Golden Eagles begin championship defense this weekend

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- The 2010 college baseball season is quickly approaching, and the Tennessee Tech baseball team has a lot to be excited for. The Golden Eagles will throw out the first pitch on Feb. 19, beginning a three-game series at Georgia Southern. Tech’s first home game comes the following weekend, a three-game series against Cleveland State on Feb. 26, 27 and 28.

Following one of the most exciting seasons in Golden Eagle baseball history, the bar has officially been raised for the Tennessee Tech baseball program. After tasting victory in the NCAA tournament in 2009, the Golden Eagles are out for more in 2010. And this Tech squad is poised to make another postseason run with a roster filled with experienced upperclassmen and promising newcomers.

Tech returns five out of eight starting position players and nine of its top 11 pitchers, ERA-wise, from last season. And the Golden Eagles reloaded with a head-turning incoming class featuring 12 elite freshmen and four proven junior college transfers.

With proven players, a dedicated coaching staff, and a blue-collar mentality, the 2010 Golden Eagles will be a force to be reckoned with in defense of their OVC championship.

PITCHING
Pitching should again be a strong point for the Golden Eagles as returning all-Ohio Valley Conference pitcher Lee Henry returns for his senior season. Henry went 9-3 with a 3.43 ERA last season, and threw five complete games in six starts on the year. He appeared in 21 games, and struck out 80 batters while allowing just 40 walks in 78.2 innings pitched.

The frontrunners to join Henry in the weekend rotation are Adam Liberatore and Matthew Shepherd. Liberatore was a weekend starter to begin the 2009 season, but suffered a season-ending injury early in the year after going 2-0 with a perfect 0.00 ERA in three starts. He struck out 21 batters and allowed only six walks in 17 innings pitched, giving up only seven hits and no runs before undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Shepherd started eight games as a freshman in 2009 and made 12 total appearances. He pitched 36.2 innings and finished the season with a 3-3 record. Shepherd also found success in the Valley Baseball League over the summer, finishing with a 1.95 ERA in nine appearances, throwing a total of 37 innings.

Junior transfer Stephen Pryor also has a chance to crack the weekend rotation. Pryor was previously drafted by the Texas Rangers, and had a very strong fall at Tech. Whether it’s as a weekend starter, mid-week starter, or top flight reliever, Pryor will be a go-to guy on the Golden Eagle pitching staff in 2010.

Juniors A.J. Kirby-Jones and Chad Oberacker, who both excel at the plate and defensively around the diamond, are also expected to be top pitchers for coach Matt Bragga on the mound. Kirby-Jones will be Tech’s top closer, and has built a solid resume in two years on the mound at Tech. He led the team with a 2.92 ERA as a freshman in 2008, and led the team with three saves in 2009. Kirby-Jones had 52 strikeouts and only 37 walks with a .247 opponents batting average in 2009. Oberacker started seven games on the mound and pitched in eight last season, throwing a total of 31.2 innings. He has pitched a total of 52.2 innings in his two-year Tech career, and has 54 strikeouts and a 5-5 record. He also pitched in the Valley Baseball League in the summer of 2009, and threw 26.1 innings with a 5.13 ERA.

Junior Chason Choate came on strong at the end of 2009. Choate started five games for the Golden Eagles and had the second best ERA of any returning Tech pitcher, and led the team in opponent batting average at just .241.

Sophomores Ben Burgess and Chad Hayes, who both primarily play other positions, have proven they can win games on the mound as well. Hayes pitched a complete-game two-hit shutout in April and Burgess got his first collegiate win in the OVC tournament, which sent Tech to the OVC championship game. Freshman Ryan Hopkins brings a strong presence to the mound with a 6-foot-3 220 pound frame, and is expected to be make an impact in competitive moment situations.

Junior Jared Dobbs, who earned OVC all-tournament team honors in 2008 and OVC all-newcomer honors in 2007, is recovering from a shoulder injury that sidelined him most of last season, and could be a factor late in 2010.

Freshmen to watch on the mound include Tristan Archer, who was drafted by the Oakland Athletics after his senior year in high school, Nick Price, who went 10-1 with a 1.17 ERA during his senior campaign, Andy Williams, who has a no-hitter, 9-1 record and 1.47 ERA under his belt at the high school ranks, and lefty Austin Anderson.

