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Bucs hope hitting can catch up

Kelly Hodge • Mar 8, 2012 at 10:19 PM

East Tennessee State baseball coach Tony Skole has been impressed by his team’s pitching and defense early in the season. Now he’d like to be impressed by its hitting.

The Bucs are 6-4 heading into a three-game series with La Salle at Thomas Stadium this weekend. The opener is today at 1:05.

The team made its first road trip on Wednesday and lost 7-3 at Western Carolina. Its next eight games will be at home.

“It was good for our kids to get out,” Skole said Thursday. “Of course, that’s the first time we’ve been on a natural surface. The grass is actually a little faster than the artificial turf, which you wouldn’t think, but I don’t believe it affects our players too much.”

The Bucs have traditionally packed an offensive punch. They were among the national leaders in home runs last season with big boppers like Paul Hoilman, Bo Reeder, Dylan Pratt and Derek Trent.

Pratt is the only one of the group still around. The others are playing minor-league baseball.

“We lost a lot of punch in the middle of our lineup,” said Skole, “and that’s hard to replace. We really just haven’t been very opportunistic offensively. I think we’re going to be forced to create some things to score runs.”

The Bucs are averaging 4.9 runs per game and hitting .286 as a team. They averaged 6.8 runs last season, when they finished 36-21 and set a school record for wins.

Sophomore Clint Freeman leads the team with a .368 average while playing first base and pitching.

“He’s been in the 3-hole and can just flat-out hit,” said Skole. “He has a low-maintenance swing. Every game out, he’s hit the ball hard. I’d say he has eight or nine lineouts along with all the hits.”

Pratt and Derek Niesman are each batting .353, while Matthew Scruggs is at .325 and Zach Thompson .313. Scruggs has five of the Bucs’ 10 home runs and also leads the team in RBI (10).

“Matthew has been good the first part of the season, and Dylan has really come on as of late,” said Skole.

Pitching, meanwhile, has been a consistent strength thanks to the Long brothers.

John, a senior, has a 3-0 record and 2.45 earned-run average in three starts. He has struck out 19 in 22 innings, with just four walks.

Jake is a sophomore who is 0-1 in three starts. His ERA is 1.72 in 15 innings.

The brothers are from Anderson, S.C., and ended up at ETSU via Spartanburg Methodist Junior College.

“They’re special,” said Skole. “John is our Friday starter, and Jake has been going on Sunday. John is more of a tactician on the mound. Jake has more of a power arm; he gets it up there 90 to 93. They both have great arms and really compete.”

Skole chuckles when he talks about the change in team strategy this season.

“I used to always tell our guys if we could just pitch a little bit … we were scoring nine to 10 runs a game,” he said, “Now we’re scoring four to five. The old adage is pitching and defense win for you, so maybe that’s a better way to go.”

Former Science Hill pitcher Will Clark will be making his first college start in the Saturday game against La Salle. The freshman right-hander has appeared in three games in relief, with four strikeouts and four hits allowed in 32⁄3 innings.

Kara Woods put together a sparkling resume as a high school softball pitcher at Unicoi County, and she apparently got her fill of the game.

The apparent jewel of ETSU’s last recruiting class quit the team just five appearances into her freshman season. She began as a starter and was 0-2 with an ERA of 8.49, allowing 34 hits in 152⁄3 innings.

Woods is a pre-med student who said last spring that she hoped to become a pediatrician one day.

“She just decided about two weeks ago that her heart wasn’t in it anymore,” ETSU coach Brad Irwin said Thursday. “She wanted to focus on academics and continue here at ETSU. The timing was kind of out of the blue for me.

“We typically at least get through a year with players before we re-evaluate our priorities.”

Woods compiled a career record of 141-21 at Unicoi County, with 1,325 strikeouts. The Lady Blue Devils won a Class AA championship her sophomore season and made it back to the state tournament the next two years on the strength of her arm.

The Lady Bucs were 5-12 as they headed off to Clearwater, Fla., for a tournament hosted by South Florida this weekend. The early results are mixed.

“I feel like we’re making strides, but I hate to say that when we’re 5-12,” said Irwin, whose first ETSU team went 15-33. “We’re not happy with the record or the losses, but we’ve played a lot of one-run ballgames and lost five of them. Close doesn’t count. We’re still trying to learn how to win.”

First baseman Casey Horner is off to a sizzling start at the plate. The sophomore from Whitesburg is batting .447, the second-best average in the Atlantic Sun Conference, with five homers and 16 RBI.

Sam Lower is hitting .342, while Annie Martin is at .333 and Alex Everett .327. The team is collectively batting .276; opponents are batting .331.

“We’re hitting it pretty well and scoring quite a few runs,” said Irwin. “Defensively we’ve not been as good as I thought we’d be. We’ve got some people playing out of position due to an injury or two, but we haven’t played good defense from day one.”

As for his pitching staff, which had to be revamped when Woods left, “we’re still working on that,” said Irwin.

Shelby Morris, a senior who had limited experience in the circle before the season began, is 0-5 with a 6.94 ERA. Sophomore Katie Wolff is now a front-line starter and has a 3-4 record in 11 appearances, with a 3.00 ERA.

“She’s giving us a chance to win games,” said Irwin. “She’s been a bright spot.”

The Lady Bucs are scheduled to play five games in Florida this weekend. They’ll face Central Michigan and Canisius today.

There’s at least one team on campus with a top-10 national ranking this week, but you probably couldn’t name it.

ETSU is eighth in the National Collegiate Disc Golf poll, which includes dozens of universities around the country that compete as club teams. Purdue is No. 1 this week, followed by Illinois, Clemson, Arkansas and N.C. State.

The ETSU club was founded last year by Matt Love, who competes and also serves as president. There are currently 15 members — 11 men and four women — and their top team of four, including Love, has already secured a spot in the national tournament next month.

“This is where my school pride comes from — disc golf,” Love said Thursday. “We have a really good program here.”

The club competes in collegiate tournaments against big schools — it is headed to Georgia Tech this weekend — and sharpens its skills in challenge matches in the area.

“There’s an intercollegiate series that I host, and basically anyone who wants to come and play disc golf can come for free,” said Love. “Each month we go to a different course. It’s kind of just for bragging rights. ETSU is first right now, with Tennessee Tech right behind.”

ETSU earned its bid to the national tournament back in September with a runner-up finish at a qualifier in Pennsylvania. That event is set for April 12-15 at the Hippodrome Disc Golf Complex in North Augusta, S.C., and will include 40 teams.

Love’s team will include Adam Hernandez, Hunter White and a fourth member who has yet to be determined.

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