The focus for Governors sports fans is on the basketball court as conference play is in session, but just around the corner, baseball season awaits.
In less than a month, Feb. 14., the atmosphere of America’s pastime will return to Raymond C. Hand Park. The sound of leather as balls meet the gloves, the clinging of aluminum bats, and the smell of ballpark food filling the air. The thought of it all makes the excitement level even higher for another season of APSU baseball.
Last year was a historic year for the Govs for many reasons. Head coach Gary McClure became the all-time wins leader in Ohio Valley Conference history, and coming into the season is one shy of reaching the 700 mark. But aside from the individual achievements that were tallied in the record book is the milestone of winning a third consecutive OVC Tournament Championship. It was the icing on the cake for a team who won a school record 47 games, and even though the Govs failed to advance in the NCAA Regional, it was the most-successful teams McClure has coached.
But to “4Peayt”, it’s going to be a challenge for APSU without question. The Govs lost a total of seven players from last year’s team, with five players – Jordan Hankins, Craig Massoni, Lee Ridenhour, Tyler Rogers, and Reed Harper – being selected in the 2012 Major League Baseball draft. All seven players played huge roles in hoisting championships over the years, and will now rely on new faces to step in and produce.
APSU has brought in the most-impressive recruiting class in school history, with a total of 13 freshmen. Even though the Govs will be very young, this year’s group of players brings a ton of potential to the field that could translate into huge success, despite the talent lost from last season.
“We lost some good players no question both on the mound and in the field,” McClure said. “[But] our freshman class is excellent. It’s a group of the best players that I’ve ever brought in here, and it’s a large group of freshman. Very, very talented, very hard workers, pretty mature, and they’re all physical kids. Not all freshmen are like that. These guys have got a chance to be a special group if they maintain what they’ve been doing.”
When the season kicks off on Feb. 14 at home against Iowa, you can expect to see five or six freshmen in the starting lineup. Logan Gray, who was drafted out of high school, will fill in at the shortstop position which has been coveted by Harper for the last four years. Garrett Copeland is expected to play second base, while Dre Gleason, Alex Robles, and Griffin Ganick are expected to see time in the infield. Returning players such as Kevin Corey and Matt Wollenzin will also be in the mix at third base and first, respectively.
Behind the plate will be the senior P.J. Torres, with someone McClure considers one of the most-exciting players that they’re had in the program, Ridge Smith, receiving time behind the plate as well. As for the outfield, senior Rolando Gautier is healthy after suffering a hand injury at the end of last season. Freshman Chase Hamilton will be starting in center field while Clarksville native Cayce Bredlau is the front runner to start in left. Without question, there will be plenty of options for the Govs in 2014.
The starting rotation will feature a couple of seniors in Zach Hall and Ryan Quick, with A.J. Gaura coming off surgery that will see time back in the starting role. From there, it could turn into a battle to determine who else sees time on the mound. Two other names to keep an eye on are another local player Levi Primasing, as well as junior transfer Caleb DeLee. But the real question mark coming into the season is the back end of the bullpen following the departure of one of the top closer in baseball last season Rogers. With the submariner gone, the role is currently up in the air. But if the season started right now, Jared Carkuff would likely close game, who according to McClure, is throwing the ball harder than anybody on the team.
The path for the Govs to reach the championship won’t be an easy one. In fact, a case can be made that APSU won’t be the favorites coming into the season. Tennessee Tech, who won 40 games last year, comes into the season ranked number 36 by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. Four teams who won 20-plus conference games last season, with Belmont and Jacksonville State being the other two, will return to contend. But as far as the depth of the conference, McClure says it could be better in 2014.
“We’re going to be up there and compete,” McClure said. “I think the league will be better overall, but last year was pretty dang good though. But top to bottom it may be a little bit better from one thru 11.”
Even with a roster filled with young players, the Govs have the same mindset as year’s past. It’s going to take time for players to develop and find a groove, but once they do, the 2014 season will be another exciting year for baseball fans.
“My expectations are high. They always are for our program. We want to have a large amount of success again,” McClure said. “I want our guys to work hard day in and day out and approach the game with passion. We want to get the most out of every guy that we can get out of, and if we do that, then I think we’re going to have a good team. I think we’ll have a chance to compete for a championship again.”