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New Bulldog team looks to live up to No. 2 rankins
Feb 10, 2007 12:00 am
Cumberland enters the 2007 baseball season Friday ranked No. 2 in the NAIA preseason poll.
It must have been based on the Bulldogs' runner-up finish in last year's NAIA World Series, especially since national champion Lewis-Clark State is No. 1. But this Bulldog team bears few resemblances to last spring's.
"It's a new team, we got a lot of new faces," said Woody Hunt, whose team will throw the first pitch on his 26 season as head coach at 6:30 p.m. Friday in Hattiesburg, Miss., against William Carey. "We have one returning starter position-wise and we got two or three quality pitchers coming back. But it's basically a new team and we're trying hard to build that teamwork that you need to have. I think it'll take a while to get to where we want to get.
"We've got to prove ourselves. There are high expectations within the NAIA for our team. We've had a stretch of three years that's almost unmatched. We feel like we can get back to Lewiston [Idaho for the World Series], that's our goal. Our team wants to do it very badly."
Looking at the most veteran position on the team, the mound, Hunt has two 10-game winners [Zach Whitmer and Karl Mejlholm] as well as probably one of the best returning closers [Friendship Christian-alum Adam Tomlinson] in the NAIA. But Hunt is bypassing his two returning aces for junior right-hander Robert Clayton, a transfer from Broward [Fla.] Community College, for opening night, with senior left-hander Whitmer [12-1, 3.33 earned-run average in 2006] set for Saturday's 2 p.m. game and senior righty Mejlholm [10-4, 4.82] for Sunday's series finale 24 hours later.
"That doesn't mean they're the top three, but that's who we're going to start this weekend," said Hunt, who is also looking at junior left-hander Anthony Fomasi [Marin CC], junior lefty Myles Anderson [Sacramento City CC], returning junior righty Aaron Tant [2-1, 4;24] out of the bullpen and junior righty Matt Madigan, who was injured last year.
"We kind of wanted to take the pressure off of Zach that first game," Hunt said. "He may be a Saturday starter instead of a Friday starter this year. We got to have three good starting pitchers every weekend. And there's a lot of pressure on the Friday game. Most of the time it's a nine-inning game so we're going to try to save some innings on the front end of the schedule so he can be a little bit stronger at the end of the year."
Hunt said none of the Bulldog pitchers throw 90-plus mph.
"Our staff is a staff that's got good stuff," Hunt said. "They know how to pitch. They got a good feel for what they're doing on the mound. They have good changeups. They have good breaking balls.
"It's a staff which has good stuff and good command and I like that kind of pitching staff when you really can have command of your pitches. I'm excited about our pitching staff. It may not work out but Coach [Kevin] Hite and I think we have a chance to have a really good pitching staff."
Catching the staff will be junior Luis Martinez, a transfer from Jackson State CC.
"He's a good defensive catcher, a good catcher mentality behind the plate," Hunt said of Martinez. "He handles pitchers real well. He's probably going to be a professional player. He's been looked at pretty heavily by the scouts. He's been drafted once in the 11th round out of Jackson State, but he didn't sign.
"He' a top-of-the-line catcher. He has a chance to be one of the best in the country."
The rest of the everyday lineup will likely be anchored by senior outfielder Courtney Propst, a preseason All-American who batted .376 with 14 home runs and 54 RBI and stole 15 bases in 18 tries in the Bulldogs' 51-18 season last year. The Orlando native will open in left field and lead off.
"I like power and speed at the top of the order," said Hunt, who batted Gary Dayhoff [a player with similar skills] in the same position nearly two decades ago. "If he starts swinging the bat and we need him in an RBI spot, we may move him down.
"I think he's going to be a good RBI guy based on if we get the 8- and 9-hole guys on base... then use the power and speed guy at the top of the order. You got two different types of hitter in the same spot."
Junior Preston Potter will start in center field with with junior Jason Bush [Daytona Beach CC] in right. Hunt said he'll also look at sophomore Charlie Belote of Gallatin.
In the infield, sophomore James Parker of Wilson Central will open at either first base or designated hitter with Tennessee Tech-transfer Clint Alexander of Murfreesboro in the other spot. Junior James Lilley [St. John's River CC in Florida] will open at second base with junior Austin Morgan [Sacramento City} at shortstop and junior Eric Mull, expected to be one of the Bulldogs' top hitters, [Skyline CC] at third. Seniors Bryant Baines and Bryan Bowen will also get looks.
Hunt said he expects his lineup to produce reliable power, though Donnie Burkhalter's school home-run records appear to be safe.
"I think we will have some power," Hunt said. "I don't know if we'll have one guy hit 26 like Angel [Mercado] did last year or hit 20 like [Cirilo] Cruz. But I feel we'll have several in double-figure home runs."
Hunt looks for Propst to repeat his double-digit power numbers and for Alexander, Martinez and Bush to join him with Parker and Belote as possibilities.
And the lineup this weekend is just a preliminary one, Hunt said.
"Our lineup we have the first day is not necessarily the one we'll have in April," Hunt said. "We will do some experimenting."
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 17 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.