By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information Coordinator
MOBILE, Ala. – It's finally here. After months of anticipation, hard work, and sweat, the defending Ohio Valley Conference champion Tennessee Tech baseball team will open the 2014 season with a three-game series at South Alabama.
Fans can expect the series to be a grudge match as both programs enter the 2014 year fresh off conference championships and 40-win seasons. For the Jaguars, it's a chance to start off the season the right way. With a four-game homestand to open the season, South Alabama knows it will need a hot start.
As for the Golden Eagles, there will be a huge target for the OVC Preseason favorites after dominating the league in the regular season just one year ago. Tech opens with four consecutive road games and will need to set the standard high right away if it hopes to repeat last year's record-setting season.
SETTING THE STAGE There have only been two meetings between the Golden Eagles and South Alabama before this weekend, as the two squads split a two-game set back in 2010 in Mobile. Tech won a barn-burner in the second contest, edging the Jaguars in a 14-13 thriller on Mar. 10, 2010.
Both teams have been mighty busy since then. In fact, last year marked great seasons for both squads. South Alabama won 40+ games for the 19th time in team history, making the Starkville Regional and taking on eventual College World Series runnerup Mississippi State. The Jaguars finished the year 43-20 while winning a share of the Sun Belt Conference regular season championship.
The Golden Eagles set a program record with 40 wins while also breaking the Ohio Valley Conference record for league wins with 24. Tech won the OVC regular season championship and boasted two All-Americans and eight all-conference players when the season ended.
THE LAST TIME THEY MET
With one out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning Ryan Hopkins came in to pitch for the Golden Eagles and try to preserve a slim two-run lead. And he did just that, forcing back-to-back ground balls to earn the save and give the Tennessee Tech baseball team a 14-13 win over South Alabama Wednesday afternoon.
The Golden Eagles tallied 14 runs on 20 hits and it proved to be just enough, as Tech escaped with the road win over the Jaguars to earn a split in the two-game series.
Seth Edwards went 4-for-6 at the plate, Chad Hayes and Chad Oberacker each went 3-for-5, and A.J. Kirby-Jones, Casanova Donaldson, Zephan Guyear and Evan Frazier each had two hits, as Tech reached the 20 hit mark for the second time in the young season. The Golden Eagles improve to 5-7 on the season, and snap a five-game losing streak. USA falls to 9-6 on the year.
The Golden Eagles came out of the gates strong, rallying for four runs in the first inning and three in the second to take a 7-1 lead into the third inning. But the Jaguars began chip away, and heading into the eighth inning USA had cut Tech's lead to just 12-10. Both teams scored a run in the eighth inning, and Tech added another in the ninth to go ahead 14-11. USA led off the bottom of the ninth with a pair of walks and single to load the bases with no outs. After a strikeout and another walk, Hopkins entered the game and was able to get the save.
The Golden Eagles scored in every inning except for the fourth, while USA scored a run in seven of the nine innings in the offensive battle. Nine different Golden Eagle batters had at least one hit in the game.
Chason Choate got the start on the mound for the Golden Eagles, and allowed six runs on seven hits in 4.1 innings of work while walking two and striking out two. Stephen Pryor got the win for the Golden Eagles after pitching two-thirds of an inning without allowing a hit or a run and striking out two batters.
A.J. Kirby-Jones hit his team-leading fourth home run of the season, which puts him alone in fourth place on Tech's all-time career home run list with 29 for his career. Two of Edwards' four hits were doubles, and Oberacker added a double as well for the Golden Eagles offensively. Tate McMillan drew three walks in the game.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Senior first baseman Zach Stephens has a lot of expectations being thrust upon him for yet another season, receiving three preseason All-American nods and countless other preseason props and honors. The Hixson, Tenn. native will also be on record watch for a majority of the season as he sits in the top 10 of numerous offensive categories for a career, including just eight home runs shy of A.J. Kirby-Jones' record of 51. Stephens is also just 10 shy of the OVC mark of 53 currently held by Mike Williams of Western Kentucky. He batted .332 with 15 home runs and career-best 71 RBI in 2013 while gathering All-OVC honor and has been selected as the Preseason OVC Player of the Year for the second straight year.
Another senior All-American makes up the hot corner for the Golden Eagles, as Daniel Miles returns after dropping 12 bombs last year to go along with a .332 batting average and 53 RBI. Miles made several highlight-reel plays at third base to go along with a fantastic offensive effort on his way to All-OVC honors.
Dyan Bosheers will begin his third season with the Tech squad and his second as the starting shortstop. The junior improved his batting average over 50 points last season, batting .329 while leading the team with 20 doubles. He was named to the All-OVC for his efforts.
Joining Bosheers in the middle infield for the second straight year is fellow All-OVC honoree Zach Zarzour. The senior second baseman is the returning leader in stolen bases for the Golden Eagles, swiping 13 bags while batting .300 in the lead-off role.
A defensive master, Jordan Parris will quarterback the Tech pitching staff for his second and final year as the leading catcher on the team. Parris caught nearly 43 percent of the runner who tried to steal against him and racked up a .980 fielding percentage from behind the plate.
Making the transition from designated hitter to right field, senior Brandon Thomasson returns as a massive power threat in the heart of the order, bringing back 12 home runs and 52 RBI to the Tech offense. He also earned All-OVC honors in 2013.
New to the Tech lineup is center fielder Jake Rowland, a redshirt sophomore who sat out the 2013 season after transferring from the University of Tennessee. The young lefty is expected to step right in in the two-hole and produce at a steady pace for the Tech attack.
Also expected to make his first career start is left fielder David Allen. After redshirting his freshman season and sitting out his redshirt freshman year with an injury, Allen provided depth as a pinch runner and defensive substitute for the 2013 squad. After a huge spring, the junior will look to make his presence felt in a starting role.
All-OVC closer Seth Lucio will look to keep his record-setting pace alive as the junior returns to the bullpen after tying the career-record of 12 saves in just one season. He put together an impressive 1.83 ERA while striking out 66 batters.
Starting on the mound for the Golden Eagles on Friday will be JUCO transfer Chris Chism. The right-hander brings a competitive edge from St. Petersburg College and will look to give the Tech squad a great start to the 2014 season.
Pitching on Saturday is junior returnee David Hess. The righty dazzled Tech fans out of the bullpen last season, capping a 3.84 ERA and 77 strikeout season with the performance of a lifetime. Hess struck out 11 of the 14 batters he faced in 4.1 innings of relief work in the OVC championship clinching win over Belmont. He also finished the year with a 7-2 record.
Wrapping things up on Sunday will be another JUCO transfer in John Gora. The left hander recorded an impressive 4.27 K/walk ratio while at Lakeland Community College on his way to a 6-2 record in nine starts.
Here's a look at the pitching match-ups between Tech and South Alabama: