Georgia Southern hosts Presbyterian on Friday at 7 p.m. in the season opener. Saturday’s first pitch will be 2:30 p.m. and Sunday’s game will be at 1:30 p.m. GSU will host Georgia Tech on Feb. 24-25.
If there’s one thing the Georgia Southern Eagles had going for them a season ago, it was offense.
The team hit .346, brought around 595 runs and knocked out a school-record 114 homers through 58 games, including an NCAA single-game record 14 long balls against Columbia on March 15.
At first glance, losing players like Chris Shehan (.438, 22 HR, 77 RBI) and Jeremiah Parker (.346, 14 HR, 70 RBI) seems like a big hit for any team to suffer, but the 2009 addition of the Eagles is left with plenty of ammo.
Georgia Southern will have nine seniors on the roster this season, many who bring with them a big bat from last year. Six of the nine seniors were starters in 2008.
Coming off a fourth-place Southern Conference finish a year ago in which GSU finished 33-25 (16-11), the focus this time around will be less on fireworks, and more on fundamentals.
The goal is simple — win.
“Last year was exciting for the fans with some of the offense, but we want to win a championship,” said GSU coach Rodney Hennon. “If we hit .250 and win a championship every one of those guys in the locker room is going to be happy about it. These guys want to go out and win games, and the most important thing is that guys just go out and be themselves — not try to do too much.”
The lone senior on the mound for Georgia Southern is Kyle Kamppi, whose role on the pitching staff — either in middle relief or as a closer — has yet to be determined. He knows he needs to be a leader for all of the fresh arms entering the program.
Kamppi finished with 56 strikeouts and 24 walks in 60 innings of work a year ago.
Knowing what it’s like to be the new guy, Kamppi uses his seniority to ease the younger players into the transition.
“The biggest thing is leadership and showing them what you went through and explaining to them that this has happened, and you’re not the only one that’s going to be feeling it,” Kamppi said. “We all went through it.”
Some of the new guys looking to have an impact are righty Matt Murray, a 6-foot-3, 245-pound freshman, sophomore Andy Moye and junior transfers Chris Mederos, Dexter Bobo and Jake Brown.
It is yet to be seen where all the pitchers will fit into the rotation, but the opening week matchups with Presbyterian and Georgia Tech should help sort things out.
“With five games in six days to start the season, it’s going to give all those guys an opportunity to pitch,” Hennon said. “I think we’re going to find out a lot in those first five games. We’ve got six guys we’re looking at right now for five starting slots, and each one of those guys is going to get an opportunity to go out and compete.”
The pitching staff combined for a 7.04 earned run average last season, and this year’s bunch looks to improve on that number, taking some pressure off of the bats. If the offense lives up to its expectations, the benefits could go the other way, too.
“It works both ways,” said senior catcher Griffin Benedict. “If you have a great offense, the pitchers feel more comfortable and if you know you don’t have to score 10 runs a game to win, the offense feels a lot more comfortable. It’s worked both ways and I think it’s going to help out this year.”
The offseason has the team very optimistic about the 2009 pitching staff.
“We’re excited about the new pitchers we brought into the program,” Hennon said. “We feel like we have a more talented staff and a chance to be deeper on our pitching staff this year. We also feel good about those returners with a year more experience and maturity, so we feel good going in.”
The pitchers are also confident in themselves.
“There’s no pressure at all,” said Kamppi. “We know what we’re capable of doing and we’ve just got to go out there and do it.”
The Eagles had four players selected to the preseason All-Southern Conference team based on their performances in 2008.
Benedict (.355, 12 HR, 65 RBI), junior third baseman A.J. Wirnsberger (.325, 21 HR, 71 RBI) and senior outfielder/DH Ty Wright (.398, 17 HR, 52 RBI) were each voted first-team All-SoCon by the league’s coaches. Each was also voted third-team All-American.
Senior outfielder Philip Porter (.365, 45 RBI, 20 extra-base hits) was voted second-team all SoCon.
Wright, the team’s leadoff hitter for much of the 2008 season, set a Georgia Southern record with six home runs to lead off a game. He hit for the cycle during the first four innings on the road at Wofford and finished the season No. 8 in the nation in slugging percentage (.781).
Wright was named to the preseason Wallace Watch for the Brooks Wallace Award — the accolade given to the NCAA National Player of the Year.
Wirnsberger holds the Southern Conference record for hitting three grand slams in 2008 and finished in the Top 25 in the country for home runs and RBIs. Benedict was also one of the top catchers defensively finishing with a .978 fielding percentage and six pickoffs.
Centerfielder Matt Miller, whose season was shortened with an injury last season, appeared in 16 games batting .357 with 12 RBIs in his limited action.
Eight returning Eagles batted over .300 a year ago.
“Especially after last year, confidence is soaring,” Benedict said. “There’s no pressure on you, because even if I go 0-for-4, there’s seven, eight, nine other guys in the lineup that have the possibility of going 4-for-4 and moving runners and moving runners in. The pressure on us is definitely down because someone else in the lineup can pick you up.”
The Southern Conference
Georgia Southern received two first-place votes and was picked to finish second in the Southern Conference by the coaches. The Eagles were picked to finish third with one first-place vote according to the SoCon Sports Media Association.
The clear-cut favorite in the conference is defending champion Elon, who finished 2008 with a record of 44-18 and earned a spot in the NCAA Regionals.
The Phoenix became the first team in seven seasons to win both the SoCon regular season and tournament championships.
Georgia Southern last won the conference title in 2002 and 2000 before that.
Although Elon is the favorite, the SoCon has evolved into a league where anyone can win any given series.
“The Citadel’s a team that returns their entire weekend rotation and a lot of experienced position players,” Hennon said. “College of Charleston of course had a coaching change (under first-year coach Monte Lee), but they’ve got a veteran club coming back. I think you can start there, but the one thing I think that is different about our conference now then say 10 years ago is that there’s much more parity. Week to week, you better show up and play. That bodes well for our league as a whole.”
The Eagles look to pick up where they left off on the offensive side of the ball when they averaged 10.26 runs per game last year, so if they can limit the errors and keep the pressure off the young pitching staff, they could be in for a successful season.
“It all starts with pitching and defense,” Hennon said. “I don’t think there’s any question — you go out and you pitch and play sound defense and you’re going to be in position to win games. You’re not going to win every game, but you’re going to have a chance to win. If we can do those things on a consistent basis then this team has an opportunity to accomplish a lot of things that we want. That’s getting back on top in the Southern Conference and trying to go back to a regional.”