By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information Coordinator
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – A tough road lies ahead for the Tennessee Tech baseball team as the it looks to mimic last year's program record 40 wins. The 36th ranked Golden Eagles unveiled their 2014 regular season schedule and among the highlights include four games against major conference opponents and seven contests against teams that competed in last year's NCAA Tournament.
Five of Tech's 2014 opponents earned spots or received votes in this year's preseason pole, including last season's SEC regular season champion, Vanderbilt. The Commodores, who are ranked ninth to start the 2014 season, were 54-12 last season and ranked as high as No. 1 overall. The Golden Eagles pulled off the biggest upset in school history last season, beating the then-No. 2 ranked Vandy team in Nashville. Tech will return to the Music City for this year's rematch on March 4.
Two other SEC opponents that will take on the Golden Eagles received votes in the preseason poll, inlcuding Tennessee and Kentucky. Tech will actually play host to the Volunteers on April 8, marking the first time since 2008 that an SEC team will make the trip to Cookeville. The Golden Eagles defeated Tennessee in that last match-up, 9-7. The Tech squad will also travel north for an April 22 contest with the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington.
Among Tech's 2014 foes also receiving votes in the preseason poll are Ohio Valley Conference and in-state rival Austin Peay and regional rival South Alabama. Both teams participated in last year's NCAA Tournament, having won their respective conference tournaments. Austin Peay finished 47-15 while South Alabama wrapped up 2014 at 43-20. Tech opens the year with a three-game set at South Alabama, February 14-16. They won't see the Governors until April 4-6 when Austin Peay comes to Bush Stadium at the Averitt Express Baseball Complex.
"We're excited to be opening up at South Alabama," said head coach Matt Bragga. "They're an NCAA regional team from last year and won 40-plus games. They'll be a great team and perennially have been a very good program. That will be a fun trip for us and we're really excited to go down there to start our year."
Following the season opening series is a February 18 contest at in-state foe Middle Tennessee. Tech will travel to Murfreesboro for the first game of a home-and-home series before hosting the Blue Raiders on April 9.
Next for Tech marks the season's home-opener, a four-game series against NYIT (New York Institute of Technology). The two schools will play Feb. 21-23 with a double-header scheduled for the 22nd. The four-game period is also a part of Tech's longest homestand of the year as the Golden Eagles will host eight consecutive contests.
"We've never played NYIT before," Bragga explained, "so we're excited to get them down here and play some ball on our own field. That will be our home-opening series after starting with four games on the road and we always count down the days to when we can get back to work on our home field."
The next opponent on tab will also see the Golden Eagles four times in 2014, however, will only play one game on Feb. 25. In-state rival Lipscomb will then host Tech on May 2 and 3 before the Golden Eagles return to Cookeville for the fourth contest on May 4. Also part of the long home slate is a visit from Big Ten member Northwestern, which will make its visit from Feb. 28 to March 2.
"Northwestern will be a good challenge for us," added Bragga. "It marks the second straight year we've played a Big Ten opponent. Last year we hosted by Michigan State and Illinois and I think those games are always fun for our guys."
After the trip to Vanderbilt, the Tech squad returns to open OVC play, hosting Eastern Kentucky from March 7-9. Other home dates for league play include March 21-23 against UT Martin, April 4-6 against the reigning OVC Tournament Champs, Austin Peay, April 18-20 against Jacksonville State, and May 9-11 against Southeast Missouri.
Tech will hit the road for OVC trips at Morehead State (March 14-16), SIUE (March 28-30), Eastern Illinois (April 11-13), Murray State (April 25-27), and the season-ending series at Belmont (May 15-17).
"The conference schedule is also good," Bragga said. "It's always a challenge. And it's always fun. Our guys enjoy our entire schedule, but there's just something about conference play that these guys tend to enjoy just a little bit more."
"We won 24 of our 30 games in conference play last year, which is fantastic," Bragga explained. "That's not something we necessarily set a goal to do. We just try to beat the game of baseball and minimize the errors and mistakes that lead to losses. We always have the goal of winning an OVC Championship, but not necessarily a specific number of games that that will take. We have a good club and we expect to have another good year. We certainly expect a challenge, but we also expect a lot out of our team and our coaching staff."
Two other road trips are on tab for the Tech squad, including a single game at UNC Asheville on March 11 and a single contest at Alabama A&M on April 1. Tech will host Alabama A&M just two weeks later on April 15 as part of the home-and-home series. The Golden Eagles also play host to Berea on March 12 and Miami (OH) from March 25-26.
"It's a good schedule overall," said Bragga. "Playing Kentucky, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt will be good tests for our program and just add to the strength of our slate this season. We want to compete nationally year-in and year-out and we feel that this schedule will allow us to do that. Our guys understand that if we're going to compete at the highest level of college baseball, these are the teams that you have to be able to not just compete against, but you have to be able to beat."
"We look forward to our schedule," added Bragga. "Our coaching staff works hard to put together a good schedule that is both challenging and fun for our guys. Simply put, if we play good baseball, we'll have a good year. We're excited and ready to start having some fun."
Admission to all of TTU's home games in Bush Stadium at the Averitt Baseball Complex is free of charge. Game days and start times are subject to change.