COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – With just days to go before opening day, the Tennessee Tech baseball team is working hard to get into mid-season form early to try and prove the Ohio Valley Conference wrong about its preseason predictions.
In a vote that included both the head coaches and SIDs, the Golden Eagles were picked to finish sixth in the league this season, following last year's eighth place finish. One extremely bright spot of the preseason picks for Tech is first baseman Zach Stephens. The junior out of Hixson, Tenn., was selected preseason all-OVC first-team as well as the OVC Preseason co-Player of the Year, sharing the honor with Austin Peay second baseman Jordan Hankins.
Stephens anchors a Tech offense that returns 12 of its top 14 hitters from last season's squad. The team boasted one of the league's top offenses in 2012, ranking first in batting average (.299), hits per game (10.55), and hit-by-pitch (94). The team also sat in the top four in slugging percentage (third, .434), on base percentage (second, .391), runs scored per game (fourth, 6.19), home runs per game (fourth, 0.92), RBI per game (third, 5.68), strikeouts per game (fourth, 6.91), at bats per game (second, 35.26), and plate appearances per game (third, 41.68)
"I love our depth offensively and position player wise," said Bragga. "I think it's as deep as it's ever been in my time at Tech. That's really exciting."
A Soddy-Daisy High School product, Stephens earned NCBWA preseason third-team All-America honors in December. He followed that with preseason all-OVC first-team honors from College Sports Madness. As a sophomore, Stephens led the team with a .368 batting average, 75 hits, 44 runs scored, 52 RBI, and 18 home runs. His 18 dingers ranked him sixth in all of NCAA Division I baseball.
Lining up next to Stephens at second base this season will be junior Zach Zarzour. A JUCO transfer from Chattanooga State Community College, Zarzour brings blazing speed to the Golden Eagle lineup, showing a strong ability to steal bases. He takes over the second base position from last season's starter, Dylan Bosheers, who makes a transition across the infield.
"He's doing a fantastic job," added Bragga of Zarzour. "He's very capable of being a leadoff guy and may challenge Austin (Wulf) for the No. 1 spot in the lineup. He's a very fast kid, showing great speed."
A sophomore infielder from Lawrenceburg, Tenn., Bosheers will make the move from starting at second base to starting at shortstop, replacing Chad Hayes, who graduated in December. Bosheers was one of three Golden Eagles to earn OVC all-freshman honors last season, starting all 53 games and putting together a .277 average while recording 34 RBI.
Michael Morris, a senior from Cincinnati, Ohio, will begin the 2013 campaign at the hot corner, holding down third base until JUCO transfer Daniel Miles returns from injury. When healthy, Miles will share the action at third, bringing in a middle-of-the-order hitting ability and a more than capable glove.
One of the deepest positions for the Golden Eagles may be catcher. A transfer from Columbia State Community College, junior Jordan Parris will take over the catching role from another graduated senior, Ben Burgess.
"In 17 years of coaching college baseball, he's about as good as I've ever seen," remarked Bragga. "He's really great defensively. He's the best catch-and-throw kid I think I've ever coached."
Also in the catching rotation for the ball club will be Jordan Hopkins, a sophomore from Knoxville, Tenn., who clutch hitter drove in an impressive 12 RBI on 17 hits last season. He made 14 starts behind the plate in 2012, earning a .283 average for the year.
In the outfield, fans can look forward to a veteran group of leaders with two of the team's three captains calling the grassy expanse home.
James Abraham, one of the captains and a senior from Diamondhead, Miss., will occupy left field for the Golden Eagles. Abraham ranked third on the team in batting average last season, putting together a .326 mark while collecting 59 hits and 24 RBI in just 181 at bats.
Anchoring the outfielders in center is the other captain, Austin Wulf, a senior from Beaver Falls, Penn. The team's leadoff hitter the past two seasons, Wulf led the OVC in hit-by-pitches while recording a .314 average and .420 on base percentage. His 69 hits were good for second on the team, as were his 37 runs scored.
