By DAVID HAYS
Lander Sports Information
GREENWOOD – Despite coming off the best two-year run in Lander University baseball program history, head coach Kermit Smith isn't ready to proclaim the Bearcats as perennial national contenders.
But he acknowledges that this year's team, which returns most of its starters, has a real chance to take the program to the next level.
Two years ago, Lander earned a school record 38 victories, reached the Peach Belt Conference Tournament championship game, advanced to the NCAA Regionals for the first time in program history, and beat national power Mount Olive on their home field in the NCAA Southeast Regional opener.
Last year, the Bearcats won 35 games and were ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation going into the month of April, and qualified for the Peach Belt Tournament for the third consecutive season.
"I don't know if there is anything to sustain yet," said Smith, entering his fifth season as Lander coach.
"We haven't been to the World Series yet. We haven't won the national championship yet," he said. "We have been to one regional. Rankings are great. But if we are sitting at the house when there are games being played in Cary, North Carolina (at the Division II College World Series), to a certain degree, I don't really know if we have done our job.
"I don't look at it as having a whole lot of success yet."
Lander placed a school record seven players on the All Peach Belt team last year and six return (only catcher Jeff May doesn't).
That kind of presence on the all-league team certainly bodes well for this season, which opens Saturday, Feb. 1, at home with a double-header against Belmont Abbey at Stephen B. Dolny Stadium. The first game starts at 1 o'clock.
The Bearcats are already earning much respect in preseason polls, being ranked No. 20 nationally and being picked second in the Peach Belt preseason coaches poll behind only USC Aiken.
"If we have that many All-Conference guys in this league, we've got the ability and talent to compete at the national level," Smith said.
Grady, a senior from Pompano Beach, Fla., led the Bearcats in hitting last spring with a .380 average including six home runs, two triples, 16 doubles, 61 runs scored and 47 RBI, while stealing 13-of-16 bases.
Grady is part of a recruiting class of which Smith is most proud.
"The class that we brought in that first year, wow. Those guys have really come in here and have really busted their butts to become better players and to make this program what it is," Smith said.
"It has been fun to watch those guys mature and gain that experience. They came in that first year, my second year at Lander, and we have learned this (Peach Belt) league together. We have had some really good moments in this league and we have had some tough times. The last two years have been a lot better. But we are ready to finally achieve what we are capable of achieving."
Grady's average last spring was 164 points higher than his freshman year, when he hit .216.
"He came in here and worked extremely hard to become the player that he is now," Smith said of Grady, who has also pitched at Lander. "He has done a lot in different aspects of his life. He is a very good student. He is a very hard worker. And he is a very good baseball player.
"I think what he embodies can help rub off on the rest of the guys. He has belief in himself and he believes in his team. I think he is a great teammate."
Wolchik, a senior right-hander from Margate, Fla., posted a 10-1 record with a 2.71 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 96.1 innings pitched last year. Wolchik, Grady and May also made the All-Southeast Region team in 2013.
"We got an e-mail from him when he was looking for schools," Smith said of Wolchik. "We talked to Pat (Grady) about him, and he recommended him very highly. Dylan has done a good job in the classroom and on the mound. He has worked hard to become a good pitcher."
The recruiting class that arrived in 2011 also included infielder Erik Lunde and outfielder Weston Lawing, who red-shirted his first year. Lunde and Lawing also made the All-Peach Belt team last season.
Lawing, a junior from Belmont, N.C., hit .292 with four homers, 18 doubles, 49 runs scored and 55 RBI last season. The converted pitcher also stole 17 bases and was second in the PBC last season with seven sacrifice flies. He joins Grady as a returning outfielder in 2014.
Lunde, a senior shortstop from Pompano Beach, Fla., batted .311 at the top end of the Bearcats lineup last season with four home runs, 49 runs scored and 27 RBI.
"Every day that he has been at Lander, he has never taken a day off," Smith said of Lunde, who was the Bearcats' MVP as a freshman in 2011. "He has never not given his very, very best."
Fellow middle infielder Graham Ramos returns after also making the All-Peach Belt team last season.
Ramos, a senior second baseman from Tampa, Fla., who transferred from Santa Fe College, batted .327 last season with six home runs, four triples, 52 runs scored and 33 RBI.
"He has only been here a year-and-a-half, and he has made a big impact," Smith said.
