Two years of the realignment shuffle has left Southern Conference baseball about where it started, according to Citadel coach Fred Jordan.
“I think it’s just as deep as it has always been,” says Jordan, who begins his 24th season at The Citadel. “In total numbers, we’re one team short (at nine teams) from where we’ve been, but from a depth standpoint it’s still top to bottom very difficult.”
At the top of the league, the SoCon has said good-bye to College of Charleston and Elon (gone to the Colonial Athletic Association), with Georgia Southern now in the Sun Belt. New members Mercer, with five straight seasons of at least 38 wins, and East Tennessee State, with Citadel alumnus Tony Skole at the helm, are expected to be perennial contenders in their new league.
The question for Citadel fans: Where do the Bulldogs fit in the new-look SoCon? The Citadel has won 21 regular-season and tournament titles in its storied history, but hasn’t won a championship of either kind since 2010.
Last season, a senior-laden Citadel team disappointed by going 24-34 overall and 8-18 in the SoCon, good for last place and a 1-2 exit from the SoCon Tournament. This season, the Bulldogs are picked to finish tied for seventh by league coaches.
Coincidentally, the Bulldogs’ predicament this season — replacing six position starters, including MLB draft picks in first baseman Bo Thompson and second baseman Mason Davis — reminds Jordan of that last championship season, in 2010.
That year, the Bulldogs had four players drafted off a team that won 37 games — pitchers Matt Crim and Wesley Wrenn and position players Richard Jones and Chris McGuiness — and also lost top hitter Sonny Meade. Despite those losses, the 2010 team went 43-22 and won the SoCon regular-season and tournament titles
“That year, we were playing with some guys who had been in the program but had not played very much, very similar to this year,” said Jordan, who is 770-602 at The Citadel. “And then we added some nice freshmen that contributed. Hopefully, we’ll have some similar results this year.”
Some freshmen who will be counted on early include strapping first baseman Drew Ellis, a 6-4, 225-pounder from Columbia, and twin brothers Philip and Jacob Watcher of Sumter, who will combine to fill the second base spot. Rookie outfielder Shy Phillips, who ended the season starting at cornerback on the football team, could begin the baseball season starting in center field as sophomore Jason Smith battles injuries. Mike Deese, a junior and a transfer from Brunswick Community College, will start in right field.
But for this team to replicate the 2010 team’s success, some veterans will have to step up, and some part-time players will have to fill full-time roles. Senior shortstop Johnathan Stokes hit .254 with 36 runs batted in last year, but looks to hit more like he did in 2013 (.309, 52 RBI).
“I think Johnathan will have the best year of his career,” Jordan said.
Veterans Ryan Kilgallen (catcher) and Bret Hines (at third base, along with Bailey Rush) are back, while sophomore Austin Mapes will get a chance at full-time innings in left field.
The pitching staff loses only starter Logan Cribb among major contributors, and junior lefty James Reeves is healthy after being shut down halfway through last season with elbow trouble. All-SoCon closer Skylar Hunter is being prepped for multi-inning saves and even the occasional spot start.
Juniors Austin Mason and Austin Livingston have plenty of starting experience and seem poised for a step-up in production. Freshmen J.P. Sears and Thomas Byelick also are competing for starting roles.
Durable set-up man Zach Sherrill, who appeared in 36 games last season, underwent knee surgery in the off-season which should aid his side-arm delivery. The Watcher twins also could pitch out of the bullpen.
Jordan has eased the schedule back a notch this season, with weekend series against non-conference foes such as Air Force, Alabama State, Lafayette and UMBC. Still, the Bulldogs face rival College of Charleston Feb. 20-22, with Elon coming in for three games in March and a home-and-home with South Carolina.
“We’ve got to pitch and defend,” Jordan said. “We feel like we should have enough starting pitching, and the back end of our bullpen is very experienced. We hope we will pitch extremely well. Defending? Some of the new faces are going to have to get their feet wet, and we’ll have to be patient with that. But if you can pitch and defend, you have a chance.”