Wrapping up things out deep is this year's right fielder, Zephan Guyear. A senior from Tracy City, Tenn., Guyear drove in 26 runs as a junior, finishing third on the team with five home runs.
Also expected to spend some time in outfield will be Morris (when he's not at third base) and Tevis Sherfield, a capable junior utility man from Cookeville. Sherfield will also play the role of middle infielder when called upon.
"Sherfield is playing both outfield and infield for us," said Bragga. "He played infield in high school and outfield last year for us. We've got him back in the infield this year and he's been doing a great job at second base."
Acting as the designated hitter will be a foursome of capable bats. Morris, who returns as the team's second-leading hitter from last season, will grab some at bats in the DH role when not at third or in the outfield. He averaged .328 over 49 games last season, including 47 starts and 29 RBI.
Evan Frazier will hold a lot of responsibility as the team's returning primary DH. A senior Collierville, Tenn., Frazier will also spend time in the catching rotation as one of the club's backstops.
"Evan Frazier is a very good catcher," explained Bragga. "He brings a different element to the position. He's a power guy. The other two guys are good hitters, but Frazier brings the ability to drive the long ball."
A JUCO transfer junior from Marion Military Academy, Brandon Thomasson figures to split time as a DH and first baseman, bringing middle-of-the-order power into play as well as an all-star caliber glove at first. He and Stephens will look to split time at both positions, with the hot glove playing at first and the latter likely earning the DH title.
Returning as the top starter for Tech for the 2013 season will be senior right-handed pitcher Tristan Archer. The third captain of the club, Archer returns as the No. 1 option after leading the Golden Eagles in ERA, wins, starts, innings pitched, and strikeouts last season.
Expected to be Tech's No. 2 starter on the weekend, sophomore David Hess will look to build off a strong rookie campaign. The Tullahoma, Tenn., native earned OVC all-freshman honors after making seven starts and recording 51 Ks in 61.2 innings pitched.
Wrapping up the weekend warriors will be JUCO sophomore transfer Jacob Honea. Honea joins the Golden Eagles from Motlow State Community College.
"The guy is a battler," said Bragga. "He had just a fantastic fall and will be our No. 3 guy to start the year. He's just a sophomore, but he has great stuff and will give us good innings."
Sitting in the closer role this season is another OVC all-freshman honoree from last season in the form of sophomore Seth Lucio. The Locust Grove, Ga., native made a name for himself last season, pitching 8.1 innings with 11 strikeouts in a big win at the University of Tennessee.
A junior out of Ooltewah, Tenn., Garrett Baugh will serve a number of roles this season, including mid-week starter, reliever, and occasional weekend starter. Joining Baugh in a mixed role will be JUCO transfer junior Stanton Taylor. Taylor brings great competitiveness to the team, with a strong ability to make hitters miss pitches.
"Stanton is really a competitive moment guy," remarked Bragga. "If we need some outs, he can come in there at any point in the game, either to extend a lead or to face a tough situation, he's our guy. He's just been phenomenal so far in his time here. Baugh we can use in a lot of roles. He truly gives us a lot flexibility, which is important to a pitching staff."
Senior righty Nick Price will be another key arm for the Golden Eagles during the year. He will serve the team with the same purpose as Baugh and Taylor, a pitcher of all trades. The only left-hander on the team, senior Josh Bryant is coming off a very strong spring and is expected to bolster the bullpen and come out with big outs in close-game situations.
"Pitching wise, I'd say it's the most depth we've had in a long time," said Bragg. "Our ability to compete this year in the OVC will hinge on our pitching and I feel that our group is more than capable of handling that."
"I'm excited about our team," added Bragga. "We've got a bunch of other guys who are more than capable of contributing. We'll just have to wait and see what happens. Our club has a chance to be really good this season and I look forward to coaching what I feel is one of our strongest teams since I have been here."
The Tech baseball team opens the 2013 season with a three-game set beginning Friday when it hosts Big Ten foe Illinois. Game time on Friday is set for 3 p.m. CST, with games Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. Admission is free to all regular season home games.