Georgia Southern’s Rodney Hennon has long been considered one of the nation’s elite mid-major coaches, but after finishing last season with a 27-34 overall record, some might’ve stopped believing. If that’s the case, they were sorely mistaken, as the Eagles are back to their winning ways this season, sitting at an impressive 15-2 and potentially knocking on the door to the Perfect Game College Top 25 with another strong weekend.
“I think the biggest thing for us, as a whole, is we have more depth and we’re much more athletic,” Hennon said. “We had some good healthy competition in the fall and in the preseason, and it’s just kind of made everyone battle this spring, too.”
There are substantial differences between this club and the one that took the field last year. Georgia Southern struggled both at the plate and on the mound last season, tallying a .258 team batting average, while also having a 5.42 earned-run average. This year thus far? The Eagles have a .345 batting average, which ranks near the top nationally, and have an exponentially better pitching staff with a 2.49 ERA.
The pitching staff has seen the most pleasant advances. Though the Eagles have had potent offensive lineups many times in the past few campaigns, the pitching staff always has seemed to leave something to be desired even with a couple of premier arms at times. That’s not the case with this group, especially with talented junior left-handed pitcher Sam Howard leading the way.
Howard earned some interesting buzz from scouts during the fall when he flourished during some scrimmages, and only has increased his stock since that point. Howard, a 6-foot-3, 183-pounder, is having a strong season with a 1.08 ERA in 25 innings, along with 30 strikeouts and three walks. His overall stuff also has people talking with a fastball sitting 89-91, topping out at 93. Meanwhile, his changeup continues to be a very solid offering, while the slider has gotten better since last year.
Aaron Mizell has been a big-time boost for the Georgia Southern offense (GSU photo)
“Sam has gotten better each year he’s been in this program. This was the year for him to really step up, and he’s been very good thus far,” Hennon said. “I think the biggest thing for him is that he’s more mature than last season. He got that experience at the Cape Cod League last summer, and he came back with some confidence. He’s been a guy who’s throwing all three pitches consistently for strikes.”
Hennon and the Eagles also are pleased with junior college transfer Josh Wirsu, a right-handed and 6-foot, 186-pounder, who has a 3.66 ERA in 19 2/3 innings, along with 22 strikeouts and seven walks. Wirsu doesn’t have blow-away stuff, but gets the job done with a low-90s fastball that includes some sink, and a good slider.
For the most part, the rest of the pitching staff also has been good. Senior right-handed pitcher Matt McCall has been very good with an 0.47 ERA in 19 innings, along with four saves, while left-hander Jason Richman has a 1.64 ERA in 22 innings, along with 16 strikeouts and five walks. Both relievers made notable advancements dropping their arm slots during the offseason.
“McCall has some real maturity about him. He would say it, too, but he was just really bad his first outing in the fall, and he went to us and we talked about dropping his arm slot. He even offered to do it,” he said. “He started working on that in the fall and he was really effective.. Richman started that from the left side last year, and he, like McCall, consistently throws strikes and wants the ball everyday no matter what.
“This team is pretty confident behind those two guys.”
The Eagles also are confident when they’re graced with an offense hitting .345.
Hard-hitting catcher Chase Griffin has been the headliner the past couple of seasons, and after hitting .272 last season, he’s up to .358 after a dominant midweek win over North Florida. But he’s not alone. Others such as outfielder Stryker Brown (.403), along with freshmen Garrett Chapman (.394) and Ryan Cleveland (.321) have been very productive so far this spring, while junior college transfer Aaron Mizell has far exceeded expectations, along with fellow junior college transfer and shortstop Dalton Busby.
Mizell is one of the nation’s elite hitters statistically speaking and is hitting .397 with eight homers and 22 RBIs, along with an impressive .873 on-base percentage. Meanwhile, Busby, as with the rest of the team, could be better defensively, but is hitting a solid .386 with two homers and 23 RBIs.
“Between the freshmen and junior college transfers, we’ve had some really nice additions,” Hennon said. “We felt like Aaron would be a middle of the order guy when we recruited him, and he’s done a very good job. Busby is playing with a lot of confidence, and after starting the season near the bottom of the batting order, he’s now at the top in our leadoff spot.
