Ohio Valley Conference Preview

Austin Peay hopes to bring '07 success into `08



 
 

Feb. 18, 2008

By Eric Sorenson

Special to CSTV.com

 

ERIC SORENSON
Eric Sorenson is a regular contributor to CSTV.com, covering football, basketball & baseball.
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Did you see that near-upset in last June's NCAA tournament where Austin Peay scared the bejesus out of national No. 1 seed Vanderbilt? What a great bit of P.R. that was for the OVC. Though they'll be the favorites, the rest of the pack isn't exactly far behind the Governors in this year's title chase. If they don't keep their nose to the grindstone, the OVC will be a wide open affair.

 

Favorite: Austin Peay

Contenders: Jacksonville State, Samford, Eastern Kentucky

Darkhorse: Tennessee Tech

 

Austin Peay (40-22, 19-8)

 

The Good News:

Maybe we shouldn't have been so shocked at their play in the NCAAs, the Peay was on a 17-3 tear at the end of last season. Seniors like 3B Tyler Farrar (.341-7-44, 17SBs), 2B J.B. Gilbert (.306) and OF Will Hogue (.307-8-41, 11SBs) and OF Rafael Hill (.305, 15SBs) were key to the Govs success. Starter Ryne Mantooth (8-4, 3.91) has a cool name and a hot arm.

 

The Bad News:

They can't afford another 4-6 hole at the beginning of OVC play. Four players off last year's team were drafted, the most in school history. Staff aces Shawn Kelley and Matt Reynolds took their 21 combined wins with them to pro ball.

 

The Intangible:

Well, duh.

 

There's not much else to write about these guys other than the fact that the performance last June should've bolstered newfound confidence in this team. Like spinach to Popeye, this team should be ready to let 'er rip.

 

Schedule Note:

Though if any year would've been the year for a tough schedule, the Governors slate is pretty Downy soft. A couple of mid-week games between APU and Mississippi State and Vanderbilt take place. Otherwise, wash, rinse, repeat for Ws.

 

Eastern Illinois (23-28, 12-14)

 

The Good News:

The top of the order is set with CF Brett Nommensen (.309, 13SBs) and 2B Jordan Kreke (.308). UTL Richie Derbak (.301 and 3-3, 5svs) could be the top two-way threat in the OVC.

 

The Bad News:

As favorites to win the OVC in '07, EIU stumbled. Team leader Erik Huber, a 12th round pick of Pittsburgh and five other field starters vamoosed. Weekend arms Tyler Kehrer (2-3, 7.02) and Alex Guttosch (2-5, 7.06) must improve their numbers.

 

The Intangible:

Don't become a Three O'clock shooter.

 

(That's what Al McGuire called a player that was great in practice, but not the big games). Despite being capable, EIU went a paltry 4-12 against the top five teams in the OVC last season.

 

Schedule Note:

Southern-fried flavor. The Panthers will play their first six games in Louisiana (at Southeastern La. and at Northwestern State) and then eight more in Bradenton, Florida before starting OVC play.

 

Eastern Kentucky (24-29-1, 12-12)

 

The Good News:

The best arm in the conference is LHP Christian Friedrich (5-4, 2.09, 101Ks and 4-1, 2.68, 52Ks in 37inns. in the Cape last summer). The double play combo of 2B Matt Davis (.317) and SS Travis Barnett (.314, 17SBs) will be a big key to the Colonels hopes.

 

The Bad News:

Top hitter Lucas Waters and stolen base machine Shawn Flora have moved on. OF's Aaron Barrows (.264, 19SBs) and Dylan McMaine (.261, 10SBs) are dangerous weapons, but must get on base more.

 

The Intangible:

How they do without anything fried or rich.

 

Pitchers like McKenzie Willoughby (4-4, 4.71, 5svs) and Eric Hash (2-4, 5.89, 4svs) will play huge roles after Friedrich has put on his street shoes. The team must play up without its ace.

 

Schedule Note:

Like a science experiment with weather, EKU has scheduled eight home games in late February/early March before its spring trip to Florida. It will be interesting to see how many they actually get played.

 

Jacksonville State (33-27, 18-9)

 

The Good News:

OF Clay Whittemore (.391-3-69) is the best clutch hitter in the OVC and has 2B Bert Smith (.359, 31SBs) and OF Kyle McCreary (.330) to back him. A pair of lock-down closers come back in Alex Jones (2-2, 4.02, 4svs) and Mitch Miller (2-2, 5.88, 5svs in '06), who returns after missing the '07 season.

 

The Bad News:

A pair of 7-game winners, Donovan Hand and Tony Drinkard, and a pair of big sticks, Nick Cleckler and Jake Ball, will be missed. RHP Ben Tootle (6-3, 5.91) will need better weekend support.

 

The Intangible:

Close it down better.

 

The return of Miller to the staff may be a big key since Jax State was outscored in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings last season.

 

Schedule Note:

The back end of the slate allows the 'Cocks to make up ground since they'll face Morehead, Tennessee Tech and Tennessee-Martin to close things out.

 

Morehead State (16-36, 9-18)

 

The Good News:

MSU alum and longtime member of the Cincinnati Reds organization, Jay Sorg, takes over the program. 2B Drew Lee (.362) was a Ping! Freshman All-American last year and will team with 1B Christian Winstanley (.350) and OF Nick Nail (.345) to pace the O.

 

The Bad News:

Power outage. The Eagles only return 12 of their 2007 home runs. 2B Chris McCaslin and 3B Ryan Kinder were longtime mainstays in the program. Staff ace Henry Mabee was the only pitcher with an ERA below 5.00. Need quality arms to emerge.

