The East Tennessee State baseball team won’t be playing in a construction zone this season. That doesn’t mean it has been smooth sailing the first week of practice at Thomas Stadium.
Coach Tony Skole said workers have been busy replacing turf around the bullpens and the warning track. The Bucs officially began practice on Jan. 25.
“They had to pull the turf because of the floods in August and had to replace it,” Skole said Thursday. “We’ve been working around those guys all week, with maintenance vehicles on the field. It’s a little chaotic but still nice to be out there, and hopefully they’ll be off by early next week.”
The Bucs will be playing their second season in the new ballpark. Last season, of course, fans weren’t able to get near the action because of ongoing construction.
The work has been completed, including the addition of seats to increase capacity to about 1,000.
Skole said having the stadium available in the fall was a real luxury.
“I never realized what we were missing,” he said. “In the past, we had 25 days at Cardinal Park. But on a nice day we didn’t have a contract to just go over there, and we had to stay in the Dome.
“This was the first time that when we went home for Christmas, I thought we were ready to play a game.”
The Bucs have 18 new players as they try to bounce back from a 23-32 season. They were 8-19 in the Atlantic Sun Conference and didn’t qualify for the tournament.
“One thing we learned last year is our new field plays different than Cardinal Park,” said Skole. “Our style has been to sit back and try to slug that three-run homer. That’s not going to work at our new stadium.
“We’ve brought in some really dynamic guys, some guys who can run. It’s going to be a different style of baseball.”
The Bucs open their season at home against Penn State on Feb. 15. They have 30 games scheduled at Thomas Stadium, and all but one of their first 15 are there. The exception is Tennessee on Feb. 26.
The returning star of the team is first baseman Clint Freeman.
The junior from Jonesborough, who was named to the All-Atlantic Sun Conference preseason team on Thursday, led the Bucs in batting – his .365 average was 58 points higher than anyone else on the team – RBI (50), hits (81) and doubles (14). He ranked among the top four in the league in average, hits and RBI.
Freeman had a streak of reaching base safely in 40 consecutive games from March 2 through May 6.
“He led the Alaska League in hitting last summer, and he’s just a monster right now,” said Skole. “He’s worked so hard in the weight room and is a solid 200 pounds. The kid can just flat-out hit. He has a low-maintenance swing and is so confident in the box.”
The left-hander will also be used some on the mound. Freeman made 18 pitching appearances last season, all but two in relief.
“He could be a weekend starter for us,” said Skole. “If our young pitchers develop, we could use him as a closer. He throws 87 to 90 (mph), and he throws strikes.”
Opening day is fast approaching for the softball team.
The Bucs get started a week from today in the Plainsman Invitational at Auburn. They’ll face the host team first, then Kent State, Austin Peay and Army.
Brad Irwin is anxious to play again after two difficult seasons as coach. The Bucs have gone 15-33 and 11-38 under the former Chattanooga assistant, with a combined conference mark of 4-34.
“We’re not dwelling on it because we have nine new players who weren’t a part of those seasons,” Irwin said Thursday. “But we’re definitely using that as motivation. We’re changing the culture here, and so far I think we’ve made the biggest jump in that direction. It’s still been slower than I’d like.”
Irwin’s roster includes 14 freshmen and sophomores. One player who has caught his eye early is sophomore second baseman Haley Thompson of Nicholson, Ga.
“She’s changed her mechanics and really increased her power,” said Irwin.
The coach has also seen more “pop” from the bat of Whitney Hensley, the senior catcher from Erwin who is coming off an injury-plagued season.
Pitching continues to be the big question mark. The Bucs thought they had a workhorse lined up when junior-college star Katie Jordan committed, but she never made it to school.
“She had already signed and decided at the last minute that she didn’t want to play softball at all,” said Irwin.
He’ll now take a “staff approach” that includes freshman Samantha Harrell, junior Katie Wolff and junior-college transfer Elliana Cabrera out of Arizona.
The Bucs play their first home game Feb. 23 against Siena.
The golf team opens its spring schedule Monday in Jacksonville. The Bucs will be part of the Sea Best Invitational field at the Players Stadium Course and TPC Sawgrass.
“We won it three years ago, and Florida has won it the last two,” coach Fred Warren said Thursday. “It’s a great golf course, where the Players Championship is held, and a heckuva test of golf.”
Warren will take the same five players he finished the fall with – freshmen Gudmundur Kristjansson, Adrian Meronk and Chris Hickman, and sophomores Rhys Pugh and Scott Gibson. The Bucs finished fourth in the last tournament of the fall, in Hawaii.
“This is a good, young team,” said Warren. “We started showing some good results at the end of fall. I think our scoring average equated to top 25; we just had days where we had two high scores and had to count one.
“I look forward to getting started with this group again.”