After a season that included a program-record 39 wins and a NCAA tournament berth, the Belmont baseball team hopes to match that success in its first season in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Last Friday, the Bruins were picked to finish second in the conference’s preseason poll behind Austin Peay, the OVC’s back-to-back champions.
This year’s squad is returning 19 lettermen and six positional starters including last year’s Atlantic Sun tournament MVP Judah Akers. He led the team with .461 slugging percentage and second on the team with .336 batting average.
The senior hopes the team’s two straight conference championships will allow them to enter the season with confidence.
“Or swagger, if you will,” he said. “It’s just exciting to get into a new conference this year. Obviously with the success of the last two years in the A-Sun, we want to carry that over into the OVC.”
Leading a stellar pitching rotation is senior Chase Brookshire, who started 16 games for the Bruins last year and finished with an 8-4 record and an 2.45 ERA.
Brookshire was recently selected as the OVC Preseason Pitcher of the Year by the conference’s coaches and sports information directors.
“Chase is a competitor and he’s usually going to put us in a position to win a ballgame. Team defense behind him is going to be a factor as well,” coach Dave Jarvis said. “But pitching is always a tremendous place to start.”
The senior said he knows if the team’s full rotation can work together, the entire team can benefit.
“I think it really takes a little pressure off your offense when they know we’re going to go out there and give it our best effort and compete on the mound,” Brookshire said. “But at the end of the day, we have to be clicking on all cylinders. We’re not going to win the OVC championship if we’re not all pulling the rope in the same direction.”
Other returning starters include senior Drew Turner, who finished second on the team with 46 runs, and sophomore Matt Beaty, who led the team with seven home runs and 46 RBIs.
The Bruins will face a handful of major conference opponents in non-conference play, including Vanderbilt, Georgia and Tennessee. The top-five ranked Commodores have made the tournament each of the last seven years.
“All around, the quality of those teams will do nothing but help us down the road once we get into our conference schedule and for the rest of the year,” Turner said.
While the Bruins are still waiting to win their first regional and make their third straight tournament, Jarvis said their first goal is to win their conference.
“Before we even think about getting to another NCAA regional tournament, we’ve got to stay focused on the first task at hand,” Jarvis said.
Several underclassmen stepped into starting roles last season, including Matt Beaty, Scott Moses and Austin Coley. Jarvis hopes they will contribute heavily again.
“All three of those guys as sophomores have a key role for us this year,” Jarvis said. “We feel like they are going to step up and fill some of the void that’s left from graduation of last year’s class.”
Beaty hopes he and his fellow underclassmen can continue the momentum the team’s juniors and seniors have started.
“We really want to watch these older guys and soak up what they’re doing, especially the seniors,” he said.
Belmont will open its season with a four-game homestand at Rose Park that includes a Feb. 19 tilt against Vanderbilt. Conference play will begin at home on March 7 against Southeastern Missouri.