When the history of collegiate sports in Mobile County is discussed, the sport of baseball takes center stage. In fact, Spring Hill College has seen action at its Stan Galle Field since 1889.
However, this column deals with the present state of affairs. It looks like it will be another entertaining year for our student-athletes.
University of South Alabama
The preseason honors are pouring in for the Jaguars. USA will begin the campaign ranked in numerous preseason polls: Collegiate Baseball (No. 17), D1Baseball (No. 20), National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (No. 22), USA Today/Coaches (No. 23) and Baseball America (No. 24).
South is also picked to win the Sun Belt Conference East Division, receiving all 12 first-place votes as the favorite to win the division. Louisiana received nine first-place votes and was picked to win the West Division.
“When you have a lot of returners who have produced in their first two years, there’s high expectations,” said USA head coach Mark Calvi, the 2017 Alabama Baseball Coaches Association Large College Division I Coach of the Year. “But preseason polls, rankings and picks as to where you’re going to finish four or five months in advance mean nothing today, and have never meant anything to me, to be quite honest. But it says that people have noticed their success and respect who our guys have become as baseball players and as a program.”
The Jaguars return eight position starters from last year’s 40-21 squad, which finished 22-8 in league play and missed out on the program’s third straight SBC championship by a half-game. South Alabama won the 2017 SBC Tournament and competed in the NCAA Regionals.
The most celebrated veteran is outfielder Travis Swaggerty. He has been named preseason first-team All-America by NCBWA, Baseball America, D1Baseball and Perfect Game/Rawlings, and was a third-team preseason All-America selection by Collegiate Baseball. He led the conference in on-base percentage (.484), RBI (60) and runs scored (55), ranked second in batting average (.363) and total bases (125), and fourth in stolen bases (19).
Swaggerty was selected as the SBC Preseason Player of the Year as well as preseason all-SBC by the league’s coaches. Joining him on the all-conference team were outfielder Brendan Donovan, shortstop Drew LaBounty and first baseman Wells Davis.
Spring Hill College
While the season has just started, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference has already named outfielder Grayson Williams as its first Player of the Week. The freshman out of Mobile Christian School hit .455 in the three-game series with five hits that included two doubles, one home run and one RBI while recording seven putouts in right field.
Prior to the first game, the SIAC placed Badgers catcher Brennan Fontenot and relief pitcher Michael Romano on its preseason squad. Fontenot hit for a .359 average in 45 starts with 13 doubles, a triple and eight home runs for 44 RBI and a .609 slugging percentage. Romano built a 3.52 ERA over 46.0 innings pitched in 22 appearances in 2017. He earned a 5-3 record with four saves in his freshman campaign while striking out 38 opposing batters.
SHC head baseball coach Frank Sims enters the final year of the Badgers’ Provisional Membership in transition to NCAA Division II status with a different style of team from the previous three seasons.
“In recent years, we’ve relied more on the power and productivity of our offense,” he said. “But this year we are shaping up to be more of a pitching and defensive club. We’ll still score runs, but we’ll focus more on singles and doubles than home runs. We’ll have to be a bit craftier in how we approach the game.”
University of Mobile
Head coach Mike Jacobs has a team full of veterans as they chase the Southern States Athletic Conference crown. Jacobs, for whom the Rams’ home field is named, is heading into his 29th season in that position at UM.
“We have a lot of seniors — 12, I believe,” Jacobs said. “We recruit mostly junior college kids; that’s probably 85 percent of our roster … and what’s happened is we’ve had probably two or three freshmen that just fell into this group of juniors and then some junior college kids that from academic standing or an injury standpoint have fallen into this group.”
The Rams were picked to finish fourth in the SSAC standings in the league’s annual preseason poll. Among returners is Cody Cox, last season’s leader in batting average. Also back are second baseman Norberto Torres (SSAC Gold Glove winner) and catcher Cody Evans, a senior from Semmes who caught 16 runners stealing last year.
The Rams will lean on outfielders Corey Wheaton, who has the most RBIs of any returner, and senior Joseph Barnett of Saraland, who had two home runs and five triples last season. On the mound, Braxton Rhodes and Luke Hastings are back.
Bishop State Community College
Bishop State will have a new look as upgrades have been made to the athletic facilities on the Southwest Campus. A new head coach James Hattenstein — a BSCC alumni — takes over a program that finished the season with a 16-38 record and 7-25 in the Alabama Community College Conference.
“I feel that in order for me as the new head coach to improve this program, we need to sign the top local athletes,” Hattenstein said. “We are Mobile’s community college and we welcome people to come see what we have to offer.”
The 2018 team returns starting pitchers Bradley Jarvis (69 IP, 49 K, 5.71 ERA) and Thomas Sorrentino (33 IP, 22K, 6.48 ERA) along with relievers Trevor Davis (25 IP, 28K, 6.84 ERA, Robertsdale) and Tyler Baker (9 IP, Murphy). Garrett Feemster, a 6-foot-9 pitcher from Alma Bryant, is back after a medical redshirt.
As a first baseman, Sorrentino hit .321 with one home run. Outfielder Walker Thompson of Theodore batted .272, while catcher/outfielder Christian Poche (.257 BA, 105 PA, Baker) split time with Peyton Whitehead (.255 BA, 106 PA) behind the plate. Poche will be expected to play outfield in 2018. Outfielder Dalton Reed (.250, 8 PA, 8G, Leroy High) is another veteran.
Photo: University of South Alabama | In 2017, USA outfielder Travis Swaggerty led the conference in on-base percentage, RBI and runs scored. He was ranked second in batting average and total bases.