Now that football is finally finished and the weather is starting to warm up again, it can only mean baseball is just around the corner. Local fans will have plenty to cheer for this season, as our three local colleges should be quite competitive.
University of South Alabama: The Jaguars return 24 lettermen from last year’s squad, which captured the Sun Belt Conference championship. Leading the way will be senior pitcher Kevin Hill and junior outfielder Cole Billingsley, both of whom have been selected to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association’s preseason All-American team (Hill first team, Billingsley third team).
Hill, a right-hander, has also been named to the Louisville Slugger Preseason All-America first-team roster by Collegiate Baseball and as the SBC Preseason Pitcher of the Year. Hill was on numerous all-star squads in 2015 after leading the SBC in earned run average (1.73), wins (10), strikeouts (107), runs allowed (20) and opposing batting average (.208).
“Kevin was outstanding last season,” said head coach Mark Calvi, whose team went 37-20. “We are looking for big things out of him again this season, and I know he expects the same out of himself.”
Billingsley was also a first-team all-conference pick and a Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner. He led the Jaguars with a .345 batting average and 30 steals while compiling a perfect fielding percentage on 160 putouts. He has been named the SBC Preseason Student-Athlete of the Year. Over the summer, he was a Cape Cod Baseball League all-star as he helped the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox win the team title.
USA led the Sun Belt in batting average (.285) and was second in runs scored (228), hits (570) and steals (80). Other key returning players are infielder Bud Collura (.303, 38 runs batted in), infielder Danny Martinez (.288, 31 RBIs), infielder Cole Gleason (.288, 23 RBIs), outfielder Adam Ballew (.284), infielder Matt Bolger (.276), infielder Ben Gann (.270), infielder Ryan Raspino (.266) and catcher Jared Barnes (.240).
Fourteen pitchers return from a staff that led the SBC in ERA (3.22), strikeouts (474), runs allowed (221), earned runs allowed (188) and home runs allowed (22). USA was second in innings pitched (526), wins (37) and fewest hits allowed (472).
In addition to Hill, other returning starters are Austin Bembnowski (3-3, 3.29 ERA) and Jared Gates (5-3, 3.90 ERA). Ben Taylor (6-3, 1.48 ERA, 7 saves) and Cody Van Aken (3-1, 2.81 ERA, 4 saves) are back in the bullpen.
Hill and Billingsley have been named to the preseason all-conference team. Martinez, a senior, was honored as a designated hitter.
USA is ranked 37th in the Collegiate Baseball’s NCAA Division I preseason poll. A poll of the league’s coaches has the Jaguars finishing second behind Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Jags open the season Friday night, Feb. 19, against Evansville at Stanky Field. The first conference action will be March 12-13 at Arkansas-Little Rock, while Texas-Arlington comes to Mobile March 18-20.
In addition to 30 home game, South will play twice at MGM Park, home of the Class AA Biloxi Shuckers. Contests will be against Southern Mississippi on March 2 and Nicholls State on March 30.
Spring Hill College: The Badgers exploded onto the NCAA Division II scene last year with a perfect 16-0 mark in Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference action. However, the Badgers could not compete in the postseason during their transition from NAIA.
“This might be the best hitting lineup 1-through-9 that I’ve had in my time here at Spring Hill,” said coach Frank Sims, whose team was 26-14 overall in his 30th year at the helm. “We probably don’t have the speed on the bases that we’ve had in the past, but that means we will sit back and focus on our hitting.”
Senior catcher Alex Jones led the SIAC in RBIs (58) and doubles (19) while also batting .429. Fellow senior William Floros is back at first base after hitting .422 with five home runs and 50 runs scored. Completing the infield are senior Garrett Webb at second, junior Thomas Smith at shortstop (.308; turned 13 double plays) and senior Matthew Spradlin at third. Senior Jacob Malkoff is expected to be the designated hitter after a .333 average as a pinch hitter.
Junior college transfers Michael Druhan, a Mobile native, will be in right field while Ulysses Fluellen will be in center. Rotating in left field will be freshman Brennan Fontenot, junior Austyn Jacques, sophomore Conner Harrison and freshman Gavin Crimmins.
The starting rotation will feature right-handers senior Wesley Parrish (team leader with 6 wins and 61 strikeouts), junior Johnathan Billings (2-0, 3 saves) and junior Dylan Kiene. Moving into the closer role will be senior Hunter Nowak.
The SIAC placed four Badgers on its preseason all-conference squad. This is Spring Hill’s first year of eligibility for conference awards. Making the second-team unit are Jones, Floros, Smith and Billings.
The Badgers will host North Alabama in a doubleheader Saturday and a single game Sunday. First pitch both days will be at 1 p.m. Conference action will open March 5-6 when Lane College comes to Stan Galle Field.
University of Mobile: The Rams are projected to finish third in the Southern States Athletic Conference. They trailed Faulkner and Auburn-Montgomery in the preseason poll, and must play both rivals on the road.
UM finished 36-20 last year. Mike Jacobs, who is entering his 27th season as head coach, has 13 lettermen returning.
Senior outfielder/first baseman Roman Testani has the highest batting average among returning players at .357 to go along with 39 RBIs. Other key returnees are senior center fielder Travis Tessandori (.340, 50 runs scores, 23 steals), senior shortstop Payne Palmer (.307, 12 doubles, 165 career games) and senior catcher Chandler Durham (.271, 5 home runs).
Senior outfielders Charlie Stevenson and Zach Robinson were both named Daktronics-NAIA Baseball Scholar-Athletes last season. They maintained at least a 3.5 grade point average to make the team.
The only returning pitchers with more than three appearances are senior Troy Andrews (3.99 ERA, 38.1 innings), senior Josh Shelley (3-2, 40.1 innings) and junior Dane Howard (3-3, 34 strikeouts). All are right-handed hurlers.
The Rams will be home this weekend against Talladega, with a single game Friday at 4 p.m. and a doubleheader Saturday starting at 1 p.m. The first SSAC series will be March 4-5 when Blue Mountain visits Jacobs Field.