought through adversity.”

Saturday served as a redemption day for Kyle as he took the mound against the same team that nearly increased his ERA by a whole run.

The Melching Field mound was the perfect place for Kyle to earn his revenge as he hurled a complete-game four-hit shutout earlier in the season against Stetson. Even last season, Kyle shined on the Hatters’ home field with an seven-inning outing where he allowed only five hits and no earned runs in a 3-1 win vs. Belmont on day two of the championship to help the Owls reach the championship final for the first time in program history.

A shaky start began with a hit batter and single to third before a sacrifice bunt secured the first out of the inning. However, a wild pitch pushed runners to scoring position and was followed by Tyson Ashcraft’s two-run single putting Kyle and the Owls in a two-run deficit in an elimination game at the conference tournament.

The Owls and Kyle shook off the cob webs of the opening inning as the scoreboard saw zeros posted in each half-inning frame until the top of the seventh when Kennesaw State recorded four hits, four runs and 10 batters came to the plate.

“This conference is so strong that sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen,” KSU Head Coach Mike Sansing said of the game’s opening frame. “Our guys have played well and battled last night and we did the same today. We had the seventh inning with the four runs and our pitcher was able to hold onto it.”

The big inning allowed KSU to walk away with a 4-2 victory as Kevin Kyle pushed his season record to 7-7 and more importantly advanced the Owls to Saturday night’s 5 p.m. match-up against North Florida.

Sansing knew that Kyle and the Owls would be ready to go on Saturday morning as he has seen several great performances from Kyle all season.

“His history showed us he would be ready, he has pitched well all year for us. He is a strike thrower and sometimes you just run into some adversity, but he did well today.”

Losing Streaks Were Made To Be Broken

One thousand, one hundred and twenty-six days or three years and one month.

That is how long it had been since USC Upstate finished on the winning-end of a game with Mercer. The Spartans had dropped 12-straight games to the Bears since April 24, 2010 when Upstate won the opening game of a Saturday doubleheader, 5-2.

With a 5-2 loss in game two, the losing streak began and lasted three seasons including three conference series sweeps; two of which came at home. Adding to the Spartans’ futility vs. Mercer were two A-Sun Championship losses with one in Upstate’s postseason debut last year (11-2) as well as this year’s opening contest (12-6).

Head Coach Matt Fincher and the Spartans had a few chances to snap the streak including an 14-inning game last season, which ended with a DJ Johnson walk-off hit for a 7-6 Bears’ victory. On two other occasions the Spartans fell by only two runs.

In order to get off the schneid, USC Upstate needed to defeat the Bears’ best team over the past four seasons as Mercer won the A-Sun Regular-Season title, set a program record for wins and claimed the No. 1 seed in the conference championship.

Entering an elimination game on Friday against their dominant nemesis, the Spartans clearly were ready to turn the tide.

Five runs went on Melching Field’s scoreboard in the top half of the second inning for Upstate punctuated by Tyler Lesch’s two-RBI single following RBI’s by upper classmen Trey Richardson, Jordan Stampler and Brody Greer.

Three innings later, the Spartans piled on the Bears with three additional runs as Richardson contributed two more RBI’s to Upstate’s cause, pushing the lead to 8-0.

However, the offense wasn’t the only thing clicking for the Spartans as utility player Gaither Bumgardner, the 2012 A-Sun Player of the Year, took the mound with force, striking out eight batters through the first 7.1 innings with only six hits allowed to hold the Bears scoreless until the eighth inning.

“Mercer has had their way with us in the past, but tonight we came out strong and Gaither pitched a great game for us,” said Fincher of tonight’s game.

Bumgardner finished with nine strikeouts and only eight hits allowed in eight innings before Chad Sobotka, Upstate’s closer, wrapped up the game as the final tally read; USC Upstate 9, Mercer 1.

“They are such a great team and have been such a good program in my career,” Bumgardner mentioned of his Friday foe. “We have a lot of respect for those guys and it feels great to finally beat them.”

With the Bears’ dominance now in the past, the Spartans set their sights on the future in the conference championship against ETSU. The Spartans stand on firmer ground against the Buccaneers as Fincher and Upstate have won four of the last six vs. the Bucs.

Fincher added, “I don’t know if we can get two wins vs. ETSU tomorrow but we are certainly going to go out there are try.”

Friday, May 24, 2013

A-Sun Stage Allows for Next Chapter of UNF, KSU Series

North Florida and Kennesaw State, conference rivals since 1998 when the Ospreys joined the Owls in the Peach Belt Conference, met for the 70th time Friday evening at Melching Field in the 2013 Atlantic Sun Conference Baseball Championship, etching another compelling chapter in a rivalry that is now tied at 35 apiece after the Ospreys' thrilling 8-7 extra inning walk-off win.

Freshman shortstop Kyle Brooks raced home with the winning run in the 12th inning on Garrick Ferguson's infield chopper to propel the Ospreys' to the bracket two championship game. Ferguson's heroics capped a memorable affair that saw four ties and three lead changes--much in the same way the series has seesawed back and forth over the years.

The contest marked the rivalry's first postseason meeting in the Division I era, but the 15th time the familiar foes faced off in tournament play. The seeds for the teams' lengthy postseason association were sown in both program's NAIA origins when North Florida defeated the Owls in consecutive seasons (1990 and 1991) in the District 25 Tournament.

After both schools transitioned to NCAA play and joined the ranks of Division II in the mid-90s, the schools landed in different conferences and the series was abandoned. In 1998, however, the Ospreys received an invitation to the Owls' home in the Peach Belt Conference restoring the rivalry, and the two schools have met at least three times annually since.

It is the crucible of the postseason, however, that forged the rivalry into one of the most heated in the southeast. From 1998-2005 the Owls and Ospreys met 12 times in the NCAA Division II South Atlantic Regional. In four of those years the squads faced off in the regional's championship round with a bid to the Division II College World Series at stake, and on three of those occasions the 'if necessary' game determined the regional title.

Kennesaw State emerged victorious in 1999 and 2003, while the Ospreys hoisted the trophy in 2001 and 2005. The 1999 Owls team and 2005 Ospreys team both went on to finish as national runner-up.

Since joining the A-Sun in 2005 the teams have met 24 times with the Owls holding a 16-8 lead in the D1 era--powered by win streaks of five and seven games, but North Florida currently rides a three-game streak, including the most important win in a rivalry like this: the last one.

ETSU Resolve Carries Bucs to Bracket Finals

It may be easier to list the things that we know for certain does not faze ETSU this week. Here’s a quick summary:

Lightning Delays
Schedule Changes
Extra-Inning Games
Home Teams
Top-Seeded Teams

For other teams, those might cause distractions that de-rail their tournament run. So far for the Bucs, it has been part of a recipe for success.

“There is not a lot of panic in our dugout. We have really stressed to our kids this year toughness, both mentally and physically,” said head coach Tony Skole. “These guys have a nice steady resolve in them.”

