Weevils, Blossoms get baseball, softball started this weekend

For those sports fans tired of cold winter weather, spring sports at the University of Arkansas at Monticello are about to get started. It might not change the temperature, but there’s something about watching and/or playing baseball and softball that just seems to make it feel warmer.

John Harvey will get his Boll Weevils started first. The UAM baseball team opens the 2013 season on Friday in the eight-team Astros in Action D-II Invitational, to be played at the Houston Astros’ Minute Maid Park in Houston.

The following day, Alvy Early sends his defending Great American Conference champion Cotton Blossoms to the softball diamond as hosts of their own UAM Hampton Inn Classic here in Monticello.

UAM’s baseball team takes the field at 10 a.m. Friday to play Abilene Christian University (Tex.) in the first of four games in four days for the Weevils during the season’s opening weekend (full schedule and roster on page 2C).

Teams in Houston for this inaugural Invitational are highlighted by University of Central Missouri, ranked fourth in preseason polls and serving as a co-host of the event since Astros’ owner and chairman Jim Crane is an alumnus of the Warrensburg, Mo., school. UAM will face the perennial NCAA Division II powerhouse Mules at 1 p.m. on Monday, February 4 as invitational play concludes for the Weevils.

Other participants in what the Astros’ are hoping to make an annual event are Arkansas Tech University, Texas A&M University at Kingsville, University of the Incarnate Word (Tex.), Emporia State University (Kan.) and Tarleton State University (Tex.).

“We are very excited about the opportunity to play in Minute Maid Park and to open our season against some very good teams,” Coach Harvey said. “I believe three of the four teams we are playing were in a regional last year and the other one is going Division 1 next year. We want to play well, and that includes being disciplined but aggressive at the plate, executing a game plan on the mound and catching the ball on defense. 

“We have stressed to our guys all year that we are focused on the task at hand, not end results. We don’t talk about wins, losses, championships and so forth. We really want our guys to stay focused on one pitch at a time and really enjoy the process.”

Leading the way for the Weevils, hoping to prove upon an 18-26 overall record last season, are two All-GAC performers. Second baseman Taylor Eaves, who sported a .302 batting average last season and was not caught in 13 stolen-base attempts, will move to third base to replace the departed Josh Chism, UAM’s leading hitter in 2012. Outfielder Danny Loya, who batted .321 and contributed a team-high 36 RBI, also returns.

Hunter Allday, a first baseman, is the top hitter returning. Allday hit .321 a season ago and added 26 RBI. Harvey said almost his entire pitching staff is back, including righties Chris Guzman, Brent Noble, Kenny Marshall and Eddie Smith, who collectively posted four of the top six ERA numbers in 2012.

“I expect us to be balanced,” Harvey said, ”but we have a really deep and experienced group of hitters. For this to be considered a successful season, our coaching staff and players should be able to look back and have no regrets. We should be able to say that attacked every day with great energy, attitude, and effort. If we can say that, it will be a successful season and ,as a bi-product, we will look up and see that we have won a lot of games.”

Newcomers that should help UAM’s baseball program immediately include left-handed pitcher Bobby Bryant, a transfer from Delta State whom Harvey says should be in the starting rotation; reliever Logan Johnson; shortstop Ben Agredano; and outfielders Stephen Martinez, D’Marco Poindexter, Tyler Caruthers and Ray Johnson.

Other new faces that could see significant playing time include catcher Chad Miller, infielder Alex Lang, and pitchers Zach McKnight, Gavin Johnson and Jeff Harvill.

As far the GAC baseball race goes, all the teams will be chasing Southern Arkansas University, which is ranked in all three preseason NCAA Division II baseball polls. The Muleriders are Number 11 in the D2 Baseball News Top 25, Number 15 in the College Baseball Lineup Top 30 and Number 26 in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper’s Top 40.

