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Jacksonville State picked to win OVC

NASHVILLE – In a vote of Ohio Valley Conference head baseball coaches, Jacksonville State was picked as the 2008 preseason favorite in the 10-team league. The Gamecocks finished second in both the regular season and tournament last season. In additional voting, JSU senior outfielder Clay Whittemore was picked as the Preseason Player of the Year while Eastern Kentucky junior left-handed pitcher Christian Friedrich was named the Preseason Pitcher of the Year.

The overall voting for the preseason poll was balanced and close, as three teams received first-place votes and only two points separated the favorite, Jacksonville State, from second-place, defending champion Austin Peay. Jacksonville State received four of the first-place votes and 76 total points, which put them ahead of the Governors, who actually received one more first-place vote (5 in total) but finished two points behind the Gamecocks in their overall points total (74). Eastern Kentucky received the other first place vote and was predicted to finish third (61 points). The Colonels were followed closely by Southeast Missouri State, who was picked fourth (59), and Samford, who was predicted to place fifth (55). Eastern Illinois was tabbed sixth (38), followed by Murray State in seventh (30), Tennessee Tech in eighth (29), Morehead State in ninth (15) and UT Martin in 10th (13).

Jacksonville State has been among the top teams in the OVC since joining the league in 2003-04. The Gamecocks have averaged 18 Conference victories a season over that time period, have a regular season championship (2005), a pair of tournament championships (2004, 2006) and two tournament runner-up finishes (2005, 2007). Head coach Jim Case will return 15 letterwinners from a team that finished 33-27 overall a year ago. That group includes the Preseason Player of the Year, Whittemore, who claimed the Player of the Year award at the end of last season after hitting .391 with 93 hits, 53 runs and 69 RBI in 60 games. Whittemore was named a preseason All-American by several outlets (including Collegiate Baseball News) and is one of three OVC players on the Brooks Wallace National Player of the Year Watch List. Also back is junior second baseman Bert Smith, another preseason All-OVC pick; Smith hit .359 last season, scored 59 runs and swiped 31 bases in 60 games. A third offensive player, designated hitter Jay Harrington (.347, 17 RBI) was also a preseason All-OVC pick. The Gamecocks lost their top pitcher from last season (All-OVC pick Donovan Hand) but do return sophomore Ben Tootle (6-3, 5.91 ERA) and reliever Alex Jones (2-2, 4.02 ERA, 4 saves), who was a preseason All-OVC pick. The four JSU players on the All-OVC preseason team was the most in the league.

Austin Peay and head coach Gary McClure capped a fantastic season in 2007, finishing the year 40-22 overall and 19-8 in the OVC on its way to winning a sixth regular season and third OVC Tournament championship. The Governors, who have received preseason votes in both the Collegiate Baseball News and NCBWA national polls, advanced to the NCAA Tournament last year and gave No. 1 overall seed Vanderbilt and No. 1 overall draft pick David Price all it could handle before falling 2-1 in 11 innings. APSU lost six positional starters and three starting pitchers from last year’s team but do return three preseason All-OVC picks in senior third baseman Tyler Farrar, senior outfielder Rafael Hill and junior pitcher Ryne Mantooth. Farrar hit .341 with 87 hits, 53 runs scored, 16 doubles and 44 RBI a season ago while Hill sparked the Govs offense from the top of the order, batting .305 with 34 runs scored and 15 stolen bases. Mantooth was the No. 3 starter last season for Austin Peay when he compiled an 8-4 overall record and 3.91 ERA in 92 innings of work.

Eastern Kentucky finished fifth in the OVC a year ago with an even 12-12 mark. The Colonels return seven position starters and 12 pitchers from a year ago; included in that mix is the 6’3″ lefty Friedrich, the Preseason OVC Pitcher of the Year. Last season he compiled a 5-4 record and 2.09 ERA in 81.2 innings pitched. Friedrich also tossed three complete games, limited opponents to a .155 batting average and struck out 101 batters. He also enjoyed a successful summer with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the Cape Cod League where he compiled a 4-1 record, 2.68 ERA and struck out 52 in 37.0 innings of work (7 starts). Friedrich is also on the Brooks Wallace Award Watch List and has been named a preseason All-American. Elvis Dominguez’s team also brings back catcher Joe Oliver (.294, 57 hits, 28 RBI) and infielder Tyler Barnett (.314, 64 hits, 12 2B’s, 32 RBI, 17 SB’s) from a year ago.