After winning their second straight extra-inning game at the A-Sun Tournament 7-4 versus top-seeded Mercer, the Bucs become the only undefeated team left in bracket one and stand one win away from championship day.

“We don’t quit and we know we have a good bullpen in the back. It’s just confidence that we can come back to win any game,” reflected junior Clinton Freeman.

The Buccaneers are the first team in A-Sun Baseball Championship history to record two extra-inning victories. Freeman anchored the win for the Bucs. The southpaw fired three innings of scoreless relief, but they were far from stress free.

In the ninth inning, a lead-off single put the winning run on first for the Bears and in the next frame, A-Sun home run champion Nick Backlund came to the plate as the tying run.

“I was just thinking about doing whatever I had to do to get three outs. I played summer ball with Nick and he battles. He is a very good hitter,” said Freeman.

“This Mercer ball club is one of the best I have seen them have and obviously one of the best in the country right now. They are fun to compete against but so difficult to beat,” stated Skole.

The Buccaneers won their seventh straight extra inning contest and rallied for the win for the 19th time this year.

“We knew it wasn’t going to come easy but we did not come down here to lose. We are 2-0 right now, but it won’t make much difference if we lose the very next game,” Freeman said.

ETSU returns to the field against either Mercer or USC Upstate tomorrow morning at 1:15pm.

Hwang's Resiliency Grounds Eagles' Threat

BY: Mark McGee, Lipscomb Senior Publisher

Worried about monsters under your bed? Wary of ghost and ghouls hiding in your closet? Well, Lipscomb pitcher J. Hwang dealt with a nightmare night that makes those fears look like a children's nursery rhyme.

Thursday night torrential rain, wind and lightning stopped LU's game with FGCU in the bottom of the second inning. When Wang left the mound he was faced with loaded bases and no outs.

Hwang knew he was going to be back on the mound Friday morning when the game resumed. So instead of counting sheep, he analyzed the batters he would be facing. The No. 7 through No. 9 hitters were next in line but that didn't give Hwang much comfort.

"It was a mess that I caused and I wanted to come back to it," Hwang said. "I thought about it for hours and hours. I couldn't sleep.

"All I thought about was pitching to pitch to their guys. We broke down everyone of their players from the No. 7 through the No. 9 holes."

Hwang had a 3-0 cushion as the result of a two-run homer down the left field line by Tyson Ashcraft in the first inning and a sac fly by Drew Adams.

He would need all of those runs as did not get out of the inning unscathed. Sean Dwyer scored from third on a passed ball. Colton Bottomly brought in a run on a sacrifice fly to center.

Hwang recovered and protected the Bisons 3-2 lead by shutting down the Eagles the rest of the way until he was relieved by Tyler Burstrom with two outs and bases loaded in the eighth.

"We wanted to get them out and stop the bleeding as much as possible," Hwang said. "And it worked out.

"I kind of lost it at the end. I wanted to finish it more than anything. But Burstrom came in and did a great job."

The Purple and Gold held on for the win, eliminating No. 2-seed FGCU from the Atlantic Sun Championship. The No. 6-seeded Bisons return to the field Saturday at 10 a.m. EST.

LU coach Jeff Forehand never had a second thought about bringing Hwang back to the mound.

"J. threw 20 pitches Thursday night," Forehand said. "He is used to throwing every day. He has a resilient arm that bounces back.

"The team was pumped for him. He has been in so many big situations this season. He was prepared for this game. That is why we shifted the rotation a little bit because we knew he was ready."

Forehand likes the way Hwang works on the mound. He knows how to keep batters off balance.

"Every pitch he throws has movement on it," Forehand said. "He has a good slider. His split-finger fastball is effective. In this heat he was throwing the ball hard so he had the velocity to go with that movement."

With the Bisons fighting out of the loser's bracket Forehand was proud of Hwang's effort. In two games in the tournament LU has used only three pitchers.

"We felt like Hwang had the best stuff against a really good hitting team," Forehand said. "That is why we went back with him. It was nothing against anyone else in our bullpen. We had to look at the big picture with the rest of the tournament.

"Tyler came in and got the strikeout to end the eighth and then got them out one-two-three in the ninth. That is what we practice for all year long. When it was time to step up they both did."

It was only the second start if the season for Hwang, a sophomore right-hander. Even though he was starting in a tournament elimination game he did not feel any pressure.

"I always come into games in jam situations," Hwang said. "I wasn't nervous about starting."

It was his 26th appearance and improved his record to 2-0. His work as a reliever helped prepare him to be mentally and physically ready to return to the mound.

"My arm is always in shape," Hwang said. "I am ready to go at any time.

"It turned out my arm felt great. My teammates backed me up. Everything was good."

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Bumgardner Helps Spartans Capture Elusive Postseason Win

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

No longer does USC Upstate have to worry about getting its first Division I postseason win. Thanks to Gaither Bumgardner and Brandon Lee, the Spartans eliminated host Stetson, 6-0, and now can move on to more important things, like preparing for either No. 4 ETSU or No. 1 Mercer on Friday.

In their second trip in as many years to the A-Sun Championship, the Spartans got a look at their path through the bracket and were certainly counting on history not repeating itself. In last year’s championship, USC Upstate was eliminated by losses to Mercer and Stetson in its first two postseason games. Entering the 2013 championship as the No. 8 seed, the bracket looked all too familiar.

A 12-6 loss to No. 1 Mercer on Wednesday put the Spartans’ backs against the wall for the second straight year. Facing the Hatters on their home field, the Spartans got help – as they have all season – from All-Conference First-team selection Bumgardner, as well as pitcher Brandon Lee.

The Spartans have relied heavily on the 2012 A-Sun Player of the Year Bumgardner in the last several games, and he has delivered. For the championship he is now 6-for-10 (.600) with four runs scored, going 3-for-5 and scoring twice against Stetson on Thursday, following an identical effort against Mercer in Wednesday’s loss. Showing why he is the leading hitter on the fourth-best team in the A-Sun from the plate, Bumgardner helped the Spartans outhit the Hatters 15-3.

In fact, Bumgardner has been on a torrid pace the last two weeks for USC Upstate, hitting .632 in the final four games of the year while recording 12 hits and scoring four runs. He opened the final week of the season with four hits at No. 14 Clemson and then came back with eight hits in three games against North Florida. He also pitched 7.0 innings and allowed one run to lead Upstate to a walk-off victory in a must-win to advance to the A-Sun Championship.

As a follow-up to his award-winning season a year ago, Bumgardner did not disappoint. He hit .390 in conference play this season with 25 multi-hit games and 79 total hits to rank fourth in the league. He ended the season with 14 hits in the last five games and hit safely in 14 of the final 15 games of the year. The senior center fielder ranks in the top-four of several A-Sun career categories among active players, including tied for first in triples (10), second in hits (259), third in runs scored (128), fourth in RBI (118) and at-bats (744).

