Since 1965, only two men have stood on the top step of The Citadel's dugout as the Bulldogs' head baseball coach.
One of them, the late Chal Port, led the Bulldogs to the 1990 College World Series, an almost unimaginable feat for a mid-major military school. The other, Fred Jordan, coached The Citadel to 12 Southern Conference championships and seven NCAA Tournament appearances over 26 seasons – on average, a SoCon title just about every other year and an NCAA regional berth every three or four years.
This season, a man who played for both Port and Jordan becomes just the third Citadel baseball coach in the last 53 years. Tony Skole faces the unusual challenge of upholding the legacy of his two coaches while also rebuilding a program that has struggled in recent seasons.
“I've got a lot of love and pride for this program,” said Skole, a star of the 1990 CWS team and an All-SoCon football player at The Citadel from 1989-92. “And so do a lot of my teammates and guys who have played here over the years.
“This is not an easy seat to sit in, though Coach Port and Coach Jordan made it look easy for a lot of years. I'm not finding that to be the case right now, but it's been fun. We're working hard, and I think we'll get it to where we need to get it to. I think we're on the right path.”
Just how much rebuilding must be done came into focus when the SoCon released its preseason poll last week. The Bulldogs, 16-35 a year ago, were picked to finish last by both coaches and media, and had only one player selected to the coaches preseason All-SoCon team: Third baseman Jonathan Sabo was named to the second team.
Sabo, a senior from West Ashley High School, hit .299 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs last season and will be a key cog at the plate and on the mound for this year's team. He'll bat third in the order and pitch as the closer.
“I think Jonathan should be a player of the year type of candidate,” said Skole, who came to The Citadel after 18 years at East Tennessee State. “He's got that kind of ability. He'll hit in the middle of the lineup and pitch the back end of games. He's gotten so much better and is much more physical than he was last year. He's not as one-dimensional as a hitter and has really expanded his game.”
Sabo said Skole and his new staff – Aaron Gershenfeld, Blake Cooper and Austin Cangelosi – have brought a new energy to the squad.
“We've made some changes as a team, and last year kind of humbled us a little bit,” Sabo said. “We're matured as a team, and that will make a difference. Coach Skole has brought a different type of energy that we haven't seen before, and it has really movitated us to reach a new level this year.”
Senior veterans William Kinney and Ben Peden return at shortstop and first base, respectively. Kinney hit just .240 but was second on the team with 27 RBIs last season; the 6-0, 223-pound Peden suffered a broken ankle during fall practice, but is a good bet to better last year's totals of five homers and 25 RBIs.
Veterans Bryce Leasure and Cole Buffington are back at catcher, and freshman Aiden Massey should get a lot of at-bats at designated hitter.
Second base is still unsettled, with sophomore J.D. Davis battling freshman Michael Ray and others for playing time.
In the outfield, junior Taylor Cothran (.260, 3 HR, 22 RBIs) is set to start in right field. Senior Clay Martin, sophomores Jeffrey Brown and Cameron Jensen and freshmen Andrew Judkins are competing for spots in center and left.
Ryan McCarthy, a quarterback for the Bulldogs' football team, has been working out as an outfielder with the baseball squad. He should return after the end of spring football practice.
“Some of those guys bat lefty, some right, so it may depend on matchups and a platoon situation,” Skole said. “But we've got to do a good job as a staff of putting the hot hand in there.”
The weekend pitching rotation currently consists of junior right-hander Dylan Spence, sophomore lefty Will Pillsbury and senior righty Thomas Byelick. Jordan Buster, a junior righty, and Sabo will form the back end of the bullpen.
The schedule includes an opening-weekend visit from ex-Bulldog Dan McDonnell and his national power Louisville club, and starts off with 23 home games in the first 24.
“We've got to have the ability to score runs when we're not hitting,” Skole said. “I feel like we've got four or five guys who can hit for anybody. But for us to be successful, the other four or five in there on a given day have to provide something for us.
“They don't necessarily have to get three or four hits. But they've got to get the bunt down when we need it, get the guy in from third when we need it. That will be the difference for us as an offensive ballclub.”
2017 RECORD: 16-35, 7-17 SoCon (T-8th)
COACH: Tony Skole, first year at The Citadel, 536-568-1 in 21 seasons overall.
TOP PLAYERS: 3B Jonathan Sabo (.299, 10 HR, 31 RBI last year); 1B Ben Peden (.264, 5 HR, 25 RBI); OF Taylor Cothran (.260, 3 HR, 22 RBI); SS William Kinney (.240, 2 HR, 27 RBI).
TOP NEWCOMERS: C/INF Aiden Massey (6-1, 190, fr.); RHP Devin Beckley (6-4, 205); OF Andrew Judkins (5-9, 150. fr.).
The Citadel schedule
16 -- George Mason, 4 p.m.; 17 -- Louisville, 3 p.m.; 18--Richmond, 3 p.m.; 23--LaSalle, 3 p.m.; 24--LaSalle, 2 p.m.; 25--LaSalle, 1 p.m.; 27--Georgia Southern, 5 p.m..
2--Charleston Southern, 6 p.m.; 3--at Charleston Southern, 3 p.m.; 4--Charleston Southern, 1 p.m.; 6--Georgia, 4 p.m.; 7--at Winthrop, 6 p.m.; 9--UConn, 6 p.m.; 10--UConn, 2 p.m.; 11--UConn, 1 p.m.; 12--UConn, 3 p.m.; 14--Richmond, 6 p.m.; 16--Indiana State, 3 p.m.; 17--Indiana State, 1 p.m.; 18--Indiana State, 1 p.m.; 20--South Carolina, 7 p.m.; 23--Western Carolina, 6 p.m.; 24--Western Carolina, 2 p.m.; 25--Western Carolina, 1 p.m.; 30--at VMI, 6 p.m.; 31--at VMI, 2 p.m.
1--at VMI, 1 p.m.; 3--at Georgia Southern, 6 p.m.; 4--Winthrop, 6 p.m.; 6--Samford, 6 p.m.; 7--Samford, 2 p.m.; 8--Samford, 1 p.m.; 10--at South Carolina, 7 p.m.; 11--College of Charleston, 6 p.m.; 13--Towson, 6 p.m.; 14--Towson, 2 p.m.; 15--Towson, 1 p.m.; 17--at Charleston Southern, 6 p.m.; 20--at Wofford, 6 p.m.; 21--at Wofford, 2 p.m.; 22--at Wofford, 1 p.m.; 25--at College of Charleston, 6 p.m.; 28--Furman (DH), 1 p.m.; 29--Furman, 1 p.m.
4 -- at ETSU, 6 p.m.; 5--at ETSU, 2 p.m.; 6--at ETSU, 1 p.m.; 11--UNCG, 6 p.m.; 12--UNCG, 2 p.m.; 13--UNCG, 1 p.m.; 15--College of Charleston, 6 p.m.; 17--at Mercer, 6 p.m.; 18--at Mercer, 6 p.m.; 19--at Mercer, 2 p.m.; 22-27--SoCon Tournament, Greenville.