Baseball team winds up for new season

Senior right fielder Dylan Calhoun rounds third base during a game against LeMoyne-Owen last season. Calhoun is one of 17 returning lettermen for the Lions heading into the 2016 season.

The UNA baseball team approaches the 2016 season with mixed feelings of gain and loss.

As with every sport, it can be tough to rebuild a team after losing players that were a part of the program for a long time.

UNA head coach Mike Keehn said the team would have a few holes to fill, specifically in the bullpen. Despite the pitching situation, Keehn said he is confident in the replacements.

“We lost some pretty big guys that we’re going to have to replace, especially on the mound,” Keehn said. “We probably have, velocity-wise, as much velocity as we’ve ever had. Austin Carpenter will probably move to the number one starting role.”

Behind Carpenter, senior Riley Sanderson returns as the lone starter from last season. Carpenter pitched as a reliever last season, but said he is ready to become an ace.

“I haven’t started a lot since high school, but I like it,” Carpenter said. “It shows (Coach Keehn) trusts me to be in this spot. I’ve waited my whole college career for this, and I feel like I’ve made the transition.”

The Lions are losing the likes of right-handed pitcher and first baseman Kyle Conkle, left-handed pitcher Brantley Claunch and closer Jacob Westerhouse, among others.

Outside the bullpen, Keehn said there is competition for several positions, including shortstop, third base and left field. The team lost All-Gulf South Conference players Dylan Boston and Brett Guzay, as both graduated.

The Lions return 17 lettermen from last season, including key contributors from last year’s lineup. Eight seniors, Dylan Calhoun, Brandon Pugh, Kyle Hubbach, Kyle Crabtree, Jess Smith, Kevin Hall, Taylor Hayes and Heath Wood all saw significant playing time last season and hope to take a leadership role in 2016.

In 2015, Calhoun was the team’s leading hitter with a .381 batting average. Despite strong numbers, Calhoun said there are a few things he needs to work on as an individual.

“Hitting-wise, I need to lay off the high fastball,” he said. “I swing at that way too much. I’m more of a contact hitter and more of a guy who tries not to strike out a lot. I try to put the ball in play and make something happen.”

The Lions went 27-16 and finished seventh in the GSC standings last year after going 6-11 in their last 17 games.

Calhoun said one of the team’s goals is to finish strong, which UNA failed to do last season.

“The first half (of the season), we were 21-5 going into UAH,” he said. “After we lost to UAH, it was like we had the wind knocked out of us. We just couldn’t get anything going after that. The wheels started falling off.

“We’re definitely better from that. We always talk about how we don’t want to go from battling to host in the conference tournament and from being in first to missing the tournament.”

Carpenter said he took offense to the eighth place GSC preseason ranking.

“It was like a slap in the face,” Carpenter said. “I like being the underdog though. I feel like pretty much all of (the upperclassmen) have played in a conference game at some point, which is going to help us out a lot.”

The Lions hope to start the season on a high-note as they face Miles College in a double-header at home Feb 6. The Lions welcome Stillman College to Mike Lane Field Feb 7.