“I don’t think we were very balanced last season, and that caused some of our guys to press,” he continued. “I don’t think there’s any doubt this offense and team is more balanced across the board.”
Georgia Southern still has plenty of unfinished business the rest of the spring, but is headed the right direction and has a chance to take another step forward in the next week with a road series against Elon this weekend, followed by a two-game midweek series against Clemson.
Hennon and the Eagles are back.
MORE MID-MAJORS TO WATCH
Seton Hall (9-3): The Pirates made a statement a couple of weekends ago by hitting the road and sweeping Arizona. Well, they had another good weekend, sweeping James Madison and using 34 runs in the two wins to make a statement. Ace right-handed pitcher Josh Prevost has a 2.40 ERA in 30 innings, while at the plate, D.J. Ruhlman is hitting .435 with a pair of homers and seven RBIs.
Virginia Commonwealth (12-3): We featured the Rams in our last mid-major spotlight, and they’ve only continued their winning ways, taking two of three on the road from a solid UNC Wilmington club over the weekend. VCU’s James Bunn (.397) and talented freshman Logan Farrar (.365) continue to impress at the plate, while JoJo Howie has a 2.16 ERA in 25 innings.
Bradley (11-3): The Braves definitely have been a surprise so far this season, and have a pair of solid hitters to watch in Isaac Smith and Tyler Leffler. Smith is hitting .463 with 11 RBIs, while Leffler is hitting .440 with two homers and 14 RBIs. BU is hitting .321 as a team and is coming off a fantastic midweek win over a solid Saint Louis club.
Liberty (12-6): Fresh off a midweek win over Elon, coach Jim Toman has yet another solid club with Ryan Seiz having a big-time offensive campaign, hitting .418 with six doubles, a triple, three homers and 16 RBIs. Meanwhile, Jared Lyons has been a rock on the mound thus far. In seven appearances (two starts), Lyons has an 0.73 ERA in 24 2/3 innings, along with 27 strikeouts and five walks.
Samford (11-5): It was a surprise to some when it snagged talented outfielder Heath Quinn out of high school. Quinn, a very talented prospect, has more than lived up to expectations thus far, hitting an impressive .391 with eight doubles, two homers and 16 RBIs. The Bulldogs are coming off a tough midweek loss to Alabama, but have shown they could be a force in the SoCon.
College of Charleston (13-3): The Cougars didn't start the series against The Citadel on the right foot, but ended it in impressive fashion Carl Wise is having a very good year at the plate thus far, hitting 351 with a home run and 19 RBIs, while reliever Chase Henry has yet to allow a run in 18 innings.
Towson (9-3): Hey, remember when this program was on the chopping block? The Tigers have since A) made the NCAA postseason and B) are 9-3 to begin the 2014 campaign. Starting pitcher Chris Acker has been terrific so far this season with an 0.84 ERA in two starts and 10 2/3 innings, while reliever Brandon Gonnella has yet to allow a run in 9 2/3 innings.
Texas-San Antonio (12-5): Few teams have been able to tame Sam Houston State so far this season, but UTSA did it in midweek action. The Roadrunners are off to a really nice start this season, and have a solid pair of starting pitchers in Nolan Trabanino (1.07) and Brock Hartson (1.59), while John Welborn leads the offense with a .400 average and 10 RBIs.
Florida Gulf Coast (10-7): The Eagles still are trying to establish some consistency, but have one of the best in the business in ace pitcher Michael Murray, who has a 0.30 ERA in 29 2/3 innings, along with 26 strikeouts and four walks. Meanwhile, Jake Noll leads the offense with a .373 average and nine RBIs.
Alabama State (15-4): Head coach Mervyl Melendez and his staff have done a terrific job of attracting legitimate talent to the program over the past few seasons, and this team has a legitimate shot to not only make the NCAA postseason, but possibly be a spoiler. ASU is led at the plate by Richard Amion, who’s hitting .362 with two homers and 10 RBIs.