Barnett, a native of Johnson City and graduate of East Tennessee State University, says one of his goals for the season is to get the Buffs to play inspired.
“My personal goals are to shorten the learning curve in my first season as head coach, and also not to lose sight of what is important and serve these athletes to the best of my ability,” Barnett says. “The team and me personally want to show continuous improvement from start to finish this season. We want the guys to play inspired, and that starts with me.”
Milligan’s season begins with a three-game set on the road against Truett-McConnell this weekend, and the Buffs will host their first games of the season Feb. 7-8 at TVA Credit Union Ballpark. The first game on Anglin Field is set for Feb. 12.
Barnett says the team has a goal to show steady improvement from the start to the end.
“Our goals boil down to continuous improvement from January 31 all the way through the season,” he says. “Every side of the ball has an understanding of tangible goals that our team is striving for, but ultimately it is going to be about displaying toughness, passion, discipline, communication and work ethic. That is the brand of baseball we are striving for here.”
Barnett says those qualities are not limited to the field, but even more important off the field.
“We want to win on the field and in the classroom this spring,” he adds. “This is our standard.”
RETURNING TO THE ROSTER
Barnett notes his senior class will be a big impact for the Buffs among those returning this season.
“Our seniors have been outstanding this offseason and everyone is excited to play for them,” he says. “We will be anchored by some key returners who experienced some success last season: Juan Vasquez, Blake Dutton, Kirby Smith, Chance Hall and Will Oliver, as well as some new faces we expect to be key contributors at all positions.”
Dutton led the team in hitting last campaign, batting .387 as one of three Buffs over .350 and six Buffs over .300. Vasquez followed with a .355 average, and Hall hit .353 with seven of the team’s 25 home runs. Oliver batted .315 with three doubles, four triples and three home runs. Smith hit .284 with 12 doubles, second most on the team to Vasquez, who hit 13.
With six teams in and around the NAIA coaches top 25 poll over the last three years, including the defending national champion and preseason No. 1, the Appalachian Athletic Conference is one of the strongest leagues in the NAIA. Barnett says it will take good individual performances from the pitching staff, solid defense and timely hitting in order to be competitive in the conference, a goal Barnett says is very attainable if the Buffs focus on what they can control.
“You could argue the AAC is the SEC of the NAIA,” Barnett says. “There are so many good programs, individual players and coaches. For us, we just want to think about competing against the baseball and not beat ourselves. We cannot control our opponents, just our preparation and performance.”
The Buffs will have this theory tested early on in the season. Opening weekend will feature AAC member Truett McConnell, although the three-game set will go down as nonconference. After that, Milligan turns around the following weekend to host the second annual Clash of Conferences tournament at TVA Credit Union Ballpark. There, the Buffs will face Rio Grande, winners of last year’s River States Conference tournament with a record of 39-21. Rio Grande is receiving votes in the preseason coaches top 25 poll after winning one game at last year’s NAIA Opening Round.
Milligan’s season proceeds with several more nonconference games until the Buffs hit an almost-exclusive conference slate beginning the last week of February.
A LITTLE ON LAST YEAR
The Buffs went 19-26 overall, 11-16 in the AAC to finish seventh in the league. They won four straight games near the end of the season but ended it with four straight losses, including an 0-2 result in the conference tournament.
One of the top highlights of the year came on senior day when Camron Harper and Jeffrey Mefford, both seniors, combined for 22 strikeouts across 16 shutout innings of a doubleheader.
BUFFS EARN HONORS
While Milligan baseball is gearing up for the start of the season, Milligan swimming is prepping for the end of the season, and the Buffs have been recently highlighted for success in and out of the pool. The College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America (CSCAA) on Wednesday announced Scholar All-America Teams for the fall 2019 semester, ranking Milligan in the top 10 for academics.
Milligan’s women rank No. 9 while the men rank No. 10 with grade-point averages of 3.49 and 3.22, respectively. Both programs are receiving votes in the latest NAIA coaches top 10 poll.
Additionally, the Appalachian Athletic Conference was well represented on the Scholar All-America Team list, with an NAIA-most 10 teams earning the distinction. Milligan accounted for two of those 10 teams.
“I am really proud of the work we did first semester in the pool, in the classroom and through our numerous service projects,” head coach Spencer Scarth said. “Both teams made a lot of progress, and I'm particularly proud of the men's team raising their GPA from a 2.99 to a 3.22. We're looking forward to a strong finish to our regular season and a fast meet at AAC’s in just a few short weeks.”
Milligan competes Saturday at AAC member Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky, to close out the regular season. After that, the Buffs head to Kingsport for the AAC Championships Feb. 13-15, then to Knoxville for the NAIA Championships March 4-7.