GREENWOOD – The Lander baseball team entered the 2015 season with sky-high expectations, but injuries and the always-competitive Peach Belt Conference derailed the Bearcats. Now, Lander enters the 2016 campaign with its sights set on redemption and returning to the elite ranks of the Division II baseball landscape.
The Bearcats advanced to the College World Series in Cary, N.C., in 2014 and entered 2015 ranked as high as No. 3 in the preseason national polls. However, Lander stumbled to a 22-26 overall record, going 10-20 in conference play.
"[Last season] was disappointing," Bearcats coach Kermit Smith said days before the 2016 season opener against Mount Olive. "I think there's a great pride in our baseball program, administratively, across the campus. When you have a season like that, you feel like you've let a lot of people down. I think it's one of those things that's a learning experience in terms of looking back and writing a blueprint on making sure that never happens again."
Despite the first losing season for the baseball program since 2008, the Bearcats are still garnering national respect entering the spring. Lander is ranked No. 32 in the 2016 Collegiate Baseball Newspaper preseason poll, the only team in the top-40 that finished last season with a sub-.500 record.
Peach Belt Conference members North Georgia and Armstrong State are ranked ahead of the Bearcats, at No. 15 and No. 25, respectively. Flagler ranks No. 37, while UNC Pembroke, Georgia College, USC Aiken and Columbus State all received votes.
The Bearcats have been picked to finish eighth in the Peach Belt's preseason coaches' poll. Lander received three fourth-place votes and is expected to finish ahead of Francis Marion, Montevallo, Augusta, Young Harris and Georgia Southwestern. North Georgia was picked as the league favorites, followed by Armstrong State, Columbus State, USC Aiken, UNC Pembroke, Flagler and Georgia College.
Lander returns its two top RBI producers from an offense that ranked as one of the top units in all of Division II last season. The Bearcats were 16th in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 8.3 runs per game, and seventh nationally in bases on balls.
"Our system's been in place for the past four or five years," Smith said of the Bearcats' offensive approach. "I hope it always produces runs, but the most important thing is, regardless of how many runs it produces, I hope it produces wins."
Lander will have to win without some of its key players from last season. The Bearcats lost seven players to graduation from the 2015 squad, including outfielder Weston Lawing (.400 batting average, six homers, 36 RBI and 39 runs scored), third baseman Colby Painter (.328, seven homers and 29 RBI), catcher Chris Hyatt (.285, 32 RBI), pitchers Logan Pemberton, Bryce Clifton and Jay Robinson, along with reserve infielder Aaron Poole (.239, 11 runs scored).
The holes left by Lawing and Painter may be the hardest to fill this year. Lawing, a native of Belmont, N.C., left Lander as the school's all-time leader in RBI (175) and doubles (63), while Painter, an in-state product from Chesnee, S.C., finished his Bearcat career with 27 home runs, second-most in program history.
"Those guys were juggernauts in terms of offense and what they brought to the table," Smith said. "They were part of some really, really special teams here. The plan coming in [to 2016] had a lot less to do with replacing anybody and more so to do with getting back and establishing the foundation principles of our baseball program."
There is plenty of firepower returning for the Bearcats this season. Key returnees include senior utility player Will Jones (Cordele, Ga.), senior first baseman Colby Lusignan (Eustis, Fla.), and senior outfielder Zach Daly (Gastonia, N.C.).
Jones led the Bearcat pitching staff with five wins and three saves in 2015, while batting .262, with nine homers and 28 RBI. Lusignan batted .325, with 41 RBI, 37 runs scored and a team-leading 10 home runs. Daly missed 35 games due to injury, but hit .367, with 15 RBI and three homers in just 13 appearances.
Other standouts from 2015 who return this spring are senior first baseman Thomas Berry (Rocky Mount, N.C.), who led the Bearcats with 50 RBI and 34 walks, and senior infielder Matt White (Summerville, S.C.), who hit .280, with 24 RBI, 33 runs scored and a team-high three triples.
The Bearcats will add to this mix of returning players with an influx of transfers from College of Charleston, Liberty, Nova Southeastern, North Greenville and USC Sumter.
Lander's 2016 roster features 12 seniors, 10 of who came to Greenwood from other collegiate programs. Smith says the Bearcats will lean on their upperclassmen as they try to get back on the winning track.
"They've done a great job," Smith said of the seniors. "We had a moment last year where we sat all the returners down and had a conversation about leadership and talked to the them about the principles and foundations of what it does mean to play here. Those were going to be the principles that were going to be reestablished from day one walking back in here this fall and I think all of them have lived up to them."
Smith has four potential starting pitchers to open the season; Will Jones, juniors Colton Rogers (Coral Springs, Fla., Nova Southeastern) and JD Waite (Summerville, S.C.), and freshman Sam Linn (Waxhaw, N.C., College of Charleston).