 

The Intangible:

That elusive 30th win.

 

Since the record setting 31-19 team of 1993, the Eagles have not won 30 games since. But they have won 29 games in four different seasons. With a new infusion of enthusiasm, this could be the year they break on through to the other side.

 

Schedule Note:

After the opening weekend at Tennessee, the schedule becomes a little more manageable as well. Look for a winning mark heading into OVC play on March 21st.

 

Murray State (18-35, 12-13)

 

The Good News:

The pitching will have a whole gob of experience, with seniors Mike Perconte (6-7, 7.38) and Lucas Allen (2-5, 6.15) as building blocks. Soph Brad Rowland (2-5, 7.42, 4svs) will be a huge key. 3B Tyler Owen (.353-5-41) is a wicked stick to lead the offense.

 

The Bad News:

A crushing schedule saddled the Racers with an ugly 3-15 record entering OVC play. Six players hit .300+ last season, but now five of them have moved on. The team ERA of 7.52 is pretty telling.

 

The Intangible:

Go farther.

 

The MSU starters just didn't cut the mustard last season. They got behind too many hitters and gave up too many runs. If they can just go an inning or two (okay, or three) longer, it would lessen the burden on the 'penners.

 

Schedule Note:

Though the non-conference slate is nothing like last year's bloodletting, the 'Breds do have a tough early portion of the OVC, facing off with Jax State, Samford and SEMO in the first three weeks.

 

Samford (32-28, 14-13)

 

The Good News:

A new hitting facility, locker rooms and spacious press box are nearly completed at Joe Lee Griffin Stadium. Mississippi State transfer Michael Rutledge (a Red Sox draftee out of high school) will be a huge addition to the infield. Trent Hill (6-6, 4.35) and David Knapp (3-4, 4.42) lead a good staff.

 

The Bad News:

This will be the final season in the OVC, as Samford will become a member of the tougher Southern Conference in 2009. The offense hit just .267 last year and SS Michael Marseco (.350) is the only .300+ hitter back. Two weekend starters and shut down stud Joseph Edens are no longer around.

 

The Intangible:

No dance cards punched.

 

As a Southern school playing against mostly colder-weather teams, the Bulldogs still have yet to make it to the NCAA tournament since moving to the OVC for the 2004 season.

 

Schedule Note:

Coach Casey Dunn will send his charges out to play Alabama, Auburn, Memphis and Troy twice each. Time to knock off some bullies 'Dogs.

 

Southeast Missouri State (32-24, 16-10)

 

The Good News:

Stout arms like Dustin Renfrow (5-1, 2.46) and Josh Syberg (4-4, 4.32) give SEMO a chance every time out. C Jim Klocke (.324), SS Nick Harris (.281-8-37) and 1B Matt Wagner (.318-7-42) will make for a decent infield and offensive pop.

 

The Bad News:

Much of last year's win total can be attributed to a horrendously weak non-conference schedule. The team hit just .273 and struck out 291 times. Asif Shah and his six complete games will be missed huge.

 

The Intangible:

Not going to go away any time soon.

 

In coach Mark Hogan's 13 years in Cape Girardeau, SEMO has gone to the OVC tournament in each and every one of those years.

 

Schedule Note:

Arkansas-Pine Bluff? Northern Colorado? Somebody called William Woods? I'm not bashing the Redhawks' quality of play, but no wonder SEMO will surely win 30 games once again this season.

 

Tennessee-Martin (19-36, 7-19)

 

The Good News:

Four of the five .300+ hitters from last year return, led by top bat Bryce Carden (.329-4-22), Kyle Dudley (.328-4-31) and Blake Turner (.303-3-28), all outfielders.

 

The Bad News:

The "uh-ohs" started early in '07 with a 2-10 start. Just two of the five pitchers who started nine games or more are back. Reliever Travis Webb (1-2, 4.02) was the only pitcher with a sub-5.00 ERA. New middle infielders must be cultivated.

 

The Intangible:

Freakish wins.

 

Of their 19 wins on the 2007 season, only eight of them were 9-inning Ws against Division I competition. Five were in seven innings, one was in eight innings and two were in 10 innings. Three other wins came against non-Division I teams.

 

Schedule Note:

The Skyhawks may have a rugged go of it early on with games against Creighton, Louisiana Tech, Southern Illinois and Memphis in the pre-conference.

 

Tennessee Tech (26-28, 12-15)

 

The Good News:

This could be a team to watch in the OVC as Coach Bragga seems to have things turned in the right direction. Lots of seniors to bank on, including OFs Sean Reilly (.333), Michael Roeder (.315) and Thomas Nelson (.314-5-32). 1B Jake New (.310-5-38) is a lead-by-example type and All-OVC candidate.

 

The Bad News:

Unfortunately, the key positions of SS, 2B and C will have to be newbies. Senior RHP Jake Edwards (5-5, 5.91, 2svs) and sophomore Jared Dobbs (5-3, 4.18) are the only two effective pitchers returning from a team with a 6.18 ERA.

 

The Intangible:

Depth must be gained.

 

TTU was outscored by 38 runs in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings last season. The back side of the arm corps has to develop more stout attitudes. Also, this team is full of seniors, so for the betterment of the future, young talent has to emerge this season.

 

Schedule Note:

Gotta hand it to coach Bragga, he set this team up right with 18 home games out of his first 21 before OVC play kicks off. And all 18 of them are winnable games. This is a good recipe for success.

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