For Lee, his 14th appearance of the season was solid. Tossing his third complete game of the season, Lee struck out five and allowed one walk and no extra base hits. He limited A-Sun Freshman of the Year Patrick Mazeika to one of the only three Stetson hits on the day. Lee’s work throughout the season was also a boost for the Spartans, as in A-Sun games he led the league with 52 strikeouts in 66.1 innings of work.

So now the Spartans move into unchartered territory for the program, awaiting the winner of ETSU and Mercer, teams against which Upstate posts a combined 1-6 record this season.

However, the Spartans have new life, they have removed the “winless in postseason” monkey off their backs and they continue to receive superb play from their best players when they need it.

They have advanced, and they get to try once again.

Ospreys' Storied Program Returns for Continued Success

It was as if Mother Nature decided yesterday since North Florida had been away from the A-Sun Championship for two-plus years, so what was another 14 hours?

Once they finally took the field on Thursday, the Ospreys made the most of their reappearance in the championship, defeating Lipscomb 6-1 in their first game back since 2010. North Florida returns to the championship in the midst of its best season since 2006, when the Ospreys finished second in the A-Sun with a 20-10 record in A-Sun play and a 34-21 mark overall.

The game was the first A-Sun Championship contest under Head Coach Raymond “Smoke” Laval, who took over from the program’s chief architect, Dusty Rhodes. Under Laval’s leadership, UNF is 97-68 in three years and the Ospreys make an impressive return to the A-Sun Championship.

Laval inherited a program built for success, and brought with him his own impressive coaching resume. Laval went 241-159 with three NCAA regional appearances in his first head coaching job at Louisiana-Monroe. Then in 2002, Laval took over at LSU, where he led the Tigers to two College World Series berths, two top-10 finishes and a 210-109-1 record.

Now he continues to build upon the rich history of success created from scratch by his predecessor Rhodes more than a quarter century ago.

The namesake of North Florida’s home field, Rhodes began UNF’s program from scratch at the NAIA level in 1988. He took the opportunity and built it into a national powerhouse en route to becoming one of the most successful coaches in college baseball history.

With more than 1,100 wins to his credit, he is definitely among a prestigious group of coaching legends. He led UNF to 16 postseason appearances, including five trips to the College World Series (two in NAIA and three in NCAA Division II). In January of 2009, he was chosen by his peers to be inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

In 2005, Rhodes finished as the national runner-up in the Division II College World Series, falling in the championship game. In his other four World Series appearances, Rhodes led the Ospreys to third-place finishes out of eight participating teams.

He has also pushed the Ospreys to six conference championships, seven No. 1 rankings (three in NAIA and four in Division II) and has coached 22 All-Americans while compiling an 879-420 record at UNF and an overall mark of 1,182-538 in 30 seasons as a collegiate head coach.

After an extraordinary NCAA Division II resume, Rhodes upped the ante and continued to grow the program into a rising star and giant killer in Division I. From the time the Ospreys began playing in Division I in March of 2006, under Rhodes they recorded nine victories over ranked teams, including a 4-3 record against in-state rival and SEC power Florida.

In 2008, Rhodes led the Ospreys to wins over No. 6 Florida State, No. 13 Miami and No. 23 Florida, marking the first time in school history that UNF recorded wins over all three state schools in the same season.

In his illustrious career, Rhodes was honored as a conference or district coach of the year eight times. In the Peach Belt Conference, he earned coach of the year honors in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2005. When the Ospreys played in District 25 in NAIA, he was named coach of the year in 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1992.

He also earned his region’s coach of the year honor in 2000, 2001 and 2005, after leading UNF to the Division II World Series each year. In 1989 and 1991, he was tabbed the Rawlings NAIA Area V Coach of the Year.

Armed with the program’s rich history of success and led by the play of seven All-Conference selections and a veteran coaching staff, the Ospreys check in as the No. 3 seed and with national relevance. It is no accident that UNF is ranked among the Top 30 teams in the nation in 14 statistical categories, along with another 14 Ospreys ranked in the Top 50 statistically as well.

UNF is now 13-9 against the championship field, and is now a winner of four of its last five games. The Ospreys’ effort in their win against Lipscomb seems to indicate that they are ready to make their 1-2 record in the 2010 A-Sun Championship little more than a piece of its impressive history and a distant memory.

Duel in DeLand Lives Up to Billing

Stephen Janas and Ricky Knapp, two of the best pitchers in the nation, shared Melching Field’s mound as MLB scouts filled the first few rows of Conrad Park to view the highly-anticipated pitching matchup.

Both entered the contest with similar accolades; 2013 First Team All-Conference Honors, top-five ERAs in the A-Sun and sterling records overall.

Kennesaw State’s Janas, a candidate for National Pitcher of the Year honors, boasted an 8-0 record and the nation’s second-best ERA (0.81) entering Wednesday’s contest. The junior hurler returned from an injury plagued sophomore season to win seven-straight decisions dating back to March 22nd. Throughout the regular season, Janas allowed only six earned runs, trailing only UCLA’s David Berg (0.51 ERA).

The 2012 A-Sun Pitcher of the Year, FGCU’s Ricky Knapp entered the season as the favorite to retain his title as top pitcher in the conference and started the season out dealing as he won his first six contests including an 8-2 complete-game victory on the road against then-No. 13 Florida.

Knapp’s first loss of the season came on a road trip to the Peach State when the Eagles squared off with Kennesaw State on April 5th. The junior hurler allowed only two earned runs over the course of seven innings, but Janas barely out-dueled his counterpart with a single run during the same span.

Following the first showdown, Janas went on to win his next four starts and help the Owls to the seven-seed in the 2013 Atlantic Sun Baseball Championship after taking runner-up honors in 2012. Knapp and the Eagles exited the KSU series with two wins and continued to capture 37 wins and the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.

With both pitchers slated to open the conference championship for their respective teams, Kennesaw State Head Coach Mike Sansing expected another duel between the two.

“We had to pitch well tonight which we did and we got out of a few jams because of our defense. The pitching and defense really helped us tonight with our offense going up against Knapp.”

The contest began as expected as Knapp retired the first six batters before allowing a single and the eventual game-winning run in the third inning, while Janas escaped the first six innings without an Eagle crossing the plate due to two doubles plays by his defense.

KSU’s offense cemented Janas’ ninth triumph at the expense of Knapp by scratching across three runs over nine innings. His final line read seven innings, eight hits, one earned run and five strikeouts, but more importantly the Owls advanced to Friday’s 10 a.m. showdown with the winner of tomorrow’s North Florida and Lipscomb contest.

Despite his second complete of the season, Knapp absorbed the loss and the Eagles now must await their next opponent between North Florida and Lipscomb. As the Eagles showed following their first meeting with Knapp, they are more than capable of battling back from defeat.

Janas allowed four walks a season-high in the win, but the Owls defense supported their ace throughout the contest, which he acknowledged after the game.

