While patches of snow were still on the ground Tuesday, some hopeful signs that spring is on its way were visible at East Tennessee State University’s Thomas Stadium, as pin-striped baseball players practiced for the start of their season, now just days away.
Loosening up for another day of practice, Clinton Freeman, a junior from Jonesborough, said the team’s practices have consisted of a lot of routine drills lately, no doubt hoping that by the time for the season opener against Penn State on Feb. 15 that what they’ve been practicing will be perfect.
“In the fall we did more at practice, but right now ... we’re just going over bunt coverages, trying to square as many balls up, keep the ball out of the air when we’re hitting,” Freeman said. “We just do a lot of routine stuff, you know, as far as practice goes. Just regular stuff ... that we do in the game. I feel like we could go out right now and compete with anybody and that’s big. If you can compete with anybody, you can win any game.”
Looking back on other seasons, Freeman said he’s excited to see what this season brings and even took some time to himself up in the stands to reflect on playing in the team’s new home.
“It was about two weeks ago, I went up on my own and just kind of sat up here in the back and just looked down,” he said. “You take it all in once you get up there and you actually look at the stadium and how nice it is, so we’re very blessed. I think the motto is to just take it one game at a time and not look too far ahead.”
Even with a few “wrinkles,” as head coach Tony Skole put it when referring to the weather, Freeman said his teammates have powered through despite the cold air and unpredictable conditions.
“We adapt to the weather. We can play in anything, so whatever Mother Nature brings ... we’ll still have to get ... 27 outs at the end of the day and that’s what we plan on doing,” he said.
For freshman Griffin Krieg, he said he’s excited to be playing Division I baseball and excited to go out and play against Penn State next week.
“It’s a little nerve-racking, but it’s a good nervous,” Krieg said. “I’m excited and just ready to get out on the field and ready to show everybody what we’re made of.”
Skole said this year’s team has 12 returning players and 18 new players on the roster, but said the team dynamic is strong.
“It’s been a great mesh between both groups. We’re excited about our new guys, but we’re also really excited about the kids we have returning,” he said. “We sort of had to build this team to the stadium. Having played at Cardinal Park ... you’ve got to play more of a power game there, hit home runs, that type of thing. Our park here is a lot bigger and we built our team around speed. We still have some guys that can hit it out of the park, but we’re a little more dynamic offensively.”
Skole said the Feb. 15 opener against Penn State will start at 2:05 p.m., but festivities celebrating the opening of the stadium will occur prior to the game.
“That Friday’s going to be a special day. There’s a ribbon-cutting and sort of an opening ceremonies that morning,” he said. “There’s a big pre-cookout for students and the parking lot will be open for tailgating. We’ve already broken records for season tickets, so there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of curiosity ... surrounding the opening day of the season. We’re ready to get started.”