A pivotal weekend is coming up for teams at the top of the Atlantic Sun Conference baseball standings.
East Tennessee State opens a three-game series at Mercer tonight, while Florida Gulf Coast is at North Florida.
Mercer, ranked No. 21 nationally this week, is tied with North Florida for the league lead at 15-6. Gulf Coast is 14-7 and ETSU is 13-8 with only one series remaining in the regular season.
“You’re going to see a little bit of a shakeup after this weekend,” ETSU coach Tony Skole said Thursday. “We have a huge challenge in front of us, playing at Mercer. They’re one of the top teams in the country this year.
“We had hoped from the get-go at the beginning of the year that these last two weekends will mean something as far as the conference race. It’s obvious they do.”
The Bucs (28-20) will have their ace on the mound tonight. Kerry Doane is 10-1 and has won his last seven starts; his only loss came against USC Upstate way back on March 15.
The senior right-hander continues to lead the nation in complete games, with nine. No one else has more than seven.
“He’s definitely been the guy setting the tone for us on the weekends,” said Skole. “Our whole team feels confident when Kerry takes the ball, but this will be a very challenging start for him. Mercer leads the league in home runs and has a very offensive ballpark. It’s not an easy place to pitch.”
Doane will match up tonight with Brandon Barker (6-0). Logan Rice (5-2) will start on the mound Saturday for the Bucs.
ETSU officials still hope to name a new football coach by June 1.
Interim athletic director Richard Sander says the search is down to “eight or nine” candidates, though he declined to identify any of them.
“It’s really a good group,” he said. “There are a lot of different backgrounds. Some are older, some are younger. Some are offensive-minded coaches, some are defensive.
“In the next two weeks, we’ll do some airport-type interviews and then probably bring two to campus and let them interact with the president and university leadership. Then we’ll make a decision, hopefully by June 1.”
Sander said he and Phil Fulmer have been collaborating since the search officially began more than a month ago. Fulmer, the former Tennessee head coach, was hired as a special assistant to the AD on April 2.
“Coach Fulmer has helped vet a lot of these folks,” said Sander. “He can call football people in the inner circle and find out what they think about a particular candidate. That’s the kind of access I wouldn’t necessarily have. He’s really been a big part of this process.”
The clock is also ticking on the conference affiliation issue.
Sander said Southern Conference officials will be visiting campus in the next couple of weeks as a possible prelude to inviting ETSU to return. Mercer and VMI were also reportedly scheduled to receive visits.
The SoSon certainly won’t be the same league ETSU left a decade ago.
College of Charleston is already out the door, while Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are making plans to move out a year from now. On Wednesday, Davidson announced it is joining the Atlantic 10.
“That’s the tough part, knowing what these conferences are going to look like,” said Sander, “but I’m not sure there’s anything we can do about it. The landscape is just changing everywhere. All you can do is have the best overall program you can have and see where that takes you.”
The men’s basketball team produced two more one-and-done freshmen this year.
Mario Stramaglia decided he was transferring soon after the season was over, and Yunio Barrueta is following his lead. The forward from Miami reportedly wants to get closer to home.
“This is really going to work out great for him,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “He’s going to play right there at home at Barry (University); the high school coach he’s very close to is now an assistant there. Honestly, he liked it here but was kind of a tweener as a player – not a true 3 and not a true 4. It really won’t matter as much at that level.”
Barrueta was part of a Class 8A state championship team as a senior at Hialeah Gardens, and he signed a Division II scholarship before ETSU came calling. He didn’t have much impact as a freshman here, averaging 2.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 25 games.
Stramaglia, a guard from Birmingham, Ala., is also headed for a D2 school in the Sunshine State, West Florida.
Bartow says it’s not an ideal script when freshmen depart after just one season, but it’s not unusual either.
“If you read the paper every day and look around, there are about 500 kids transferring right now,” he said. “That’s just the nature of the our business. Guys make that decision, and it’s usually playing-time driven …
Am I going to be in the rotation? Do I see light at the end of the tunnel?
“I like both these guys a lot, but in the end it was their decision.”
Bartow now has three scholarships to offer for next season. The early signing period just has a week remaining.
“We’re very close on a couple of situations,” he said.
Bartow is also looking for two new assistant coaches after the departure of Mike Boyd and Scott Wagers.
Boyd is retiring after 39 years in the business, while Wagers has taken a job with his old buddy Pat Knight at Lamar. Both had been with Bartow from the start of his 10-year tenure here.
Wagers said the dismal 10-22 season that ended in March wasn’t the decisive factor in him leaving. And he said there were no glaring philosophical differences, particularly about defense, with the head coach.
“I don’t think this past season was a reflection on anybody’s philosophy at all,” he said. “We made the decision to zone because of losing all those guys early. Murry is a man-to-man guy, but it’s hard to play that way when you don’t have the personnel. We tried to get the most from what we had.”
The retirement of former athletic director Dave Mullins in January may have played the larger role in Wagers deciding it was finally time to move.
“Dave Mullins had been like a mentor to me,” he said. “The times we spent in Hawaii together, him taking me to some of the neat places where he grew up, that was one of the highlights of my time working at East Tennessee State.
“I think he did a great job, and I was there before he was AD. When he took that job, things changed quick with our recruiting budget and other things. I think all the other sports got treated better, too. I’m going to miss working with him.”