When you talk about a Georgia Southern program with a history of success spanning generations, baseball is always at the top of the conversation.
Through the 66 years the program has competed, it has been a winner at every level. From the 1962 NAIA national title, to the three postseason appearances in the 70s after the move back to Division I including to the trip to Omaha for the 1973 NCAA College World Series, two more regional appearances in the 80s, a return to Omaha in 1990 and five more NCAA appearances and four Southern Conference tournament titles since, the Eagles have always competed at a high level.
Rodney Hennon, the program’s coach since 2000, has kept it going. Of the three coaches who have spent at least a decade in Statesboro — Jack Stallings (858-581-5, .596), J.I. Clements (320-205, .610) and Hennon — Hennon has the highest winning percentage (.614).
“Baseball as a program has had a great history, a great meaning to Georgia Southern,” said GSU director of athletics Sam Baker, “and I think
Coach Hennon has lived up to those expectations.”
Since GSU joined the SoCon in 1992, The Citadel has been the most dominant program, winning the SoCon tournament seven times. Only two other teams — Georgia Southern (four) and Western Carolina (four) — have won the title multiple times.
The Eagles have won five regular-season titles, tied with WCU for the most in the league since 1992.
Even when GSU has not been in contention for the SoCon title, it has been a consistent competitor. Under Hennon, the worst performance has been the 31-27 campaign in 2006. That puts the Eagles among a very elite group of Division I teams.
“We’ve had 30-plus win seasons for 11 consecutive years now, and I think there are 19 Division I programs in the country that can say that,” Hennon said. “We’re one of them. We’ve been fortunate to be consistent.”
The only place the Eagles haven’t preformed at a high level has been the NCAA tournament. Since joining the SoCon, they have defeated Georgia, Old Dominion and Elon in the regionals, but are 3-10 overall, including the disappointing losses to Gonzaga and Utah in the 2009 Fullerton regional in which they were the No. 2 seed. They haven’t advanced to a super regional.
The goal, however, has been to focus on winning the league. After all, you can’t advance through the regionals if you don’t get there first.
“Everything has to start within the conference,” Hennon said. “It’s a goal every year and an expectation every year to win a conference championship and to put ourselves in position to be a regional team. Obviously the 40-win number is something I think everyone has at the back of their mind at this level if you play a competitive schedule as we do. When you’re able to attain that 40-win mark or be around there, you’re always going to make a case to be a team that’s going to move on in the postseason.
“We strive to win our league, and the ultimate goal is to get this program back to Omaha. I do think we have the facility and we have the resources that will allow us to compete at that level. It’s just a matter of working hard. We don’t get the notoriety on the national scene, so that’s something that we always have to fight and work against, but at the same time, this program has a strong tradition and a good reputation.”
J.I. Clements Stadium is arguably the finest facility in the SoCon, and is among the nation’s stadiums that are eligible to host an NCAA regional.
It also helps on the recruiting trail.
“One thing that it does when you bring a recruit on campus, and they have an opportunity to see our facility,” Hennon said, “I think they find out right away that there is a strong commitment to our program here, that we’re serious about baseball.”
Three of the SoCon’s teams — The Citadel, College of Charleston and Elon — advance to the regionals this year. Only the ACC, SEC, Pac 10 and
Big 12 have sent more teams to the NCAA tournament.
Still, the SoCon is still a long way away from competing with those conferences.
“The difference in the Southern Conference versus the ACC or the SEC,” Hennon said, “is that we’ve gotten to the point where we got three bids this year — which I think is a big step for our league — but the ACC or SEC, they’re typically getting seven, eight, a couple years they’ve had nine bids.
“Our conference has improved top to bottom, especially after the last five or six years. If you look at the league this year, the top seven teams in our league were all Top-75 RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) teams. That’s pretty strong. You don’t see many conferences in the country that can boast that.”