Baseball looks to returners, new faces for impact

North Alabama junior first baseman Kyle Hubbuch readies himself to swing during a game in the 2016 season. Hubbach is one of 17 returners from last season’s team looking to make an impact in 2017.

North Alabama’s baseball team will look forward to a fresh start in 2017 after finishing the previous season with a 25-22 record.

Lions head coach Mike Keehn said last season’s record was not what they wanted, but the record was misleading, given the caliber of teams in the South Region, which has produced seven national championship teams out of the last nine years.

“Our conference is so deep and talented,” he said. “Our team will have to win close games to be able to compete in not just the conference, but the region.”

The Lions return 17 players from last season’s roster, including last year’s home run leader, junior first baseman Kyle Hubbuch.

Hubbuch had 12 home runs last year and a batting average of .322.

UNA also returns key contributors such as third baseman Davis Elliot, infielder Peyton Sockwell, outfielder Conner Kiser and right-handed pitchers Devan Traglia and Dylan Stewart.

Stewart cumulated a 3.56 ERA and a 3-0 record in 17 total appearances last season.

“We have several solid arms this year, beginning with a strong starting rotation and very reliable arms coming out of the bullpen,” Stewart said. “As long as our pitchers compete in the strike zone and locate pitches, winning ball games will take care of itself.”

The 2017 team has the tall task of finding ways to replace 12 seniors from last year’s squad that saw a vast percentage of playing time, including All-Region performer Taylor Hayes and runs and hits leader Kevin Hall.

“Hall was one of the better bats last season in the Gulf South, so we are going to miss that,” Keehn said. “Taylor Hayes was a program guy that came into his own for us kind of unexpected. He fit the mold of the UNA style of player we look for.”

Hall, a 2016 All-Gulf South Conference selection, signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets.

Keehn said with several key players leaving from last year’s team, he expects underclassmen and newcomers to step up.

The Lions have 12 newcomers on the roster, and Stewart said it did not take long for them to truly become a part of the team.

“Although there are several newcomers this year, we have all became very close to each other over the fall semester and consider each other brothers,” he said.

The Lions will begin the 2017 season with a three game road series against 2016 national runner-up Central Missouri Feb. 3-5, then travel to Miles College to face the Golden Bears Feb. 7.

UNA will then begin a four game home stretch with a three-game series versus Bellarmine Feb. 11-15 and a one-off game against Lemoyne-Owen Feb. 15. The Lions then launch GSC play at West Georgia Feb. 18.

“I’m really excited about this team,” Keehn said. “I think this one of the more overall athletic teams I’ve had. There’s a lot of guys that have pure athleticism which means they can drive the ball, they can run and they’ve got some arm strength. Now it’s a matter if we can put it all together and be good baseball players.”