Returning players joining Lunde and Ramos on the infield are senior first baseman Connor Lewis (Columbia, S.C.), junior third baseman Colby Painter (Chesnee, S.C.), senior Jacob Tisdale (Shelby, N.C.) and junior Aaron Poole (Columbia, S.C.).
Lewis hit .340 last season, leading the team with 60 RBI and sharing team-high honors (with May) with eight home runs. Lewis will be counted on again this year in the middle of the Bearcats order.
"He had a great summer," Smith said of Lewis. "He really committed himself. I think everybody brings their unique piece to the puzzle, but he really brings a different kind of enthusiasm that you normally don't see on the baseball field.
"When we recruited him and he came in here, he talked about wanting to be coached. He had a really good year (in 2013). He has changed his body a little bit. He is the best defensive first baseman that I have ever coached. I think this ball park suits him and as long as he continues down the road that he is on right now, I think he will be real successful."
"What a difference he made in Jeff May's career," Smith said of Hyatt. "Jeff could never really settle in because Chris was always working so hard behind him and really helped our whole catching situation. He has taken on some of the leadership role this year.
"Right behind him is Austin Dunn, who had some big at-bats last year at DH (designated hitter) and has a chance to have some more big at-bats this year," Smith added.
The other returning All-PBC player is pitcher Chess Malone, a junior from Bonaire, Ga., who was 8-3 with a 3.75 ERA last year with 60 strikeouts in 93.2 innings.
Also returning on the mound is senior Logan Pemberton (Chester, S.C.), who was 7-1 with a 3.38 ERA before his season was cut short by injury.
Seniors Ryan Jones (Asheville, N.C.) and Kyle Tate (Gastonia, N.C.) and newcomer College of Charleston transfer sophomore Taylor Alvarez (Chapin, S.C.) are among several other pitchers who could contribute.
The season opening weekend is a special one for Lander and Coach Smith, who faces Belmont Abbey in a double-header at home on Saturday and travels to Belmont Abbey for a single game on Sunday.
Smith spent nine years as head coach at Belmont Abbey, taking the Crusaders to the College World Series in his last year there in 2009.
Belmont Abbey's new head coach is Chris Anderson, who has been Smith's assistant for the past nine years (five at Belmont Abbey; four at Lander). This is Anderson's first head coaching job. Also, former Bearcats catcher Jeff May was recently hired at Belmont Abbey's hitting coach.
"I never would have scheduled this game with them had he been the head coach at the time," Smith said of Anderson, who was Lander's pitching coach from 2010-13.
"I've got a lot of respect toward him (Anderson), and the same for that college which gave me my first job. It will be exciting to get up there on Sunday and see some of the administrators on campus and some of the monks at Belmont Abbey. I was there for nine years."
Smith knows the Crusaders will be well-prepared.
"Nobody has a better scouting report on us than them," Smith said, with a smile. "I think it will be a challenge for our hitters and our pitchers to execute. We will probably have to play flawlessly to beat the game plan they have against us. He (Anderson) will have a good team and will have them prepared.
"Once the first pitch is thrown, it will probably be business as usual. But it will be weird. And part of it won't be fun. I would much rather watch (Anderson) coach his first game from the stands than in the other dugout," Smith added.
Britt Johnson remains on Smith's staff as an assistant while Matt Laney is Lander's new pitching coach.
The non-conference schedule also includes two games against national power Mount Olive, home and away games against stellar rival Erskine College, and meetings with 2013 NCAA Tournament teams Winston-Salem State and Stillman College.
"I believe in a tough schedule," said Smith, who established a reputation as a tough scheduler when he brought national championship schools Tampa University, Mount Olive, and Lynn University to a tournament here in 2011.
"That tournament wasn't about winning or losing," Smith remembered. "That tournament was about us sitting there and watching the best teams in the country play. That first game we scheduled was against Tampa, and we went extra innings with them. We beat Lynn in that tournament. We became more competitive within the Peach Belt from that tournament on."
The Peach Belt season opens at home the weekend of Feb. 15-16 versus Flagler. Every PBC game is a challenge. Other ranked teams in the Peach Belt include preseason No. 14 USC Aiken and 23rd ranked UNC Pembroke.
"When people come out to this beautiful facility, I want them to watch a very competitive baseball game," Smith said in his office at the field house at the Jeff May Complex, with the back of the Dolny Stadium outfield wall facing Smith's office window.
"Hopefully when they walk through those gates, they are seeing a competitive game every night," he said.