GREENWOOD – The summer of 2016 brought many changes to the Lander baseball program. Following one of the greatest seasons in school history, the Bearcats had nine players graduate, four players taken in the MLB draft and a coaching staff plucked by a Division I program.
Despite the overhaul, Lander hopes to build on the monumental success of the 2016 campaign. The Bearcats played for the Peach Belt Conference tournament title game, swept the Southeast Regional, advanced to the College World Series in Cary, N.C., for the second time in three seasons, finished with a 44-16 record and earned a gaudy No. 3 national ranking in the final polls.
The man tasked with taking the Bearcats back to Divsion II baseball's biggest stage is Jason Burke. The former Bearcat pitcher was hired in August to replace Kermit Smith, who left in July to become the new head coach at Appalachian State.
"It's been a smooth transition," said Burke, who left Wofford College, where he served as the pitching coach recruiting coordinator, to take the job at Lander. "It's been great. To me, one of the most attractive things about this job is that you have a real chance to win a national title. You can't say that at a lot of places at any level. This is a program that's already built to where you can legitimately try to do that."
Despite significant graduation losses, including four players who played professional baseball last summer (including one underclassmen), and a new coaching staff, the preseason polls still see the Bearcats as a potential top-tier program in 2017.
Lander is ranked No. 28 in the 2017 Collegiate Baseball Newspaper preseason poll. Other notables in the poll are defending champion Nova Southeastern at No. 1 and Millersville, who eliminated the Bearcats at No. 5. Fellow College World Series participants Central Missouri, Cal Poly Pomona, Franklin Pierce, Angelo State and Southern Indiana come in at 3, 6, 7, 8 and 23, respectively. In the Peach Belt Conference, USC Aiken is ranked at No. 10 and North Georgia sits one spot above the Bearcats at No. 27.
The Bearcats are ranked fourth in the PBC preseason coaches poll. Lander received one first-place vote.
For Burke and new assistant coaches J.T. Maguire and Zach Honeycutt, the task is to build on program's culture while also implementing their style of play.
"When you come to a place like Lander," Burke said, "the one thing you hope is that the guys work hard. I've been at programs where you're just trying to get over that hump of not having to preach work ethic and putting in extra work. That work ethic was already established before I even got here."
"The culture that we've tried to create is obviously a hard-working environment and a teaching environment. We're teachers, that's what we want to do, that's why we love the game. We feel we have a lot of knowledge in our areas and we want to share it. I think our guys have responded great to that."
The Bearcats will have to significant parts to replace from last year's squad. Gone are first baseman Colby Lusignan (.390 batting average, 14 homers, 68 RBI), outfielders Zach Daly (.291, school-record 23 homers, team-high 77 RBI) and Taylor Kellner (.335, nine doubles, 16 stolen bases), designated hitter and all-time home run leader Thomas Berry (.311, 14 homers, 60 RBI), shortstop Matt White (.289, 12 homers, 76 runs scored) and catcher John Mangum (school-record four homers in NCAA Tournament).
On the mound, Lander lost Friday starter Will Jones (10-3, 3.51 ERA), record-setting closer Brandon White (14 saves, 1.12 ERA) and reliever Andrew Reardon (3-1, 4.79 ERA). White (Braves), Lusignan (Marlins), Jones (Yankees) and Daly (Marlins) were each selected in the 2016 MLB Draft.
Top returners to the lineup this spring include sophomore infielder Mason Dodd (Augusta, Ga.), junior outfielder Alex Conaway (Aiken, S.C.) and sophomore outfielder Gatlin Minick (Greenwood, S.C.). Dodd batted .305 with 46 RBI in his first season at Lander, while Conaway and Minick combined to make 51 starts last season with both playing significant time in Cary.
On the mound, Lander welcomes back an experienced starter in senior JD Waite (Summerville, S.C.) and a pair of valuable relievers in sophomore Robbie Hoyt (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.) and senior Harper Grier (Spartanburg, S.C.).
Lander led the Peach Belt in ERA last season and Burke is excited about the nucleus of the Bearcat staff returning in 2017.
"The guys we returned are great," said Burke. "You've got a lot of innings and a lot of experience and a lot of guys who know how to win and a lot of guys who've held some championship trophies in their hands. That is priceless."
Redshirt-sophomore Sam Linn (Fletcher, N.C.) made 14 starts in his first season in Greenwood, while Waite, junior JD Cook (Asheville, N.C., Pitt. C.C.), and redshirt-senior Colton Rogers (Coral Springs, Fla.) will all battle for a spot in the weekend rotation. The rest of the staff includes graduate transfer Garrett Lovorn (Pendleton, S.C., Clemson); redshirt-senior Cameron Tekker (Waxhaw, N.C.); senior Matt Thorpe (Beaufort, S.C.); redshirt-junior Conner Davis (Irmo, S.C.); redshirt-sophomore Erik Holton (Irmo, S.C.); sophomores Tripper Ergle (Blythewood, S.C.), Praise Thorsen (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) and Joseph Whitt (Graniteville, S.C.); and freshmen Ryan Flores (Garner, N.C.) and Marshall Thompson (Juliette, Ga.). Waite, Cook, Rogers, Holton, Whitt and Flores are left-handers.
