By DAVID HAYS
Lander Sports Information
GREENWOOD – The Lander baseball team lost one of the deepest, most talented senior classes that have been seen in any sport in the history of the school's athletics program. But don't underestimate the 2015 Bearcats, whose goals remain the same as last year, to get to the Division II College World Series.
Lander made its first trip to the College World Series in Cary, N.C., last spring, finishing 52-9, winning the Peach Belt Conference regular season and tournament championships, winning the NCAA Southeast Regional, and going 1-2 in Cary including a loss to eventual national champ University of Southern Indiana.
"We were still three days short of our ultimate goal of winning the national championship," Bearcats coach Kermit Smith said four days prior to the 2015 season opener Saturday, Jan. 31, at Mount Olive.
"It was nice to get there (to the CWS). It's a great venue, a great experience for the guys. But we all left there with a little sour taste in our mouths."
Lander's home opener is Friday, Feb. 6, versus North Greenville University and the Bearcats will receive their 2014 Peach Belt and Southeast Regional championship rings that day.
"Our whole team will be there," Smith said, with a smile.
Despite huge graduation losses including four players who played professional baseball last summer (including one underclassmen), the national polls respect Lander as a national contender again in 2015.
The Bearcats are ranked No. 3 in the 2015 Collegiate Baseball Newspaper preseason poll. Other notables in the poll are Southern Indiana at No. 1, Tampa (which eliminated Lander from the CWS) at 2, College World Series participants Seton Hill, Colorado Mesa, Minnesota State and Chico State at 4, 5, 7 and 8, respectively; Peach Belt member and Southeast Regional runner-up Columbus State at 12, Mount Olive at 13, and PBC rival USC Aiken at 14.
Division2Baseball.com ranks Lander as the No. 1 team in its preseason poll.
The Bearcats and Columbus State have been picked as preseason favorites to win the PBC in the coaches poll, splitting the first-place vote.
Last season was a record-setting year for Lander baseball, with a school record for victories and a lot of firsts in the program including the Peach Belt titles. The Bearcats also led Division II baseball in several offensive categories and were by far the highest-scoring team in the nation.
Smith took Belmont Abbey to the College World Series semifinals in his final year there in 2009, and guided Lander to Cary in his fifth year in Greenwood. A national championship has been Smith's goal since arriving here in June 2009.
"It says that maybe a lot of our hot air over the years from me and (coaches) Chris (Anderson) and Britt (Johnson) maybe wasn't hot air, that it's somewhere we hope to be yearly," Smith said of the CWS.
There is little doubt that the Bearcats suffered heavy graduation losses.
Gone are outfielder Patrick Grady (.386 batting average, nine homers, 49 RBI, led nation with 92 runs scored), first baseman Connor Lewis (.353, led nation with 20 homers and 77 RBI), middle infielders Erik Lunde (.369, 14 homers, 52 RBI) and Graham Ramos (.339, seven homers and 68 RBI), starting pitchers Dylan Wolchik (12-1, 3.37 ERA) and Ryan Jones (10-0, 3.24 ERA), relievers Tyler Broome, Johnny Walker and Kyle Tate, and reserve outfielder Tyler Wilson (.296, 10 RBI).
Also gone is underclassman starting pitcher Mason McCullough (5-1, 4.59, 64.2 innings, 87 strikeouts, 34 hits) who routinely hit upper 90s on the radar guns. McCullough (Diamondbacks), Lunde (Pirates) and Grady (Rays) were selected in the Major League Baseball draft, Ramos was later signed by the Yankees organization, and Lewis played briefly in an independent league. McCullough, Lunde, Grady and Ramos will likely continue their careers in 2015.
"Any time you go 52-9, you are going to lose really good players," Smith said. "One thing about that is when you go 52-9 and graduate really good players and four of them go on to play professional baseball, you are going to attract really good baseball players. We attracted some really talented individuals. The expectations are still in place with the way we work in the weight room, the way we work in the classroom, the way we work on the field."
Smith said the 2014 senior class was special both on and off the field.
"A lot of the guys who are still here miss those guys and that speaks volumes. So much of our program is based on a family atmosphere. The fact that we do miss people when they leave is really awesome. It shows that we care for each other," Smith said, with a proud smile.
"I think the legacy speaks for itself. They were the winningest class in the history of the baseball program. It reminds me of the class that women's basketball had a few years ago when Brittni Johnson and Shaq (Kaylyn Small) and those girls left."
Johnson, Small (Baby Shaq), Ciara Lyons, Jasmine Judge, Mukia Myrick and Keondra Barnes finished their four-year Lander basketball careers with a 100-27 record, NCAA Tournament appearances all four years and an Elite Eight appearance in San Antonio as seniors in 2012. Transfers Kami Phillips and Rachelle Rasley were also seniors on that team, making them, like the 2014 baseball class, among the best ever at the school.
"They were special kids and did it in all aspects of their life," Smith said of his players. "And some of them are still playing (professional baseball)."
Top returners this spring include Preseason All-Peach Belt Conference players senior third baseman Colby Painter (Chesnee, S.C.), senior outfielder Weston Lawing (Belmont, N.C.) and sophomore relief pitcher Brandon White (Chapin, S.C.).
Painter is Lander's top returning slugger, with 11 homers, 67 RBI (sixth in Division II) and a .332 average last year. Lawing batted .319 with six homers and 58 RBI. White, who was named the PBC Freshman of the Year, went 4-2 with a school-record 12 saves. In 29 appearances, he recorded a 0.89 ERA with 51 strikeouts and only 21 hits in 40 innings.
