» By TRENT SINGER – tsinger@my.apsu.edu

Following a 2011 season that brought an Ohio Valley Conference championship to APSU, the Govs baseball team will look to make it two in a row as they prepare to begin play this week against visiting Illinois State on Friday, Feb. 17.

The team returns with senior outfielder Michael Blanchard, senior starting pitcher Zach Toney, junior shortstop Reed Harper and sophomore second baseman Jordan Hankins, who were all named to the conference’s 14-member preseason team selected by OVC coaches.

Blanchard enters the 2012 season coming off a breakout year that saw him lead the league in stolen bases with 28 and a .331 batting average.

Toney, the No. 3 starter last season, finished the year with a 6-2 record and 3.72 ERA. Harper ended the season with 43 RBIs and was named to the Atlanta All-Region team.

Perhaps the youngest and most intriguing player, Hankins enters his sophomore season with high hopes. After one of the most outstanding freshman campaigns in APSU history, Hankins will have to work hard to beat last season’s .361 batting average and game-winning home run against Georgia Tech.

The Govs return with eight positional starters from last year’s team, and will look to rekindle the magic from last year’s unscripted run.

After rallying to win the regular-season conference title last year, the Govs won the OVC tournament and went on to shock Georgia Tech in the opening round of the NCAA Baseball Tournament in Atlanta.

OVC coaches also picked APSU as this year’s preseason favorite, meaning everyone will certainly have their sights set on beating the Govs.

“Being picked first basically guarantees everyone is going to give us their best shot during the season,” head coach Gary McClure said.

“Not that they wouldn’t give you their best anyway, but being picked first insures you’ll see their best effort. We want to be a good baseball team and that means you have to go out and play your game. I believe if we can do that we’ll give ourselves a chance to win. As a coaching staff, we are going to try and instill in our guys that this is a process and you can’t win it all in one day.”

McClure, who is entering his 25th season as head coach, believes last year taught his team a valuable lesson about what it takes to succeed at a high level.

“I believe our experience will help us —they’ve been there,” McClure said. “They understand the level you have to play at to win.

“The thing you have to guard against is being complacent. However, they have shown all year the ability to practice hard, stay focused and play hard.” TAS