“Thank you to my defense, they made with some great plays to get me out of a few innings with my control struggling a little bit. We are just glad to get the win in the first game of the tournament after we lost in the openers the past two years.”

Sansing noted his ace’s control issues, but stated it simply, “When Janas is on the mound we know he is going to win.”

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Gibson's Guidance Leads Bears to A-Sun Success

Sophomore third baseman Chesny Young had just one day to enjoy his status as the Atlantic Sun Conference Baseball Player of the Year before his Mercer Bears took the field as the No. 1 seed in the 2013 A-Sun Championship.

What goes through the mind of a young player who is voted the best player in a league with a well-deserved reputation of outstanding baseball?

Pressure? Anxiety? Overwhelming excitement? Whatever his emotions, fortunately for Young he has to look no further than the end of the bench or the coaches’ box for help on how to manage them.

That is because his skipper Craig Gibson, the 2013 A-Sun Coach of the Year, was one of three Bears in program history to earn Player of the Year honors, and was the last to do so in 1985.

Gibson began his successful career in baseball at Mercer as a player, and in his junior year of 1985 the hard-hitting first baseman earned Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year honors while leading the Bears to an Atlantic Sun Championship. Following completion of his career at Mercer, Gibson served a stint as a graduate assistant for longtime Bears coach Barry Myers, then enjoyed a successful high school coaching career before returning as a full-time assistant on Myers’ staff in 1993.

Some 20 years later, Mercer entered the 2013 season with Gibson still ranked in the Mercer single-season Top-10 in multiple statistical categories including batting average (T-8th), doubles (T-6th), home runs (8th), RBI (8th) and total bases (7th).

In 2004, Gibson was an easy choice to be Myers' successor. Since taking over the helm of the Bears nine years ago, Gibson has revitalized the Mercer baseball program and helped it achieve national recognition for its success on the field, in the classroom and in its involvement in the Macon, Ga., community.

While continually building since he took the reigns in 2004, Gibson and the Bears have enjoyed a new level of success since 2010. In the last four years Mercer has posted a mark of 158-79 overall with a 69-42 record in A-Sun play with an A-Sun Championship in 2010 and a regular season title and now 43 wins this season. The Bears are also currently ranked 23rd in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers of America Poll and 25th in the Baseball America Top-25 Poll.

While riding the Bears’ wave of success that began with the program’s turnaround in 2006, Gibson has led Mercer to a number of program-defining victories over some of the nation’s elite. Nearly a dozen times Mercer has toppled nationally ranked teams such as UCF, College of Charleston, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and a pair of No. 1 ranked teams in Florida and Clemson in back-to-back weeks. This season the Bears knocked off #12 Georgia Tech and swept the series from then No. 24 FGCU.

Just as the Bears have excelled as a team under Gibson, there has been no shortage of individual achievements. Since 2006, a dozen Bears earned A-Sun All-Conference first team selections, with a total of 29 All-Conference honors given to players under Gibson’s watch. Two of those selections, 2006 closer Andrew Urena and 2010-2011 third baseman Jacob Tanis earned consensus All-American honors from several publications.

Additionally, a total of 14 players under Gibson’s tutelage have been drafted since the 2006 season. And while his dedication on the field is without question, Gibson also exhibits the willingness to push his players in the classroom. Mercer’s Academic Progress Rate (APR) has steadily improved under Gibson, now reflecting an outstanding four-year average of 974.

But the program’s resurgence did not come overnight. In fact, after a nine- and eight-game improvement in 2004 and 2005, it was in 2006 that Gibson and the Bears began their turnaround. Mercer ascended to among the leaders in the conference, finishing the season in third place at 34-26 overall and 19-11 in A-Sun play. The 2006 campaign produced the first 30-win season for Mercer since 1999, tied the school record for most A-Sun wins in school history and ended a seven-year postseason drought at the same time.

Success began to snowball as in 2007 the Bears won 33 games and finished second in the A-Sun regular season race. In 2008 the growth slowed a bit but the Bears still managed 17 wins in conference play, helping them earn a third consecutive No. 2 seed in the A-Sun Championship. In 2009 Mercer finished with at .500 with a 23-23 record and checked into the championship for the fourth-straight season.

After making steady progress during the first six seasons of his tenure, Gibson’s efforts culminated in a fantastic 2010 campaign. He guided the Bears to a 38-win season, into the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance and provided the most storied season of the program’s 62-year history. Predicted to finish tied for sixth in the A-Sun Baseball Preseason Poll, Mercer finished 38-24 overall and 16-11 in conference play under Gibson's guidance. The 38 wins were the second-most in program history while Mercer’s 16 conference victories were the most since a 19-11 A-Sun mark in 1999.

The season was a memorable one for Gibson, who garnered 2010 Georgia Dugout Club Division I Coach of the Year and 2010 Atlantic Sun Coach of the Year honors. Leading the Bears to their fourth Atlantic Sun Championship in program history and a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Atlanta Regional, Gibson continued to work his magic in Mercer's defeat of No. 3 seed Elon for the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament victory. Mercer then pushed eventual Atlanta Regional champion Alabama to the limit in a 5-3 defeat.

As you can imagine, numerous records fell in 2010. Gibson also tutored Consensus All-American Jacob Tanis and a total of four All A-Sun performers. A total of 15 Bears earned A-Sun All-Academic honors in 2010, while sophomore Billy Burns garnered a CoSIDA ESPN the Magazine Academic All-District second team selection.

In 2011, Mercer finished the campaign with a 39-20 overall record and a runner-up finish in the A-Sun Championship. The Bears' 39 wins tied a then-program record for most wins in a single-season and finished the season with a No. 56 ranking in the National Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).

Under Gibson, multiple Bears received postseason distinction including juniors Tanis and Brandon Love, both of whom were A-Sun All-Conference first team selections. Tanis was also named a National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) second team All-American while catcher Austin Barrett and outfielder Derrick Workman were tabbed Freshman All-Americans.

The Bears' 2012 season would again continue the attack on the record books, as the squad finished with a 38-21 overall record and in the process set a new program record for most regular season wins (37), breaking the previous mark of 36 set in 1981. Mercer clinched a spot in the A-Sun Championship on the final day of the regular season and made its seventh straight appearance in the conference postseason championship.

Once again Gibson's coaching efforts resulted in multiple individual postseason awards. Redshirt sophomore Nick Backlund shined in his first year at Mercer and was named to the Louisville Slugger All-American first team, the A-Sun All-Conference first team and the ABCA/Rawlings All-South Region first team. Young made history as he was the first Mercer player named A-Sun Freshman of the Year, while also earning Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American Team honors. Workman was also selected to the A-Sun All-Conference first team and A-Sun Academic All-Conference first team.

It’s funny how things often come full circle. Twenty-seven years ago, Mercer junior first baseman Craig Gibson was chosen as the best player in the league. Nearly three decades later, Gibson is now the best coach in the league, and he coaches the best player in the league.