Among the other top returning players statistically are junior starting pitcher Taylor Alvarez (Chapin, S.C.) who was 10-3 with a 4.50 ERA last season and junior catcher/first baseman Thomas Berry (Rocky Mount, N.C.), who hit .348, with six homers, 54 RBI, and a school record 62 walks.
There are several more returning players who will have larger roles this season and an impressive recruiting class that includes three Atlantic Coast Conference transfers.
And there will be new leaders.
"We have tried to handle a lot more of that (leadership)" as coaches, Smith said. "The camaraderie that we had with those guys last year, the culture that we built - I don't know that you can get that in one year. That takes time to build."
Smith is optimistic about the pitching staff, which includes Alvarez as one of the top starters; Brandon White as the closer; junior starters Andrew Reardon (Sumter, S.C., USC Sumter), Kyle Boraski (Fuquay-Varina, N.C., Pitt Community College) and Joe Mackey (Holly Springs, N.C., Pitt Community College); red-shirt seniors Logan Pemberton (Chester, S.C.), Jay Robinson (Shelby, N.C.) and Bryce Clifton (Aiken, S.C.); juniors Cameron Tekker (Waxhaw, N.C., University of Virginia), Cam Hokanson (Tampa, Fla.) and Alex Rhodes (Greenwood, S.C., Erskine College); sophomores Matt Thorpe (Beaufort, S.C) and JD Waite (Summerville, S.C.); and freshmen Conner Davis (Irmo, S.C.) and Erik Holton (Irmo, S.C.). Junior infielder Will Jones (Cordele, Ga., Middle Georgia College) also pitches. Reardon, Pemberton, Clifton, Waite and Holton are left-handers.
"Joe Mackey, Kyle Boraski and Andrew Reardon have done a phenomenal job since they have been here," Smith said. "They are three completely different types of pitchers. We will try to figure out these next couple of weeks where these guys are going to fit in. It looks like these three guys along with Alvarez will be our four starters.
"We have a couple of weeks this year where we have five games, so we are going to have to find that swing starter guy. Cameron Tekker and even Brandon White could be prepped for that and Logan Pemberton from a couple years ago is throwing the ball real well right now.
"We have some guys with some college experience. It might not be at Lander. But I feel like we are pretty deep as far as quality pitchers with different looks. Everybody is different on our staff and that is fun."
White and Alvarez return with championship experience.
"Brandon White was one of the best late (inning) guys in the league last year as a freshman. He has a year of experience under his belt. The year that he had was incredible. We have Taylor Alvarez returning. It's hard to win 10 baseball games in college. He is going to hopefully be able to lead us," Smith said.
"Matt Thorpe is throwing the ball really well and was a good right-handed matchup guy for us last year and I think will continue to be. Jay Robinson had a real good fall and is a fifth-year senior."
Left-handed power-hitting junior Colby Lusignan (Eustis, Fla., Santa Fe Community College) who drew MLB draft interest last spring is likely to play first base.
Painter returns at third while senior Aaron Poole (Columbia, S.C.) can play across the infield including third.
"I think Aaron is a really good player in his spot starts and backup appearances," Smith said. "He always jumps in there and does a good job and is probably our best fourth infielder (second, short, third) since I have been here."
The outfield includes Lawing in left, junior Zach Daly (Gastonia, N.C., University of North Carolina) in center, and junior Taylor Kellner (Spartanburg, USC Sumter) and freshman Alex Conaway (Aiken, S.C.) in right.
"Kellner and Conaway are battling in right, Zach Daly is doing a really good job in center field, and Wes is solid in left," Smith said.
Smith is looking forward to opening weekend at Mount Olive.
"They have one of the best programs in Division II baseball," Smith said. "They are going to run good players out there and we are going to run good players out there. But that is true throughout the whole year.
"We always believe in a good nonconference schedule. These are the schools that you gauge yourself against when you go through the year as in are we good enough to be in the regional, are we good enough to win a regional, are we good enough to go to the World Series and win a national championship?" he said.
The Bearcats have home-and-away games against non-conference opponents Belmont Abbey, Newberry, Tusculum, North Greenville, Claflin and Erskine, and also play Wingate, Anderson University, Pfeiffer and Winston-Salem State.
The Peach Belt schedule opens Feb. 14-15 at Flagler as the Bearcats begin defense of their league title, followed by a weekend home series versus USC Aiken, Feb. 21-22. They also play league rivals Young Harris, Columbus State, North Georgia, and Georgia College at Dolny Stadium.
"I think it was important for our guys to win the Peach Belt because that was something that we were a long way from that first year," Smith said, remembering Lander's 11-12 PBC record in 2011 when Lunde, Grady, etc., arrived. And the Bearcats were 6-18 in the league in Smith's first year in 2010.
"That first group kind of came in with me and Chris and Britt and we all got beat up," Smith said. "It was tough to sit in that dugout and I know it was tough for those guys out there defensively when you are getting your teeth kicked in. I think it was really important for those guys to win the league last year. I think they really wanted to accomplish that."
Now, "they are passing the torch to this next group. Regardless of who we lost last year – we knew for four years that it would be the case – if we are not prepared for that it falls on me and the coaching staff. We are always going to have high expectations here."
The challenge is "how do we take guys from all these schools and put them in a Lander uniform. We accept their talents and abilities and the way they play the game and try to make a team out of it. They have been coached somewhere. They are learning us and we are learning them. There is a lot of talent on the field right now."