By Forest Stulting
Warm afternoons beginning to replace early sunsets can only mean one thing — baseball season is almost here. The Paladins open the 2014 season at Latham Stadium Feb. 14 versus Norfolk State. The first pitch is scheduled for 4 p.m.
Taking a look at their non-conference schedule, there are a few games that stand out. First, the team has home and away sets with Palmetto rivals South Carolina and Clemson. Both home games will be played at Fluor Field in downtown Greenville. The Paladins will also face the Georgia Bulldogs for a one game set in Athens Feb. 25 right before the team travels to Deland, Fla., for a mid-season tournament for at least three games.
As for the conference schedule, the Paladins have five away series against UNC-Greensboro, Samford, Western Carolina, The Citadel, and Appalachian State. The team has four home series against Davidson, Wofford, Georgia Southern, and Elon. Without the most favorable home and away matchups, the Paladins will have to be a good road team in order to compete for the SoCon regular season championship.
The pre-season coaches poll was released Feb. 6, and the Paladins were ranked sixth. The top three spots belong to Western Carolina, The Citadel, and Appalachian State. Another pre-season poll, The Perfect Game, picked the Paladins to finish fourth, ahead of Georgia Southern and Elon.
Senior infielder and relief pitcher Alex Abrams expressed his excitement for the upcoming season.
”There’s a great energy around the program. We have a solid mix of veteran players and young talent, giving us both a lineup we expect to be at the top of the Southern Conference and the strongest, deepest pitching staff we have had since I’ve been here,” he said. “We feel that the SoCon is wide open this year and that we have a great opportunity to take home a championship. I can’t wait for Friday. This year has the potential to be something special.”
The Paladins return 20 lettermen, including three that were picked on the SoCon First and Second Preseason team. Third baseman and slugger Chris Ohmstede was the lone Paladin selected for First Team honors. Ohmstede, a great glove at the hot corner, also gets it done with his bat, batting .291 with 14 HRs and 49 RBIs during last season’s campaign. The Second Team honors went to pitcher/first baseman Alex Abrams (5-1, 2.43 ERA) and designated hitter Greg Harrison (.412 Avg, 5 HRs and 23 RBIs).
On the defensive side of the ball, the Paladins need to replace three key losses from last year’s team. In the outfield, center fielder Will Muzika and right fielder Taylor Johnson will both be big losses, along with catcher Paul Nitto. On the mound, the team lost Friday night starter Nate Smith and closer Ben Carlson. These are all big roles to fill, but the Paladins have the talent to do so. Look for manager Ron Smith, entering his 21st season as Furman’s head coach, to have a successful year once again.
The softball team looks like they will have a strong season this year as well. Second baseman Taylor Jenkins earned preseason All-Southern Conference First Team honors. She batted .254, with 6 HRs and 33 RBIs last season. Three players made Second Team All-Conference: pitcher Lauren Collier, who recorded a 13-12 record with a 1.96 E.R.A. while striking out 116 batters; outfielder Ambree Muller who batted .306 with 9 HRs and 10 stolen bases; and outfielder Nikki Legg. Legg, a defensive specialist, only committed two errors as the Paladins’ starting center fielder. The team is also bringing back seven of its eight starting position players along with three of its four main pitchers.
The Paladins were picked to finish fifth out of eight teams this year by the coaches. Georgia Southern received all but one first place vote.
Lauren Collier expressed her confidence in the team’s prospects this year.
“The team, including myself, is very excited to start the season this Wednesday,” she said. “With the help of our new coaching staff last season, we really turned things around, but we want to make an even bigger statement this year.
“Last year we were ranked last in preseason polls and ended up fifth (moved up five spots), so this year we were ranked fifth in preseason polls and our goal is to hopefully jump another five spots to the top. The team has worked extremely hard in practices and in our free time, putting in extra hours to achieve our ultimate goal of winning a championship. The team chemistry is great, and we are excited to see where all our hard work will take us.”
The Paladins will face a tough schedule this year, going up against 12 teams that made it to the postseason last year. They will also play in three mid-season tournaments at Georgia, USC-Upstate, and Winthrop. In the Southern Conference, the Paladins will host four series against Samford, UNC Greensboro, Georgia Southern, and Appalachian State. The Paladins have three away series with Chattanooga, Elon, and Western Carolina. The squad opens up the year against USC-Upstate Feb. 12 with a double header.