Whatever wisdom Gibson had to share with Young must have been good stuff, as Young went 1-for-2 with a team-high four RBI. And now the A-Sun’s regular season champ, the A-Sun Coach of the Year and the A-Sun Player of the Year took a good first step toward proving they and their team are the A-Sun’s elite today with a 12-6 victory against USC Upstate.

Stepping Up Was the Right Move for Doane and the Bucs

For three years ETSU’s Kerry Doane was positioned in the ETSU infield, providing encouragement and leadership from behind whoever the Bucs’ hurler happened to be.

Now the senior is front and center in more ways than one.

Doane – who was a unanimous first team A-Sun All-Conference selection – also captured ETSU’s first-ever Pitcher of the Year honor as the conference baseball honors were released Tuesday afternoon.

Doane is one of five Buccaneers on that list, which is his first A-Sun All-Conference First Team honor. Recently, he was honored with membership to another important list, that being the 22-player watch list as a candidate for National Pitcher of the Year.

Not a bad “step up” for a pitcher who played behind the mound for three years.

Making the move to a full-time starting pitcher has paid huge dividends not only for Doane in 2013, but for his Bucs as well. He went 12-1 with a 2.07 ERA (28 ER/122.0 IP) with a NCAA-leading total of 11 complete games and four shutouts. ETSU entered the A-Sun Baseball Championship as the No. 4 seed with a 32-22 overall record and a 17-10 mark in A-Sun play.

As a freshman, Doane made an immediate impact for the Bucs, earning membership to the A-Sun All-Freshmen team after hitting .335 with nine home runs and 58 RBI and playing in all 60 games with 59 starts in the infield. Over the next two seasons, he started 109 games in the infield and saw limited action on the mound, including 18 appearances with six starts last season.

The decision to become a full-time pitcher was one that Doane seemed to make with little hesitation. Bucs Head Coach Tony Skole says the move to the mound was right in step with Doane’s character.

“Coach Skole and I talked about it and I said, fine, it is for my team,” said Doane. “If it was going to help my team out and give us chance to win the conference, then I was all for it. “I just want our team to do something that we haven’t done here before.”

“He is a baseball player in every sense of the word,” said Skole. “He is a very passionate, very selfless young man. And he is a great student as well as a fine player.”

Doane was also an A-Sun All-Academic selection as a junior.

“He sacrificed a lot to come out and be our Friday night guy,” Skole continues, “because he likes to hit and he likes to play every day.”

Although his three-year career at shortstop was impressive, Doane’s talent on the mound is undeniable.

Getting his first-ever start on the mound in an A-Sun Championship game, Doane went nine innings, faced 33 batters and struck out five with a double as the only extra-base hit he allowed. He allowed only a pair of earned runs, and the Bucs pulled off extra-inning heroics to defeat host Stetson, 4-3.

His season’s numbers are much more impressive. He is tied for second in the NCAA in wins and leads all NCAA pitchers in innings pitched and shutouts, while also tying the ETSU single-season records for shutouts and complete games. The Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., native became the first A-Sun pitcher to win 12 games since former Stetson and current Cleveland Indians pitcher Corey Kluber and Buccaneer hurler Caleb Glafenhein accomplished the feat in 2007. The wins are also tied for 11th among A-Sun single-season leaders.

“He has a quick arm,” says Skole, “he is 90 to 94 (miles per hour), has a power slider and he has worked on his curve ball to give him another dimension.”

Two of Doane’s four shutouts were against A-Sun teams as he blanked Lipscomb 8-0 with a career-high eight strikeouts on April 12, while also shutting out then-No. 21 Mercer on May 10 in Macon. Meanwhile, the four shutouts are the most by any active A-Sun pitcher and are tied for seventh all-time in conference history.

Doane also made a start against every A-Sun team and went 8-1 with a 2.37 ERA (20 ER/76.0 IP) in nine starts, while closing out the season with nine straight wins. In total, Doane tossed 118 of the 126.0 possible innings pitched in his 14 starts, and became the first Buccaneer pitcher to win multiple Pitcher of the Week awards.

While his contributions from the mound have led the Bucs to success all season, Skole understands how much he will miss Doane when this weekend comes to end for ETSU.

“He is a warrior in every sense of the word,” says Skole. “ He is a great teammate, a great student and a great leader for our team.”

There are likely more accomplishments and accolades awaiting Doane, both from an individual standpoint and for his team. As of his first pitch today the Bucs have never claimed an A-Sun Baseball Championship, but their win today has them one step closer to that milestone.

Even so, for Doane the approach that has led him to this season’s record-setting success is playing as if you are only as good as your last performance.

“Baseball is a difficult game to play, and with the law of averages you never know,” says Doane. “One game you will be good and the next one is like, ‘wow,’ they really just got to me. You really just have to work move on to the next game and work hard toward it.”

Monday, May 20, 2013

Charlene Charles Making a Name in the A-Sun

The Atlantic Sun Track & Field record books have been a running diary for the progression of Charlene Charles’ career at Jacksonville.

Charles, a multi-faceted student-athlete, appears in the conference archives on 62 occasions when combining both the indoor and outdoor championships. Entering the 2013 A-Sun Outdoor Championship, Charles had compiled 20 medals including nine first-place finishes, seven runner-up honors and four bronze medal performances.

However, before this year’s championship she had never competed in her best event – the heptathlon.

What prevented Charles from competing wasn’t an injury, but rather her desire to help the team continue its streak of conference championships which dates back to 2006. Jacksonville totals 15-straight A-Sun conference titles when combining the indoor and outdoor crowns.

“This is the first time she has competed in her best event, the heptathlon, in the A-Sun Championship,” stated Charles’ Head Coach Ron Grigg. “She has always foregone her specialty to help our team by competing in more events and scoring more points for the team.”

Her absence in the heptathlon changed on day one of the championship, as she started off the conference meet with wins in two events – the 100-meter hurdles (14.51) and the 200m dash (25.97). Building a 91-point lead heading into day two, Charles added a win in the long jump (5.52m) to cruise to a 303-point victory for her 21st career A-Sun medal.

It wasn’t clear whether or not Charles would be able to compete during her senior season at the A-Sun Outdoor Championship as she suffered an injury at the Indoor NCAA National Championship. The injury kept Charles away competition and training for the outdoor season until the A-Sun Championship where she made her debut.

“Charlene wasn’t seriously training for outdoors until about three weeks ago and she wants to do all this for her team,” said Grigg.

By the end of the day on Saturday, Charles had competed in five events and racked up 21.5 points for the Dolphins as Jacksonville cruised to its eighth-straight conference outdoor title and 16th A-Sun track & field crown.

“I just worked hard building up to conference and thought about my teammates," said Charles. "Even through my injury I wanted to score enough points to win the heptathlon and then still be able to compete in more events.”

During her battle to recover from the injury from the NCAA Championship, Charles knew that her teammates would be counting on her not only to score points at the A-Sun meet, but also provide leadership to a roster that features a majority of underclassmen.