Southeast Missouri State, picked fourth in the preseason poll, returns 17 total letterwinners, four position starters and nine pitchers from a team that was 32-24 overall and 16-10 in the OVC (3rd place). Head coach Mark Hogan enters his 14th season at Southeast, a place where he has won 387 games over that time period; overall in 26 years as a head coach Hogan has won 772 games. Southeast teams have advanced to the OVC Tournament in each of Hogan’s 13 years, the longest active stretch among OVC schools. This season the team had three players selected to the Preseason All-OVC squad: sophomore catcher Jim Klocke, junior first baseman Matt Wagner and senior right-handed pitcher Dustin Renfrow. Klocke earned OVC Freshman of the Year honors last season after hitting .324 with 58 hits, 38 runs, 10 doubles and 38 RBI in 56 games (all of which he started); impressively he struck out only 13 times in 179 official at-bats. In his first season as a catcher he threw out 30 percent of the runners who tried to steal against him. Wagner ranked third on the Southeast team last year with a .314 average, while knocking out 63 hits, scoring 29 runs and swatting seven home runs in 55 games. Renfrow established himself as one of the top hurlers in the league last season, compiling a 5-1 record and 2.46 ERA in 15 appearances (14 starts). He had three complete games, two shutouts and struck out 48 in 95.0 innings of work. The Redhawks will welcome 15 newcomers to their roster this season, including talented outfielder Tyrell Cummings (Seminole State CC).

Samford, who was tabbed as the preseason favorite last year before finishing fourth overall (14-13), was picked fifth this season, just four points behind Southeast Missouri. The Bulldogs made quite a run during last year’s OVC Tournament after losing in their second game of the event. The squad rebounded and won two more games and nearly won a third game which would have put them in the championship contest. This season Samford has 24 total letterwinners back, including four positional starters and two starting pitchers. A center-point of coach Casey Dunn’s team will be junior shortstop Michael Marseco, who was a Preseason All-OVC selection. Marseco led his team with a .350 average last season while collecting 84 hits, 47 runs, 13 doubles, 33 RBI and seven stolen bases. Also returning for the Bulldogs is senior catcher/outfielder Bear Burnett who hit .297 with 63 hits, 42 runs, 17 doubles and 35 RBI in 60 games a season ago. Among the returning pitchers is senior Trent Hill (6-6, 4.35 ERA last season) and junior David Knapp (3-4, 4.42 ERA).

Eastern Illinois returns 12 letterwinners and a combination of five starters from last year’s team that finished 23-28 overall and 12-14 in the OVC. Those returnees include two players who were selected to the Preseason All-OVC team – junior outfielder Brett Nommensen and sophomore utility player Richie Derbak. Nommensen hit .309 with 55 hits, 39 runs scored and 13 stolen bases in 48 contests a season ago. Derbak split time between first base, second base and pitcher last season but is projected as the team’s starting catcher in 2008. During his freshman season, in which he was selected to both the second-team All-OVC and the All-Freshman Team, Derbak hit .301 with 46 hits, 19 runs and 24 RBI; on the mound he appeared in 21 contests, winning three games, saving five others and striking out 26 in 33 innings of work. He was also named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American during 2007. Coach Jim Schmitz’s team will welcome 19 newcomers to Charleston this season.

Rob McDonald enters his fifth season at Murray State and has 19 letterwinners and seven total starters back from last year’s team that compiled a 12-13 OVC record. The team’s top returning offensive player is junior infielder Tyler Owen. A season ago Owen was second on the team in batting (.353) while recording 59 hits, 23 runs, eight doubles, five home runs and 41 RBI. On the mound the Thoroughbreds will have its four most experienced pitchers back in 2008. That group includes seniors Mike Perconte (6-7, 7.38 ERA, 3 CG, 1 save, 89.0 IP) and Lucas Allen (2-5, 6.15 ERA, 2 CG, 60.0 IP) and sophomores Matt McGaha (2-5, 6.99 ERA, 55.1 IP) and Brad Rowland (2-5, 7.34 ERA, 1 CG, 4 saves, 61.1 IP).