“Every team in the conference will be good,” Harvey said. “The talent gap between SAU and everyone else has closed significantly. That’s taking nothing away from (the Muleriders). They are good and their coaching staff does a great job. But so does everyone else now.”      

The Cotton Blossoms, meanwhile, will face Cameron University (Okla.) on Saturday at Blossom Field on the UAM campus. The opening-day doubleheader will conclude with UAM facing Washburn (Kan.). Sunday, UAM hosts Newman University (Kan.) and plays a second game against Cameron

Actually, UAM is hosting a six-team invitational. Other state schools that will be represented are Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University.

UAM’s games will be played on its campus field, while the Lady Reddies will face Washburn and Newman at, respectively, on Saturday at Monticello’s City Complex.  HSU will play Cameron and Washburn on Sunday. The Lady Tigers play Newman and Cameron on Saturday, and Washburn and Newman on Sunday at the same city complex.

All first games are at 11 a.m. with the second games at 1 p.m.          

Early, it seems, can be grouped with other highly successful college coaches like University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban or Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski when it comes to recruiting. Coaches like this don’t rebuild; they’re just said to reload.

UAM posted a 40-14 overall record in 2012, going 21-5 in the GAC and winning both the regular season and conference tournament championships. With the conference being in its first year, though, the Blossoms did not receive either an automatic or at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, which left a sour taste in the mouths of many on the UAM campus.

“It will definitely be a challenge for this 2013 team to achieve the success level of the 2012 group,” Early said, “but we want to play as well as we can. We face a very difficult and competitive schedule.  I believe we can improve as the season progresses.”

UAM will have to go on without the services of pitcher Kayla Jackson, a three-time National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-American, and three-time (twice in the Gulf South Conference and once in the GAC) all-conference shortstop Jennifer Hickman, two of eight key players that graduated in 2012.

“We had some significant losses due to graduation,” Early said, “and that’s something I’m very proud of. We actually had eight players graduate--not finish eligibility--but graduate. That’s unique for a class to have them all receive a degree.

“(But) we probably have more returning players than some people know. They know about our key  losses. And we have some new players that may play a key role for us.”

Chief among those returnees for the Blossoms, who were picked to repeat as GAC champions Tuesday afternoon by league coaches, are center fielder Beth Johnson and catcher Brittany Eitel, both all-conference selections in 2012. Also back are second baseman Summer Huddleston and catcher/designated hitter Maggie Sands, both all-GAC tournament selections a year ago, as well as GAC Freshman of the Year Sara Matthews at third base.

Pitcher Randa Perry was among the eight graduates but is also coming back because of a torn ACL. Perry received a medical redshirt in 2012 and will headline Early’s pitching staff this spring as a graduate student playing her final year of eligibility. As a matter of fact, Early has Perry penciled in as his opening-day pitcher.

“Kayla went 31-6 in the circle last season  and had a career record of 114-22 in a four-year career,” Early mentioned. “She was also the best first baseman in the GAC. She will be missed but Randa coming back for her final year should help us in our pitching.”

Other returnees are pitcher Katie Slaughter, first baseman Sydney Tipton, outfielder Kara House and shortstop Preslie Long. New players who will play a big role include Channing Tharpe in left field, Hannah Pendley in right field, Courtney Wilson in the pitching circle and utility player Kali Piha.

If UAM can get through an extremely competitive schedule, Early said he looks for his Blossoms to be competing for another championship.

“I’ve always played strong opponents, regardless of the sport,” said Early, who also won 425 games in 21 years as the UAM women’s basketball coach and has won 512 games heading into the 2013 softball season--making him the only active coach in the GAC to have eon more than 400 games in more than one sport. “it has been my philosophy that it will make your team better and by playing those types of opponents year in and year out pretty soon the players recognize them as just another team on the schedule.” 

As far as defending the GAC title, Early said, “That’s the history and tradition of our program. It’ll be a tough goal to reach but it’s what we’re aiming for.”

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