“I’m so my proud of my team and the effort that they showed,” Charles said of the Dolphins’ championship performance. “I believe in my team I will do anything for my team.”

Charles expounded on her role with the team.

“I tried to be a leader for my teammates this year since I was a senior, and I’m hoping that I set a good example and that they will want to follow in my footsteps.”

Despite her struggle to return to the track in the weeks leading up to the conference meet, Charles continued to succeed in the classroom, while also building towards her career after Jacksonville. 

“Charlene is obviously a very talented athlete, but she is also a great student as well as she just graduated cum laude with a 3.8 cumulative GPA and has several internships lined up in New York. So she is a great kid all the way around.”

Grigg knows that Charles will continue to succeed even after her time is over at Jacksonville because of her desire to be successful.

“She is a self-made woman, she studies harder than everybody else to go along with being an editor for our school newspaper. She works on her own to find internships in the fashion industry both in Jacksonville and now in New York City, and she will be successful at whatever she chooses to do because she chooses to do it.”

Reflecting on her time at JU, Charles noted that her attitude changed once she entered the Dolphins program.

“Before I came to America, I wasn’t a great student but our coaching staff has a saying to 'Seek excellence in everything that you do' and I took that to heart.”

Charles proved last weekend and throughout her career that individual and team success can go hand-in-hand in track & field, leaving North Florida’s Hodges Stadium with a gold medal and the eighth conference title of her career.

“I don’t think any words can really justify what she has meant to our program.”

Words may not be able to describe Charles’ impact on the Jacksonville program, but numbers tend to show its affect. Here is a list of Charles' accomplishments in her four-year career:

10 – A-Sun Gold Medalist
7 – A-Sun Silver Medalist
4 – A-Sun Bronze Medalist
4 – Academic All-Conference

2 – A-Sun Indoor Track and Field Championship MVP (2010, 2011)
2 – Most Outstanding Field Performer (2010, 2011)
2 – Most Outstanding Freshman Performer
1 – A-Sun Outdoor Track and Field Championship MVP (2010)
1 – Most Outstanding Track Performer (2010)

Friday, May 17, 2013

What a Difference a Year Makes for UNF's MJ Maguire

UNF's MJ Maguire and the Ospreys lead the NCAA Tallahassee Regional. (Photo credit Todd Drexler)

North Florida sophomore MJ Maguire admits that last year at this time, he probably was still a little reckless in his game.

He gripped it, ripped it, and then fired at every pin like it was his to take prisoner.

As a freshman in 2012, Maguire was named to the All-Freshman team and recorded a pair of top-10 finishes for the Ospreys, one in the A-Sun Championship. He was a member of a team that captured the A-Sun title, finished third at the NCAA Southeastern Regional and competed in the NCAA Championship, finishing in a tie for 12th.

At the regional and in championship play Maguire showed glimpses of what was to come for Head Coach Scott Schroeder. He fired a first-round 66 in the Athens, Ga., regional and carded a 71 in the first round of the NCAA Championship as a true freshman.

“MJ has always been a talented player,” said three-time A-Sun Coach of the Year Schroeder. “I think he has gotten more confortable with his game this year. He is taking what the course gives him and is not making the mistakes that are costly.”

Even as he chased after low scores in his first year, Maguire understood that he had the luxury of playing with and learning from a pair of teammates that were as good a tandem as on any other team in the country in Kevin Phelan and Sean Dale.

Phelan, a 10-time recipient of A-Sun honors, represented Ireland twice at World Amateur Team Championship (2010/2012), was a US Amateur Participant and US Public Links semifinalist in 2010, earned runner-up medalist status at the 2010 NCAA South Regional and was a US Open Qualifier in 2010 at Pebble Beach. He also was a PING All-Region selection in 2012 and was recently named to the European Palmer Cup Team.

Dale’s resume is equally impressive. Nine times he has been honored by the A-Sun, including as a three-time A-Sun Player of the Year. In 2010 and 2011 he participated in the US Amateur, was the Florida State Amateur Champion in 2010, is a two-time honoree by PING and in his first collegiate season at Ole Miss was named to the SEC All-Freshmen Team. In 2013 Dale medaled at the Jones Cup, was a Ben Hogan Semifinalist and joins Phelan with the honor of being a member of the Palmer Cup for the US.

“Kevin and Sean have definitely helped me, particularly in being competitive,” said Maguire. “I have two of the best golfers in the nation to compete with on a daily basis. Having them here definitely pushes me to play my best golf all of the time.”

Schroeder agrees. “I think Kevin and Sean have pulled him up to their level. He has definitely had the luxury of learning from experienced seniors.”

One of the facets of Maguire’s game that he feels has improved the most is his course management. Now although he is still tempted to “rip it” on occasion or to throw darts at pin placements designed exclusively for risk/reward, he shows restraint and opts for the more sensible play.
Photo credit: Todd Drexler
“My course management has been solid this year,” said Maguire. “I have learned that you can’t fire at every pin.  I used to be a bit reckless, but I learned that you can’t go at every pin and you can’t rip it every time. Because I hit my driver well, I like to just hit is as far as I can, and can’t do that all of the time.

“The experience of Kevin and Sean being seniors and the level of their games has definitely helped me improve in that area, particularly in course management,” Maguire continued. I think the biggest difference between my game last year and this year has been that improvement in managing what the course gives you.”

That approach became evident during Thursday’s first round of the NCAA Tallahassee Regional, where he finished atop the leader board at -7 and helped the Ospreys to an A-Sun record round of 16-under-par. It was obvious that he was on his game, “feeing it,” if you will, just as his twitter handle @mjstr8vibin, would indicate.

“This is not a course you can overpower, you want to drive well and hit shorter clubs into the green, and I was able to do that today,” said Maguire. “I started out pretty smooth and played smart today.

“I knew I wanted to take advantage of the par 5s, but I wasn’t trying to go low today. That was something that was a result of taking what the course was giving me. I just feel like I am hitting the ball really solid, hitting driver really well and visualizing shots and executing.”

Entering the NCAA regional, Maguire had recorded three consecutive top 1- finishes that included the A-Sun individual championship. All total for the season he has posted four top-5 finishes, six top-10s and finished in the top 25 in eight of his nine tournaments. His 65 on Thursday is also a career-best, topping the career mark he set last season in regional play.

“MJ is hitting a lot of high quality shots,” said Schroeder. “Driving is his strength, and he was very successful in that area today. But he also has a good short game, has good hands and is good on and around the greens. Today he did not have to make a lot of long putts and that along with good course management is a solid recipe for success in golf.”

For Maguire, his expectations entering regional play simply involved keeping up the solid play that he has enjoyed for the last month. So as he begins the second round as leader, will he approach the game in a way that could affect his play? His coach says no.

“MJ is very competitive, but he is probably one of our most even keel players. Bad shots don’t bother him, so I don’t think he will feel any additional pressure because of where he is on the leader board.

