Baseball team looks to bounce back after disappointing season

Senior shortstop Brett Guzay fields a ground ball during practice Jan. 21. UNA finished the 2014 season with a 26-27 record, the first losing season in 30 years. “Last year is last year,” said coach Mike Keehn. “We have new players, guys get older and it’s a whole new team.” The Lions open the season at Miles College Jan. 31.

The 2015 baseball season is rounding the bases, and the Lions are ready to bounce back from their first losing season since 1983.

Injuries and inconsistent hitting led to UNA’s eighth place finish in the GSC with a 26-27 (14-16) record last year.

Instead of dwelling on the past, however, the Lions said they are focused and the optimism for the upcoming season is high.

“Last year is last year,” said head coach Mike Keehn. “We have new players, guys get older and it’s a whole new team.”

UNA is returning eight pitchers, including the team’s workhorse last season, senior Brantley Claunch, who pitched a team high 93.1 innings.

“We feel the (pitching staff) will be the strength of our program,” Keehn said. “Very seldom do you have pitchers with the experience that we have coming back. Our pitchers should really keep us in every game.”

Returners also include first team All-GSC player Kyle Conkle and second team All-GSC players Jacob Westerhouse and Dylan Boston. Overall, the Lions have 12 returnees that saw significant playing time in 2014.

With 21 total position players, the depth of this team is evident. Competition for significant playing time heading into the season could be high.

“I think (competition) helps bring the team together,” said third baseman Dylan Boston. “Yes, you want to beat your teammate out for the starting job, but at the same time you’re rooting for one another to be the best to help the team win.”

Josh Carpenter’s departure left a void at the second base position.

Keehn said potential second baseman Heath Wood is the leading candidate for the position based on ability.

“He’s had a good fall and a good spring offensively. He can run, so he brings more stuff — more speed, more potential offensively. We just have to see how he plays defensively,” he said.

Wood is a junior transfer from Northeast Mississippi Community College. Junior Kyle Crabtree and true freshman Ben Richards battle behind him for the second base position.

Sophomore Payton Thomas and junior transfers Kevin Hall and Jess Smith will compete for the position behind the plate.

“Catching was not one of our overall strengths last year, and we had to improve in that area,” Keehn said. “All three have good arms back there. What it’s going to come down to is who’s going to not let balls get past them or balls pop out of their glove.”

Transfer Brandon Pugh is the favorite to replace Gold Glove Award winner Jake Ward at center field and leadoff batter.

Beginning the season with a traditional starting lineup is ideal, but with the depth the Lions have, Keehn said he is not opposed to platooning if the situation calls for it.

“I’m just going to let it play out,” Keehn said. “Hopefully what we have is enough depth where I can put a group of guys out and be successful. Then I can take another group of guys and put them out there, and they can be successful too.”

The Lions batted only .262 with a .355 on-base percentage and hit only five home runs last season, all three numbers second worst in the conference. However, the Lions say they hope to improve those numbers with a lineup that can play small ball or hit for power.

“Right now we have an opportunity and more potential to be better offensively,” Keehn said. “The pitcher and the situation will determine what style we play.”

“My vision is we have a team that’s more conducive to what I want to have, which is a combination of speed and power mixed within the lineup which, hopefully, is what we have.”

Experience is far from scarce this year with 19 juniors and seniors, but there are also seven freshmen on the team.

Senior pitcher Austin Carpenter said there are some things that the older guys can do to help accustom the younger players to UNA.

“We should be a role model to them on and off the field and teach them how we do things in our program,” he said.

Freshmen pitchers J.T. Thompson and Chris Sparkman will be redshirted due to injuries, but outfielder Mitchell Lovell and pitcher Will Bishop both redshirted as freshman last season. They will get their first taste of action this season.

One new addition to keep an eye on is true freshman Kyle Hubbach. Hubbach could see time at first base but will be see plenty of at-bats as designated hitter.

“Kyle Hubbach will be in the lineup somewhere hitting for us,” Keehn said. “He’s got a lot of maturity about him, a lot of patience, and a really good approach at the plate. He’s got legit pop in his bat. He definitely will be playing.”

Other players for fans to keep an eye on, according to Keehn, will be Pugh and Westerhouse.

“I think one guy that can be really exciting, position player-wise, is Brandon Pugh,” Keehn said. “He might beat out a ball in the infield, steal second, steal third, and then score and you’re just thinking ‘wow, this guy can go.’”

“One exciting guy, if you’re a pitching guy, coming off a good summer is Westerhouse,” Keehn said. “I think he’s got a chance to be really good. He’s been good but now he’s as good as I’ve ever seen him.”

A solid depth chart, an experienced pitching staff, and the speed and power potential have the Lions optimistic about the new season.

“We want to be back to where we were in (2011 and 2012) and be a viable team to be considered for postseason play,” Keehn said. “We’re excited about the season. If we play the game hard, avoid injuries, and execute we’ll have a chance. We’ll just have to see what happens.”

UNA, picked to finish sixth in the preseason GSC coaches poll, start the season on the road with a doubleheader at Miles College Saturday, Jan. 31.

Opening day at Mike D. Lane Field is Saturday, Feb. 7 when the Lions play a doubleheader against Stillman University at 1 p.m.