Tennessee Tech enters the 2008 season with a good mix of players from last year’s team that won 12 Conference games in head coach Matt Bragga’s fourth year with the program. The pitching staff returns its top four starters from a year ago including sophomore Jared Dobbs, who was 5-3 with a team-best 4.18 ERA as a freshman. The 6’5″ Dobbs struck out 38 batters last season and established himself as the Golden Eagles top pitcher. He is joined by seniors Jake Edwards (5-5, 5.91 ERA, 2 saves in 70.0 innings) and Matt Kearney (1-0, 6.67 ERA, 1 save in 29.2 innings of work). Also back are senior Blake Forst and sophomore Chason Choate, who combined for 24 appearances and 12 starts a year ago. Offensively the team has senior outfielder Jake New back to lead the team; New was a preseason All-OVC pick this season after being a second-team All-OVC selection last year. New hit .310 with 62 hits, 15 doubles, five home runs and 38 RBI as a junior. Joining him in the outfield is senior Sean Reilly, who hit .333 with 30 RBI last season. In the infield Tech has senior shortstop Thomas Nelson who hit .314 with 53 hits, 37 runs, 10 doubles, five home runs and 32 RBI last season. Nelson also got the job done in the classroom and was named a prestigious OVC Scholar-Athlete award winner in December (one of just six total honorees).

Morehead State begins the 2008 season with a new coach, Jay Sorg. But Sorg is very familiar with the Eagles program and the Ohio Valley Conference, as he played three seasons of baseball at MSU (1992-94) before being drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 15th round of the 1994 First-Year Player Draft. He helped lead the Eagles to the 1993 OVC Tournament Championship (the program’s last title) and a year later he served as the team’s captain on his way to first-team All-OVC honors. He has also served as a minor league instructor and manager, including being the youngest manager in the nation (26) when he served as the Clinton (Iowa) skipper. This season he has 18 returning letterwinners and 12 newcomers to work with. That group includes sophomore middle infielder Drew Lee who had an impressive OVC debut last season, hitting a team-high .362 with 46 hits, 33 runs, three home runs and 23 RBI. Also back is junior outfielder Trent Hanna who hit .345 with 51 hits, 32 runs, 10 doubles, 27 RBI and nine stolen bases last season. The Eagles did lose their top pitcher from last season (Henry Mabee) but return No. 2 starter Tyler Bess, who won a pair of games last season, tossed two complete games and saved another contest in 18 appearances.

Despite being picked 10th in the OVC race, UT Martin has plenty to look forward to this season as the Skyhawks return five of their top six offensive players from last season and three of the squad’s top four pitchers from a 7-18 OVC campaign a year ago. Among those starters are all three outfielders – junior Bryce Carden (who led the team with a .329 batting average last season), senior Kyle Dudley (who hit .328 with 62 hits, 11 doubles and 31 RBI a season ago) and senior Blake Turner (.303 average, four triples, three home runs). Head coach Bubba Cates also has shortstop Shayne Martin (.301) and catcher Chris Rezabek (.276, 29 hits, 3 home runs, 23 RBI) back in the lineup this season. Among the returning pitchers for UTM are seniors William Blackmon (3-7, 6.36 ERA, 63.2 IP) and Travis Webb (1-2, 4.02 ERA, 1 save, 47.0 IP).

The 60th season of OVC baseball will get underway on Feb. 22 this season, the new national start date for all Division I programs (previously teams had started as early as mid-January). Eight squads will open that day with the remaining two programs starting the following afternoon. The OVC season starts on Friday, March 21 as the squads meet for the first three-game series of the year. The year will culminate with the 2008 OVC Tournament which will be held at historic Brooks Stadium in Paducah, Ky. for the eighth straight year. The tournament runs May 21-24 (25) this season.

2008 OVC Predicted Order of Finish
1. Jacksonville State (4) – 76
2. Austin Peay (5) – 74
3. Eastern Kentucky (1) – 61
4. Southeast Missouri – 59
5. Samford – 55
6. Eastern Illinois – 38
7. Murray State – 30
8. Tennessee Tech – 29
9. Morehead State – 15
10. UT Martin – 13

2008 Preseason All-OVC Team
Preseason OVC Player of the Year: Clay Whittemore, Jacksonville State
Preseason OVC Pitcher of the Year: Christian Friedrich, Eastern Kentucky

C – Jim Klocke, Southeast Missouri %
1B – Matt Wagner, Southeast Missouri
2B – Bert Smith, Jacksonville State *
SS – Michael Marseco, Samford *
3B – Tyler Farrar, Austin Peay #
OF – Clay Whittemore, Jacksonville State *
OF – Jake New, Tennessee Tech #
OF – Brett Nommensen, Eastern Illinois
OF – Rafael Hill, Austin Peay #
DH – Jay Harrington, Jacksonville State
UTIL – Richie Derbak, Eastern Illinois #%
SP – Christian Friedrich, Eastern Kentucky *
SP – Dustin Renfrow, Southeast Missouri #
SP – Ryne Mantooth, Austin Peay
RP – Alex Jones, Jacksonville State #

* – 1st team All-OVC team in 2007 # – 2nd team All-OVC team in 2007 % – OVC All-Freshman team in 2008

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