'Still a shot' for Bucs' opener at new ETSU baseball stadium

Joe Avento • Feb 15, 2012 at 8:09 AM

The schedule says the East Tennessee State baseball team opens the season Friday at home. It doesn’t say where home is.

The Bucs are still hoping to able to play their opener against Eastern Kentucky at their new park, Thomas Stadium, as construction continues to make the field playable.

“We still have a shot at it,” Bucs coach Tony Skole said Tuesday as his team practiced on the new stadium’s luscious turf for the second day in a row. “This project has been such a long time coming. To see it come to life in these final stages has been very exciting. It would be great to open up here.”

Some more work will have to be done before Friday’s game, which would take place at 1 p.m. The backstop screen must be installed, dugout benches need to be completed, the outfield fence padding has to be put up, the hitting background screen has to be installed and the pitcher’s mound — the only dirt on the artificial turf field — has to be tweaked.

If the field isn’t ready, the game will be played at Dobyns-Bennett High School. ETSU officials say the final decision might come as late as Thursday morning. The grandstand has not been built yet, so a makeshift seating area is being constructed.

The Bucs play 18 of their first 19 games at home.

Just getting to practice on the new field has been a treat to the ETSU players.

“It’s incredible,” slugger Dylan Pratt said. “The place is top notch all the way around. We’re just really excited to actually get on it. It was more than any of us could have expected. We expected it to be a nice place, but once you’re out here on it, you can really see what an incredible surface it is.”

Based on previous production, Pratt would be on the odds-on favorite to hit the first home run at the new park.

“We’ve discussed that,” Pratt said with a smile. “You don’t want to be trying to hit home runs, but at the same time there’s a lot of us that would love to claim to be the guy to hit the first dinger in the new park. Whoever gets it, we’ll be happy for him.”

Pratt hit 15 home runs and had 57 RBIs last season, both second on the team to record-breaking Paul Hoilman.

“Dylan is one of the hardest workers on our team,” Skole said. “He’s been a great leader. He’s got the respect of all his teammates. He’s gonna hit in the middle of our lineup. He’s gonna be a guy that we can count on to drive in runs. He’ll be one of the most feared hitters in the Southeast as far as college baseball is concerned, so we’re expecting him to have a big season.”

The first home run is a subject of question, but one thing is for sure: if the team opens the new stadium on Friday, John Long will be throwing the first pitch. The senior righty, who went 6-6 last year, is ETSU’s scheduled starter for opening day.

“I have thought about that, throwing the first pitch at the ‘Tom,’ ” Long said. “It would just be awesome. We already love the field. We finally have a place we can call home.”

Long’s brother, Jake, will start the third game of the series on Sunday. Jake is a sophomore who played last year at Spartanburg Methodist.

“That’s really cool,” John Long said. “We’ve played together all through high school. Not many people get to play with their brother in college. It’s a cool experience.”

Wherever his team plays on Friday, Skole said he’s looking forward to getting started. The Bucs are coming off a 36-21 season.

“We’re excited,” Skole said. “These guys are tired of playing against each other, scrimmaging against each other. They’re ready to see somebody else in that dugout, get after somebody else a little bit.”

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