And so it begins…

Colin Ritsick

America’s Pastime begins on college campuses all across the country tomorrow, and Georgia Southern is no different. The baseball team opens up their season with a three-game series against Bethune-Cookman at J.I. Clements Stadium.

The Eagles are returning from one of the most successful seasons in program history. Last year’s team won the Southern Conference and made some noise in the NCAA Regionals, shutting out No. 5 National seed and legitimate title contender Florida State in the Tallahassee Regional.

But that was then, and this is now. GSU plays its inaugural season in the Sun Belt this year, and head Coach Rodney Hennon is looking forward to the opportunity. But conference play is still a month away.

“Right now our focus is on Bethune-Cookman,” Hennon said.

There are some key players returning for the Eagles this year, but there are also some major holes to fill.

LHP Sam Howard, who pitched a two-hit complete game shutout against the Seminoles in the NCAA Regionals, was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the third round of the MLB draft. The Southern Conference Pitcher of the Year, RHP Josh Wirsu, was picked up in the 30th round by the St. Louis Cardinals.

Redshirt sophomore RHP Evan Challenger will start tomorrow’s game. It will be the first time he has pitched in a real game since the 2013 season. Challenger was out all of last year with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery.

“He’s come back strong from that. [He] feels good and had a really good fall and has looked good in preseason scrimmages,” Hennon said.

Sophomore RHP Adam Kelly will start Saturday’s game. Kelly pitched two innings last season before coming down with mononucleosis and missed the rest of the season.

True freshman Connor Simmons will be on the mound in Sunday’s matinee.

Pitching is what this team has to worry most about right now. Only two players on this year’s squad, juniors Ryan Frederick and Jason Richman, threw more than 25 innings last year.

Pitchers who didn’t see a lot of innings last year will be tested early. Players like sophomore LHP Byron Yelverton and freshman RHP Matt Geiger are going to see a lot of innings.

“The biggest thing with those guys is you just got to get them out there. Get them out there and give them a chance to compete,” Hennon said.

Richman appeared in 47 games last year, the most in the nation, and was the anchor in the bullpen. He posted a stout 1.20 ERA and was named Southern Conference Tournament Most Outstanding Player for his Madison Bumgarner-like run through the postseason tournament.

Richman allowed a single run in 13.1 innings pitched and threw in all six games.

Frederick walked-on the team last year and with the disciplinary issues of then-starter Will Middour, found himself in a starting role for the Eagles. Frederick appeared in 24 games and finished with a 4-1 record and 3.88 ERA.

With so much to figure out on the mound, Georgia Southern does at least have some core offensive players returning. Five starting seniors return for the Eagles.

Senior OF’s Aaron Mizell and Kody Adams both hit over .300 last season and have gap-to-gap power. Mizell led the team with 13 homeruns and 53 RBI. He has quick, strong hands and his bat stays in the zone a long time which, despite his 5-foot-10, 160 lbs. frame, gives him power.

Adams and Mizell were both named preseason All-Sun Belt by College Sports Madness.

They will likely be joined in the outfield by fellow senior Hunter Thomas.

“That’s probably our most experienced area,” Hennon said. “Those are guys along with Chase and Dalton Busby that you can kind of build around…take some of the pressure off the guys that are playing for the first time.”

Senior backstop Chase Griffin has been in the lineup since day one at Georgia Southern, and is returning for his final season for the Eagles.

Hennon has high hopes for Griffin this season based on his performance in fall scrimmages. Griffin is excellent defensively and has a strong arm from behind the plate, throwing out 17 runners last year. He is a leader and Hennon said that it is comforting to have a guy like Griffin on his team.

For its non-conference schedule, Georgia Southern will play Georgia Tech on Tuesday at home, West Virginia next weekend at home, Georgia, Mercer, Citadel, Jacksonville, College of Charleston, Kennesaw State and Clemson.