“We talk a lot about process and he has bought into that, so I would think that moving forward he will continue to do the things that helped him a solid round today”

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Spartans Softball Become the First in Thrilling Fashion

USC Upstate coach Chris Hawkins could not watch the last at bat for Lipscomb in the top of the seventh inning.

Three times during the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament the Lady Bisons had come back and won games in their final at bat. Even though his Spartans had forced a game two Saturday at Draper Diamond on the Lipscomb campus with a 4-1 win earlier in the day Hawkins was not overly confident about game two.

“I have doubts about playing Lipscomb anytime I play them,” Hawkins said wearing his white championship T-shirt stained with red Gatorade. “They are well-coached. They always seem to show up. And when they get down they fight harder. They don’t lie down and quit.”

This is the first A-Sun Softball Tournament Championship for the Spartans.

“I told our players not to let their emotions get to them,” Hawkins said. “It is humbling time for us. It is not a cocky time.

“It is time where we learn how to be adults. We worked hard for this and we need to know how to handle it.”

With two runners on base and the tying run at the plate, Lady Bisons’ third baseman 

Paige Neely represented the winning run. She ended the game with a long fly ball to center that just fell short of going over the fence.

“To be honest with you until that last out I didn’t think we were going to win,” Hawkins said. “I didn’t know if the ball was going out or if we were going to catch it. I couldn’t look.

“Back in 2010 they pummeled us in the championship game. It was good for our program and our team to go to a very good team’s field and win two games. That is asking a whole lot. It was extremely hard to do. Lipscomb is going to be as good as most of the regional tournament teams.”

The Spartans, the No. 2 seed in the tournament, prevailed 7-5 in game two. With the championship they have earned the A-Sun’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Like most coaches at the start of a season Hawkins felt like his team had what it would take to win the conference championship.

“I knew we had the talent,” Hawkins said. “Last year I started six freshmen that are sophomores this year."

“I really thought we would be where are at and have an opportunity to do this. That is all you can ask for.”

The final two weeks of the regular season kept the Spartans off the field in game situations due to rain. But Hawkins and his staff used the time to work with hitters in small groups and individual sessions to correct a variety of problems.
It worked. In the two games against Lipscomb in the championship finals they connected for 15 hits including three home runs, two triples and two doubles.

“We stopped lunging at balls,” Hawkins said. “We started getting back to some of the basic things we were doing.

“If you go to bat 10 times and you get out seven of those 10 times in this league .300 is still pretty good. They have to understand they are going to fail more than they are going succeed with that bat.”

The Spartans were leading the country in hitting as a team until midseason, but dropped off the last part of the season. Hawkins thinks the extra work during the two weeks helped to remind them that maybe they weren’t as good as they thought they were despite batting more than .330 as a team heading into the conference final.

“We worked on becoming better hitters and not taking it for granted that we hit well,” 
Hawkins said. “We did a lot of work. We did extensive work with two-to-four batters at a time."

“I told them to work on their strong points and not try to make their weak points better. 

They had started worrying about what they couldn’t do instead of what they could do. I wanted to get them refocused.”

In the two championship finals games with Lipscomb the top four hitters for the Spartans - Meredith Barnes, Ericka Harris, Shellie Robinson and Cheyenne Griffin – combined for all four hits, all four runs and all four RBI in game one. In game two they had six hits and four RBI and scored three runs.
“When the batters at the top of the order are hitting well and running around with smiles on their faces it pumps everybody up,” Hawkins said. “And that is another thing we worked on during those two weeks off.

“If you are going to be a leader on this team you can’t do it when you are just doing well. You have to set an example when you are doing badly. I think we stepped up in that category too.”

Cheyenne Griffin's Outstanding Birthday Performance

Today was her birthday. Happy birthday to USC Upstate’s Cheyenne Griffin.

Instead of 20 candles on a birthday cake Griffin celebrated with four hits, including two home runs, and four runs batted in.

In game one Friday against Lipscomb Griffin tied the game with a two-run home run over the left center field fence. Lipscomb came back with two runs in the seventh for a 4-2 win dropping the Spartans into the loser’s bracket.

In the final game of the night, a rain-delayed contest with North Florida, Griffin connected for three hits, including her second home run, and added two more RBI in a 9-2 win.

“In the past when I have played on my birthday I didn’t win,” Griffin said. “Today was a good time to break the streak.

“I knew we were going to break that streak today somehow. If it wasn’t the first game I knew it would be the second one.”

Griffin has not been pleased with her hitting despite the fact she is batting over .300 for the season.

“I get timely hits when I need to help the team out,” Griffin said. “I don’t know what it was today, but my team was behind me no matter what.

“I felt great today. I was just swinging the bat hard at good pitches. We are hitting the ball well as a team like we were at the beginning of the season.”

No special events were planned for her birthday. Getting the chance to play softball was enough of a present for her.

“Just being with my team is where I want to be,” Griffin said. “There is not anything else I would rather be doing than playing on this field with my team.”

USC Upstate coach Chris Hawkins counts Griffin as one of the leaders of the team.

“Cheyenne really showed out,” Hawkins said. “She hit the ball real hard for us.

“She is an awesome kid. She loves playing softball. She loves being a team player. She is a perfect leader.”

Hawkins has been putting an extra emphasis on hitting the past several games. He was happy to see Griffin do so well at the plate on her birthday.

“I couldn’t be more proud for anybody,” Hawkins said. “She works so hard. She is such a good kid. It was good to see her have this kind of day on her 20th birthday.

“She is a real good first baseman and an extremely good athlete. She does well in school. She is a very religious person. She is always positive. She is never negative. 

She can handle failure and she can handle success. She is about as close to a total package as you could possibly have.”

Hawkins thinks the way his team has hit in the tournament has been a confidence boost.

“Through the middle of the season we were leading the nation in hitting,” Hawkins said. 

“And towards the end of the season we couldn’t hit anything.

“I am glad to see them bounce back. When girls hit the ball hard it gives them a lot of confidence. When they go through streaks where they are 0-for-10 or 0-for-12 with some strikeouts they really get down on themselves. Now we are doing the things we need to do.”

Friday, May 10, 2013

Kemboi Adds to Record-Setting Career

Upstate's Gilbert Kemboi has won 13 career A-Sun races.
Many believe the number 13 to be an unlucky, but for USC Upstate’s Gilbert Kemboi the inauspicious digit signifies an illustrious career, which started back in 2009 when he left Eldoret, Kenya and arrived in Spartanburg, S.C.

Since arriving in Spartanburg from  Kapngetuny High School in Eldoret, Kemboi has adjusted to a different lifestyle, education system and competitive sports to become a dominant force in the Atlantic Sun Conference as well as nationally.

Kemboi has stood atop the platform on 13 instances ranging from his three individual cross country title, seven indoor events victories and three outdoor gold medals including winning Friday’s 10,000m by 62 seconds.