"I feel like Sam Linn is going to fill a huge role for us on the weekend rotation," Burke said. "I feel like JD Cook and JD Waite are going to do that. I haven't gotten to see a lot of Colton Rogers yet, but just looking at his numbers, I feel like he's going to fit somewhere into those starters. There's a ton of guys who are going to jump into either a rotation or a mid-week role or they're going to be in the middle-to-back end of our bullpen."
"You've got Robbie Hoyt, who had a lot of success last year, Tripper Ergle had a lot of success last year, Erik Holton had a great fall, Joseph Whitt had a great fall, Cameron Tekker is coming back off of injury and looks great, Garrett Lovorn looked good in our first few intrasquads. Where each one of those dominoes fall, I don't know yet, but all I know is they're going to serve a really big purpose this spring in helping us hopefully win a championship."
On the infield, the Bearcats return just one regular starter in Dodd. Sophomore catcher Ryan Troutman (St. George, S.C.) moonlighted as a third baseman, while redshirt-junior Zach Giczewski (Sarasota, Fla.) and redshirt-sophomore Carson Jones (Asheville, N.C.) each missed all of last season with injuries. Giczewski is an option at first base, along with freshmen Jeff Fripp (Jacksonville, Fla.) and Nathan Schreckengost (Winter Garden, Fla.). The rest of the infield features sophomores Jacob Childress (Greenwood, S.C., Charleston Southern) and Bailey Connell (Waxhaw, N.C., Wingate); and freshmen BJ Bush (West Columbia, S.C.), JD LeClair (Pickens, S.C.) and Colton Yeager (Jacksonville, Fla.).
"On the offensive side of the ball, [the infield] should be our best position," said Burke. "Obviously, Mason's a kid who's had success here. We expect him to be a player. We expect him to be in the middle of the order, being a good left-handed bat. Carson Jones was here last year and was expected to start. He had a great fall. Bailey Connell had a great fall and a great spring and I expect him to be a top of the order guy. Zach's had a lot of injuries. I think Zach's looking forward to playing a full season for the first time in his career. Being a switch-hitter, being able to hit the way he hits, I think we're going to be play him at first base to protect him a little bit from injuries."
"Jacob Childress is going to be a wild card. He can help us on the infield, he can help us on the mound and he can help us in the outfield. Colton Yeager has had a great fall and a great spring. I'm sitting here every day thinking 'how the heck am I going to get this kid in the lineup?' That's a great problem to have. I think we've got a lot of really good options. There's not a lot of experience as far as [at-bats], but there's a lot of good options."
Conaway and Minick are expected to anchor the outfield, but the Bearcats should have plenty of competition for the three starting spots. The group includes redshirt-junior Chuck Lawing (Belmont, N.C.), junior Alec Dowell (Coral Springs, Fla., St. Johns River C.C.), sophomore Cody Smith (Waxhaw, N.C.) and redshirt-freshman Cole Weaver (Charlotte, N.C.).
"I think Conaway had the best fall out of any of them," Burke said, "and he's got the most stats as a returner out of any of them. I think Gatlin's going to be a big piece of it. We like Gatlin, I thought he had a good fall. Alec Dowell is a really talented young man, he just has to make sure he stays healthy. If he's healthy, he'll be our center fielder."
"You've got guys who are fighting for it like crazy like Chuck Lawing. It's going to be interesting to see what he can do now that he's healthy. Cole Weaver had an up-and-down fall, but at times you watched him and thought, 'that guy might jump up and take someone's spot.' I don't think that spot's as deep as the infield, but I don't think it's weak by any means."
Lander's 2017 schedule features four teams who advanced to the NCAA Southeast Regional last season and 14 games against teams ranked in Collegiate Baseball's preseason Top 40. The Bearcats open the season on Feb. 4-5 at No. 33 Mount Olive. Lander plays a home-and-home against No. 18 Belmont Abbey and hosts No. 20 Florida Southern on April 14-15. The Bearcats also play non-conference home-and-homes against Newberry, Anderson, Limestone, Lenoir-Rhyne, Claflin and rival Erskine, while playing a three-game series against North Greenville on Feb. 9-11, with the finale being held at Lexington County Baseball Stadium in Lexington, S.C.
The Peach Belt schedule opens Feb. 24-26 at Montevallo. Lander also travels to Flagler, Georgia Southwestern and Augusta, while hosting North Georgia, USC Aiken, Young Harris and Georgia College at Dolny Stadium.
Despite the rigors of the PBC and the numerous new faces on the roster, Burke says the Bearcats won't shy away from the high expectations the program has created.
"Our expectation every year is going to be to win a national title and I'm not going to be satisfied with anything less," said Burke. "For me to sit here and put a number of wins out or to say we finished at the top of the PBC or we made a regional, I'd be lying. I expect us to compete to win a national title and the only way we're going to do that is by having guys be fill their role, be unselfish and do their part."
"It's hard to be an unselfish player. It's hard not to care about your own stats or your own agenda. As a head coach, that's hard. As an assistant coach, that's hard, but that's what we've been talking about all the time. I don't care what stats we put up, I don't care what records we break. I care that we win a national title."
"As much of a pitching-oriented guy as I am, if we win the game 15-14, you're going to see a happy dude at the end of that game. It doesn't matter what the score is when the season ends. It matters that you were the last one standing."