Swinging for the fences: Baseball looks to establish prominence in the OVC
After having a year to adjust to playing in the Ohio Valley Conference, the Belmont baseball team is ready to establish itself as a stiff competitor in the league.
Although the team lost both the opening round and its elimination game to Southeast Missouri of the conference tournament, Belmont coach Dave Jarvis said last season reinforced what the team already knew about the OVC.
“It was going to be a good league to play in. The baseball is an outstanding level of competition.” said Jarvis, who is entering his 17th season as head coach. “We just look forward to coming out this year and trying to compete and work towards our goal of an OVC championship.”
While the team completed a respectable 22-8 mark in conference play during the regular season, Belmont saw an early exit from the OVC tournament and finished third place overall in the final standings.
In the preseason poll released last week, the Bruins were selected to finish third once again behind Austin Peay and defending champion Tennessee Tech.
“The first year we got their best stuff and were able to learn a lot about the teams we didn’t know before. But I guess in return they did the same thing to us,” said junior pitcher Austin Coley. “Although we didn’t have the result we wanted, we’re optimistic and think we’re going to have a good year.”
While several key players graduated after last season, the team will add 11 fresh faces and return 15 letterwinners including junior ace Dan Ludwig.
Ludwig set the single-season record for wins after notching a 11-2 record to tie for 15th nationally in total wins. The left-hander struck out 72 batters faced in a team-high 94 innings pitched and earned First Team All-OVC honors.
Coley also looks to capitalize off performances from his sophomore year. The right-hander from Murfreesboro, Tenn. went undefeated on the mound with a 6-0 record before he suffered a season-ending injury.
Staying healthy in both the starting rotation and bullpen is a goal that the pitching staff has set for itself this upcoming season after last year’s staff was troubled by injuries late in the season.
“For the bullpen especially, it’s important to keep them healthy throughout the entire year because they are really what finishes off the game,” Ludwig said. “We can only go only the first part of the game, and we really need arms to really close the game out for us.”
At the plate offensively, the Bruins will rely on sluggers Drew Ferguson and Alec Diamond. Ferguson led the team with a .447 on base percentage and a conference-high 42 walks while Diamond had a team-high .351 batting average by the end of the year.
The experience of the junior class and the other letterwinners will be invaluable for Belmont, especially with the tough non-conference opponents the Bruins will face this year.
Belmont will play in at least 19 games against teams that finished in the Top 100 RPI in 2013 including preseason ranked Vanderbilt, former A-Sun rival Mercer and going on the road to Oklahoma in March.
“We want our strength of schedule to be high so hopefully our RPI will be high and have a shot of getting into the NCAA tournament,” Coley said. “The higher the competition, the higher we’re going to play and be up for the challenges.”
While the Bruins have been the underdogs in the regional rounds in years past, Ferguson believes Belmont is capable of turning a few heads.
“That’s the way baseball goes. Anybody can really beat anyone. You saw it recently with Stoney Brook or Kent State,” Ferguson said. “It’s not something out of the question with this team and our depth in the pitching staff especially. But first things first, we’re trying to win the conference.”
Belmont will open the 2014 season with a seven game home stand starting with a series hosting MAC champion Bowling Green. The first pitch is set for 4 p.m. on Friday.