CATCHERS
Ben Burgess is Tech’s most experienced returning catcher after playing 15 games behind the dish in 2009. Burgess was an OVC all-newcomer selection last season after starting 54 games as a freshman, and posting a .316 batting average with nine doubles, four home runs and 45 RBIs.

Brandon Crossman will bring a wealth of experience to the position, as he has played in 31 games at catcher for the Golden Eagles in his two-year career. Sophomore Doug Martin saw action in three games behind the plate in a reserve role as a freshman in 2009. Newcomers Evan Frazier and Michael Morris will also see time at catcher for Tech in 2010.

INFIELD
Tech’s infield heading into 2010 is a tale of two sides. The left side of the infield will be entirely new, as Evan Webb and Heath Cheverton, who started all 56 games in 2009 at third base and shortstop, leave some large shoes to fill. But the Golden Eagles have eager newcomers who are equipped to answer the call. Junior transfers Devin Rivers and Frankie Beech are two top candidates to fill the left side vacancies. Rivers, out of Northwest Shoals Community College, led all Alabama Junior College players in home runs per game in 2009, hitting 17 on the season, and was second in slugging percentage at .823. Beech, a transfer from Motlow State Community College, led all Tennessee Junior College players with a .438 batting average in 2009, and hit .403 in his two-year career. Both are exceptional athletes and standout defensive players. Zephan Guyear is also a strong candidate to fill one of those positions. The freshman was named the District 6AAA Player of the Year as a high school senior.

However, the right side of the field returns every start from a season ago, as Chad Hayes and Trice powers combined to start every game at second base and A.J. Kirby-Jones and Tate McMillan were Tech’s primary first basemen. Kirby-Jones was a second-team all-OVC selection, and was named the OVC tournament’s MVP. He tied the school record for home runs in a season with 20, and is near the top in almost every other Tech single-season and career batting record. McMillan has 62 starts in his three-year Golden Eagle career, and has a .283 career batting average, and hit .342 in 2008.

OUTFIELD
The Golden Eagles have a star-studded lineup returning in the outfield, highlighted by 2009 OVC all-tournament team members Casanova Donaldson, Chad Oberacker and Ben Burgess. Oberacker led the team in batting average in 2009, hitting .354, and Donaldson was second with a .333 average. Oberacker and Donaldson were also Tech’s top two base stealers in 2009. Burgess’ .316 average was fourth on the team, and the trio combined to hit 22 doubles, 10 home runs and start 139 games in 2009. With Burgess likely to see extended playing time behind the plate for Tech, Seth Edwards will fill the open spot in left field. Edwards is a middle-of-the-lineup type hitter who can also be a threat on the bases.

Tech also brought in freshmen Austin Wulf, Will Thomas and Greg Glaser to add depth to the position. All three can cover ground in the outfield and punish opponents from the plate.

DESIGNATED HITTER
With more deadly bats on the roster than defensive positions in the lineup, the Golden Eagles expect to see consistent production from the designated hitter spot. A.J. Kirby-Jones will fill that role in games that he is likely enter as a relief pitcher. Tate McMillan also filled the DH role last season, drawing 24 walks with a .418 on-base percentage.

Also look for Ben Burgess, Frankie Beech or Devin Rivers to fill that spot if not in the defensive lineup.

SCHEDULE
In the first several weeks of the season Tech meets teams either for the first time or the first time in recent memory, including series against Georgia Southern, Cleveland State, Bradley, South Alabama, Buffalo, Memphis and SIU-Edwardsville.

Among Tech’s 30 home contests are four OVC weekend series against Eastern Illinois, Morehead State, Austin Peay and Murray State. The Golden Eagles face conference road series at Jacksonville State, Southeast Missouri, Eastern Kentucky and Murray State. In addition to those early-season non-conference series, the Golden Eagles have single games against Vanderbilt and Tennessee, plus home-and-home contests against in-state rivals East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee Belmont and Lipscomb.

The OVC Tournament, which moves to Pringles Park in Jackson, Tenn., is scheduled for May 26-30 for the teams which finish in the top six places in the standings. Last year, the Golden Eagles captured the OVC Tournament title under Bragga and advanced to the NCAA Clemson Regional. This year’s NCAA Regionals are scheduled for June 5-8.