The Bucs beat the Owls for the championship last year, earning their first NCAA tournament berth since 1981.
The two teams are set to go at it again Wednesday at 10 a.m. when they square off in the tournament’s opener at Florida Gulf Coast’s Swanson Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla.
“The good thing about a tournament is it’s a new start for everybody,” ETSU coach Tony Skole said Monday. “The regular season is important, but it doesn’t really mean much down here. Our guys do have the confidence that they were able to do what it takes to win last year.”
The Bucs beat Kennesaw State 7-2 in last year’s championship game as tournament MVP Kerry Doane pitched his second complete game of the event.
But Doane and his school-record 12 complete games are gone, and this is a different Kennesaw State team. The third-seeded Owls haven’t lost an A-Sun game since April 5, winning their last 15.
ETSU was among the victims, dropping three in a row.
“We caught them right in the middle of that stretch,” Skole said. “And we had leads in every one of those games in the fifth inning or beyond.”
Overall, Kennesaw State has won 19 of its last 20 games and comes in 33-21. The sixth-seeded Bucs are 26-28.
“It’s a tough matchup,” Skole said. “They’re very talented, have great pitching and they’re playing well.”
The Owls have three players ranked in the top 10 of the A-Sun in hitting. Max Pentecost is third at .422, while Alex Liquori is hitting .361 and Bo Way is hitting .352. Pentecost leads the conference with 97 hits and 54 RBIs. He’s also 15 of 17 on stolen-base attempts.
Clinton Freeman, ETSU’s top hitter, is 10th in the league at .351. He leads the conference with 13 home runs and in slugging percentage (.630).
Two Kennesaw State pitchers are in the top four in the league in ERA. Travis Bergen comes in 6-4 with a 3.00 ERA. Jordan Hillyer is 7-3, 3.07. They don’t suffer a significant dropoff with the rest of the staff. The Owls’ team ERA is 3.55, third in the conference.
ETSU will go with Jimmy Nesselt on the mound. The junior righty, coming off a complete-game win over Mercer, is 7-5 with a 4.07 ERA.
Logan Rice is ETSU’s only pitcher with an ERA under 4.00. He comes in at 3.52 with most of his work done out of the bullpen.
“We’ve got some decisions to make on our pitching and what we’re gonna do,” Skole said. “To win this thing, we have to have guys throw often, mix and match. They probably won’t throw that many innings, but they’ll throw more often.”
If either team has a late lead, they’re likely to keep it. The game features two of the best closers in the conference. Justin McGalvin leads the A-Sun with 12 saves while Freeman has 11 this year and a school-record 21 in his career.
Freeman won the latest A-Sun player of the week award after hitting .643 with three home runs last week.
Second-seeded Mercer and No. 7 Stetson are the other two teams in ETSU’s pod in the double-elimination tournament. The other pod includes No. 1 FGCU, No. 8 North Florida, No. 4 Lipscomb and No. 5 Jacksonville. The winner of each pod plays for the title on Sunday.
“There’s only gonna be one team left standing on Sunday,” Skole said. “We’re gonna do everything we can to ensure it’s us, but it will be a challenge.”
Follow Joe Avento on Twitter. Like him on Facebook.