Half a home was better than none, but now that Thomas Stadium is fully operational, the East Tennessee State baseball team couldn’t be happier.
When the Bucs play host to Penn State Friday at 2:35 p.m., it will be the first time fans will be in the seats. Last year, ETSU played on the field, but as the stadium was being completed, fans were forced to sit far from the action.
“It’s such a change,” ETSU coach Tony Skole said Wednesday during the team’s annual media day. “Last year it was wonderful to be out on that facility for the first time, but we played in almost silence. There were times the pitcher would be on the mound and you could hear a pin drop.
“It’s exciting to know we can get in there any time we want. We don’t have to dodge construction trucks or crews.”
The players are excited to perform for a real crowd for the first time in their new digs. A dedication ceremony is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on Friday.
“It was tough,” all-conference first baseman Clinton Freeman said. “We were real happy to get out on the field, but it was more of a neutral site. When we hit a home run we could barely hear people. If the energy’s not going your way, sometimes the crowd can help you. I think it hurts us last year sometimes to not have the crowd behind us.”
The Bucs are coming off a 23-32 season, one in which they finished ninth in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Freeman hit .365 with seven home runs and 50 RBIs last season. He reached base safely in 40 consecutive games and found time to make 18 appearances as a pitcher.
“We’re looking for great things from him,” Skole said. “We want him to be the best hitter in our league and we want him to give us quality innings on the mound and play good defense.”
The Bucs’ offense will have a different look this season after losing sluggers Matthew Scruggs and Dylan Pratt. Scruggs’ 20 home runs were second in Division I, while Pratt’s 16 ranked him in the top 15. This year’s team will rely more on speed to produce offense, and it starts at the top of the lineup with leadoff hitter and center fielder Andrew Green.
“He’s the closest thing we have to a five-tool player,” Skole said. “He’s a tremendous runner. He’s one of the fastest players in college baseball. He hits for average, power and has a very strong arm. And he catches everything in that outfield.”
Green hit .284 last year and stole 22 bases. He’s expecting more production in both categories this season.
“When we get on base, stealing bases, that opens up gaps for big hitters like Clinton Freeman,” said Green, who has the green light on the base paths. “He (Skole) gets mad when I don’t go. It’s a big part of our offense this year and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Senior second baseman Derek Niesman, who hit .280 last year, will bat cleanup in the new-look lineup.
Senior righty Kerry Doane will start on the mound, marking the beginning of his first season as a full-time pitcher. He had been the team’s shortstop in between his pitching appearances in previous year.
The opening of a new season always comes with plenty of optimism.
“This is a new season and that’s the exciting thing about Opening Day,” Skole said. “Everybody’s got new dreams, new hopes, new goals.”
The Bucs have plenty of new faces this year, including 13 freshmen among the 19 newcomers.
The ETSU softball team is coming off four losses in a tournament at Auburn. Senior catcher Whitley Hensley, a product of the Unicoi County softball powerhouse, says it’s time for the Bucs to turn the corner.
“It is very frustrating because I want to win so bad,” Hensley said. “It’s in my blood. It’s something I’ve always been accustomed to. It’s very frustrating to not have turned the corner, but it’s a process and a journey.
“This year we’re gonna turn the corner. It may not be this weekend and it may not the next weekend, but come conference time we’re gonna turn the corner and are going to be a strong competitor in our conference this year.”
The Bucs travel to Charleston, S.C., this weekend for five tournament games. They face Towson and Syracuse on Friday before taking on James Madison and College of Charleston on Saturday and Akron on Sunday.