The rest of the staff includes seniors Andrew Reardon (Sumter, S.C.), Cameron Tekker (Waxhaw, N.C.) and Cam Hokanson (Tampa, Fla.); juniors Brandon White (Chapin, S.C.), Matt Thorpe (Beaufort, S.C.), Harper Grier (Sumter, S.C., USC Sumter) and Nathan Blaylock (Asheville, N.C., Liberty); sophomores Erik Holton (Irmo, S.C.) and Conner Davis (Irmo, S.C.); and freshmen Robbie Hoyt (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.), Praise Thorsen (Myrtle Beach, S.C.), Tripper Ergle (Blythewood, S.C.) and Joseph Whitt (Graniteville, S.C.). Rogers, Waite, Reardon, Blaylock, Holton and Whitt are southpaws.
"I feel good about it," Smith said of his pitching staff. "I guess the day I don't feel good about it going into game one, I probably need to quit doing this. It's interesting because we've got two games on the first weekend [vs. Mount Olive], then we've got a midweek [game at Wingate] and then we've got three games [against North Greenville], so we play seven games in eight days. With that, it's going to make it kind of unique. We've got four starters we've been preparing with.
"Will [Jones] played shortstop for us all last year and down the stretch we realized how valuable he was to us on the mound. We wanted to start this transition into him being a starter and he's handled it really well.
"Colton Rogers is a guy who's dealt with a lot in his career in terms of injuries. He was the Broward County (Fla.) Player of the Year his senior year in high school. He's had kind of a hard road in college so far, but he's done really well for us.
"JD Waite announced his presence last year. Coming off of spring break, he came in and asked me what he needed to do to pitch here. We had a conversation about it and, from that point on, when we ran him out in the starting role, he had a really, really good run. He had a good summer and he's had a heck of a fall and January since we've been back.
"Sam Linn has done a really good job. When he does take the mound, it'll be his first college game because he red-shirted last year and he's a freshman, so we'll probably have to deal with some freshman stuff with him, [but] it's been exciting just to watch his growth in the four months he's been here."
Behind the plate, senior John Mangum (Waxhaw, N.C.) leads the catchers, while sophomore Reed Gray (Tampa, Fla.) and freshmen Mike Fitschen (Margate, Fla.) and Ryan Troutman (St. George, S.C.) are also available for the Bearcats.
"[Mangum] is doing a good job, he really is," Smith said of the Lander captain. "He's everything that we wanted to get out of him when we recruited him. We're really excited about him leading our catching staff this year."
Lusignan returns as the starting first baseman, while Berry, who has served as the designated hitter for the majority of his career, can also play the position.
Sophomore Sage Cornatzer (Hendersonville, N.C) appears to be the likely opening day starter at third base.
"I like our infield," Smith said. "We're not real sure who's going to be where yet, but I like them. I think we've gotten back to the mentality of how we play infield and I think that's going to pay dividends."
Injuries forced the Bearcats to start 11 different players in the outfield last season and Lander is hoping for more stability this year. Daly is slated to start in centerfield, while senior Taylor Kellner (Spartanburg, S.C.) and freshman Gatlin Minick (Greenwood, S.C.) are probable starters in the corners. Sophomore Alex Conaway (Aiken, S.C.) and freshman Jordan Curtis (Tallahassee, Fla.) are both recovering from offseason injuries, but could both be used throughout the year. Freshman Cole Weaver (Charlotte, N.C.) rounds out the group.
"I think fans will see familiar faces out there," Smith said of his outfield. "Daly has been doing a really good job in centerfield and when [Conaway] gets back into his groove, it's going to make it pretty tough on the coach."
The Bearcats host non-conference foes Mount Olive and Southern Wesleyan, while playing home-and-away games against Claflin, Newberry, Limestone, Emmanuel (Ga.), Anderson and Erskine. Lander also visits Wingate and faces North Greenville in a three-game series, with one game at Dolny Stadium, one in Tigerville and the finale in Lexington.
Conference play begins on Feb. 12-14 in Greenwood against Flagler. The Bearcats also face Armstrong State, Augusta, Francis Marion and UNC Pembroke at home, while traveling to USC Aiken, Young Harris, Columbus State, North Georgia and Georgia College.
Smith is excited about the start of the new season, but isn't focusing on results.
"I've never been a coach who makes predictions," Smith said. "You sit and you reflect on [last season] and you think of that blueprint that was created. You're making sure that you're continuing to run good, efficient practices. You're making sure you're talking about the big picture. You're making sure you're talking about making adjustments, you're making sure that the small little intricacies that are in the game of baseball are the finished product of what we do and shows the level of toughness that we play at and the level of maturity that we play at. You make sure that you're still implementing those things every day.
"You just make sure that those foundational beliefs that you built this program around are implemented on a daily basis. That's the feeling. You're not thinking about 'are we going to win on Saturday?' You just want to make sure that, those foundational beliefs, we're not skipping one second thinking about those."