While Belmont has stormed onto the Ohio Valley Conference basketball scene leading with both its men and women leading the East Division standings, the first year in baseball might be tougher.
At least in one aspect.
“I’ll be honest. it makes a difference in the long underwear I buy,” Bruins baseball coach Dave Jarvis said.
Otherwise, Belmont was picked second in the OVC preseason poll of baseball coaches and sports information directors behind two-time defending champion Austin Peay.
In a sense, the OVC has three defending baseball champions.
Eastern Kentucky tied Austin Peay for the regular season title before Peay repeated as the tournament winner and NCAA qualifier.
Meanwhile, Belmont won the championship in its last year in the Atlantic Sun Conference that apparently required fewer layers of clothes.
“But these are good programs,” Jarvis said of the OVC. “It affects the recruiting. The cold weather, I’m used to that growing up in Missouri.”
“The league we were coming from was a good league with a lot of notoriety but I can tell you this: The Ohio Valley has had more drafts.”
Now the OVC newcomer from Nashville, Tenn., is looking to challenge Austin Peay’s two-year reign that veteran coach Gary McClure does not consider a dynasty quite yet.
“I think that would be nice but I don’t know if we’re at that stage,” said McClure, who is in his 26th year at Austin Peay and recently joined the OVC Hall of Fame. “I think it’s hard to be a dynasty these days. It’s hard at a national level or inside a conference. I think the addition of Belmont is going to make us better as a league. They’ve been a champion two years in a row as well. They’re going to have to be dealt with but other teams in our league, the Jacksonville States, the Eastern Illinois, the Eastern Kentuckys. Right down the line, Southeast Missouri is going to be better.
“We’ll just have to see. We won three in a row in (20)03, ’04 and ‘05. Then we went through a period in ‘09 and 10 where we didn’t go to the (OVC) tournament.”
With college baseball getting its midwinter start with games on Friday, here is a look at each OVC team in the order of the predicted finishes:
The Governors return 14 players and five positional starters from last year’s 40-win team.
“Coming after a couple of years where we’ve had some pretty good success we bring back a pretty good nucleus,” McClure said. “We were able to do it a couple of years ago with some freshmen.”
Lefty Chase Brookshire was chosen the OVC Preseason Pitcher of the Year while the Bruins look for more offense.
“Last year’s team had good pitching and defense and was a little anemic offensively,” Jarvis said. “We’re hoping this team strikes a little more balanced.”
While not placing any players on the preseason all-conference team, this reloading perennial contender still rates the respect to be picked third as a team.
Among the returning players is shortstop and pro prospect Coty Blanchard, also a quarterback for the Gamecocks football team.
“It’s been really good having Coty Blanchard healthy,” Jacksonville State baseball coach Jim Chase said. “(In the 2010 football season) he played about every down and this year he was in a backup role.”
Last year the Colonels were the league’s surprise team picked sixth in the preseason poll and then tying for the regular season championship.
“It’s going to be harder,” coach Jason Stein said. “We don’t stick our chest out. In fact we don’t mention last year. That tournament I guess is our bell cow. I’ve tried every trick in the book to motivate our team for the tournament.
“We cannot rely on what we did offensively last year. We hit 60 home runs. We may cut that in half this year.”
Before opening the season Friday against Texas Southern at Jackson, Miss., the Panthers were dealt a blow learning that Troy Barton, who was 9-5 with a 3.20 ERA and expected to be an ace of the pitching staff, is out for the year with an injury.
“It was all about Troy,” EIU coach Jim Schmitz said of announcing this to his team. “It’s his senior year. We talked about how Austin Peay lost their first baseman last year. The disappointment is definitely there. We’re not going to act like nothing happened because it did but we have some experience arms.”
Among those is Joe Greenfield, who pitched for Eastern as a freshman and for South Suburban Community College as a sophomore and then was drafted in the 22nd round by the Boston Red Sox but chose to return to the Panthers.
“He turned down that money to join us,” Schmitz said. “He’s been lights out. He’s at low 90s. Our batters haven’t been able to touch him.”
The Panthers are coming off a season in which they were fourth in the regular season standings and then reached the double-elimination tournament’s championship game before being shut out twice by Austin Peay.
“The college season is 50 some games but it’s over in a heartbeat,” Schmitz said. “Offensively. it took our guys a while to buy into what we were doing. We were one game short last year, and the team has focused on what we didn’t accomplish last year.”
Falling one place short of making last year’s six-team postseason tournament, the Golden Eagles return 10 of their top 10 position players.
Most notable among those players is Preseason Co-Player of the Year Zach Stephens, who was fourth in the nation with 18 home runs last year marking an exception to college baseball that has switched to less powerful bats.
“Yeah, I think Zach and some other guys in our league defy that a little bit,” Tech coach Matt Bragga said. “I think as any coach would say you want to get more athletic and do things on the bases and score runs rather than do the Earl Weaver thing and wait for the home run.”
Having completed the transition from NCAA Division II, the Cougars are now eligible for the postseason tournament.
The past two years SIUE played a conference schedule with records that would have qualified for the league’s six-team tournament but still was picked seventh this preseason.
“I think it’s fair where we were picked. Our guys aren’t too happy about it because we would have qualified for the tournament if we would have counted,” said Tony Stoecklin, promoted from pitching coach to head coach this year. “We’re playing for something this year. For the seniors it matters a lot.”
Also making the move from pitching coach to head coach is Steve Bieser, who played for SEMO and then ads a utility player and catcher for the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates.
“This is the place where I got my start going back to ‘89 when I graduated and was able to play pro ball,” Bieser said.
Mike McGuire is the new coach with plenty of optimism.
“Obviously I inherit some guys who had a good years,” said McGuire, who last year coached the nation’s top-ranked junior college Louisburg. “I feel we brought some good guys in as well.
“One thing that’s lagging behind is our facilities. But the thing that sold me is our administration wants to win. The interest in winning is there and interest is getting us to a level playing with the rest of the league.”
The Racers have failed to make the OVC tournament the past two years but return 13 lettermen from a team that beat the nation’s second-ranked Kentucky in the last week of the regular season.
“If I address the players regarding the preseason ranking I will probably say something along the lines of ‘OK they ranked us 10th,’ ” coach Rob McDonald said. “It doesn’t mean anything but that puts a little more ‘I will show you in our gut.’ But I don’t have any problem with where other coaches vote us considering where we finished the last couple of years.”
“There’s always someone who is going to be picked at the bottom but that’s why you play the season,” Skyhawks coach Bubba Cates said.
Contact Nielsen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-238-6856.