The staggering amount of titles accumulated by Kemboi even shocks himself.

“When I go and sit down and think about my accomplishments I am always impressed because I surprise myself at the each meet since I wasn’t always sure what I was going to do when I was in Kenya.”

The award podium at Atlantic Sun Championship meets has become a second home for Kemboi during his four-year career as he also owns three second-place finishes in his 16 career conference races.

“Sometimes I amazed that I have accomplished all of these things at USC Upstate. When I look at what I have achieved it makes me be appreciative of the tough times I had in Kenya and since I have been here.”

With a wide range of success at different distances, Kemboi still favors the longer distances.

“I enjoy cross country above everything, but particularly I like long-distance running because when you look at the 10,000m I have had great success with it and it forces you to run a different kind of race compared to the mile or 3,000m.”

Even with the change in culture, Kemboi has succeeded on the Spartanburg campus with a 3.545 cumulative grade point average as a sociology major. The combination of success on the track and in the classroom has earned Kemboi five A-Sun Scholar-Athlete of the Year honors – an award that begun prior to his junior season. He is the only A-Sun track & field or cross country male student-athlete to win the award in its two-year existence.

Not only does Kemboi collect A-Sun gold medals on a regular basis but he does so in record-setting fashion as he has set five conference marks at the track & field championships, while also running three of the fastest times at the A-Sun cross country meet. But even the best student-athletes know part of their success comes from their coaching staff.

“I have been consistent throughout my career and my improvements have been impressive in my career.

What has helped me is that my coaches are the best that I have ever had. They have been close to me and they know what I am and I really appreciate their effort with me.”

With only one race remaining in his Atlantic Sun career – Saturday’s 5,000m run – Kemboi can add one more number to his captivating career.

Ospreys Take Learn to Take Control of the Controllable

A sports psychologist advised the North Florida Ospreys softball players and coaches to worry about the things they can control and not be too bothered about the rest.

With the Ospreys in their first ever Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament that philosophy has served them well.

“All year we have made it a point not to talk about the outcomes,” Ospreys coach 

Marcie Hickey said. “We talk about the process of what happens in the course of a game – what we do well and what we need to improve on.

“We have done a little bit of work with a sports psychologist this year. We can’t control whether or not we get a hit. You can control the pitch you hit. You can control your mechanics. We control what we can, try to focus on the little things and good things will happen.”

After posting an 18-6 regular season conference record the Ospreys entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed. Hickey was named A-Sun Coach of the Year.

As the No. 1 seed the Ospreys were awarded a first round bye. Things were looking good.

“This is something we had been striving for the past five years,” Hickey said. “To finally get here and be the No. 1 seed with a first round bye was huge."

“It has been our goal the whole away through. We have seen all of these teams before. 

We have done a really good job of focusing on what is in front of us at the moment.”

But it was not to be an easy road. In a tournament filled with six talented teams the 
Ospreys lost 3-1 on the second day to Lipscomb’s Lady Bisons at Draper Diamond on the Lipscomb campus.

“Obviously, we put ourselves in the loser’s bracket pretty quick,” Hickey said. “That wasn’t our plan to come in here to end up in this situation. It is a little bit longer but the process is still the same. You focus on one pitch at a time and one inning at a time.

“There is a lot of parity in this tournament. Everybody wants it. All of the games have been dogfights.”

The Ospreys stayed alive Friday afternoon in the double elimination tournament by beating Florida Gulf Coast 2-1 in the seventh inning.

“Our defense has been great and our pitching has been solid,” Hickey said. “We have to do better at the plate. We can’t get by scoring one run.”

Hickey stresses that the leadership on her team has been strong, especially Jackie Reese at catcher and outfielder Megan David.

“Jackie has been a great leader behind the plate,” Hickey said. “She calls her own game. 
She keeps everybody fired up."

“Megan is another senior who has done a fantastic job. She is a great team player.”

A depth of leadership has been especially important as the Ospreys travel through the loser’s bracket.

“We actually have a lot more leadership across the board than we have had,” Hickey said. “If one person is not up, someone else steps up and picks them up. That is what it is all about for us.

“It is a long road in the loser’s bracket. Pitchers are tired. Hitters are tired. It is emotionally exhausting to lose a game like we did to Lipscomb. It takes a lot out of you. So it takes different people to step up at different times.”

Aguirre Battles Through Injury To Lead the Bisons

Gracey Aguirre is one of three Lipscomb Lady Bisons batting more than .300 this season. She has a career high in doubles and in home runs.

Friday afternoon with two outs in the top of the seventh she slammed a two-run home run that gave the Lady Bisons a 4-2 win over USC Upstate in the Atlantic Sun Championship at Draper Diamond on the Lipscomb campus.

On the surface it might look like her season has been one without a stumbling block. But that assumption would be wrong.

Twice this season Aguirre has been forced to come back from injuries. First, she was hit by a foul ball that went into the dugout in the first tournament of the season. That blow dislocated her right wrist.

“It was hit pretty hard,” Aguirre said.

While she was not able to play in games it did not keep her off of the field.

“I just kept doing one-armed exercises and workouts,” Aguirre said. “I kept mentally imagining things as if I was playing. All of that helped me a lot.”

Later on she missed a couple of games due to a problem with her right arm.

“Gracey has really been through a lot,” Lady Bisons coach Kristin Ryman said. “The thing I love about her is you wouldn’t know she is hurting. She has battled through so many injuries this year to get to this point and she is still producing in clutch situations.

“Watching her play you don’t necessarily see it. That is what I love about her. She is still trying to do everything she can to help us.”

For the past two seasons Aguirre, a Second Team All-Conference selection, has struck out the fewest times of any Lady Bisons player.

She hates strikeouts, but she doesn’t like walking either.

“Everyone hates striking out,” Aguirre said. “I just try to put the ball in play. I wasn’t selective enough early in the year, but I worked harder on it.”

“My coaches tell me I have good hands at the plate.  My hands meet the ball well.”

Ryman points out that one of the reasons Aguirre’s walks total is low is because of her selectiveness at the plate.

“She can hit so many pitches in and around the zone,” Ryman said. “Her eyes combined with her hands allow her to react instinctively and not to think too much in the box.”

As the Lady Bisons head into the championship game Saturday Ryman expects to count on Aguirre for even more at the plate. The Lady Bisons are 22-5 with Aguirre batting in the No. 4 spot.

“Right now, we need her in the middle part of the lineup,” Ryman said. “She has a great eye for the ball. She has one of the most pure and natural swings on our team.”

Her mental approach to the game has also been one of the reasons she has been such a force in the A-Sun Tournament this week.  She had two hits today and also has two home runs in the three tournament games.

“I have come out more focused,” Aguirre said. “I have been visualizing every at bat before the game. And before every at bat I visualize it again.

“It helps me being more confident going up there. I visualized the home run. I whispered the words, `we are going to win today’ before I went up to the plate.”