Go back to the year 2011 and the Bucs finished with an RPI ranking of 33 and a 36-21 record. From there, players graduated and holes developed in the rotation and lineup.
“We struggled to play well on a consistent basis, and that eventually caught up with us,” East Tennessee State baseball head coach Tony Skole said. “I think I speak for all coaches in saying that when things don’t go the way you would like them to, it forces you to re-evaluate to see where changes need to be made.”
Skole and his staff looked to the obvious, and made a change in the most important factor of the team: the personnel. More than 15 new players were brought in and have provided a huge spark of success for the Bucs, but Skole gives credit to more than just that group of athletes.
“We brought in 19 new players who have come in and bought into our system and really done some nice things,” Skole said. “But the foundation of our program currently lies in our returning players. Thus far they have shown great leadership and they have been playing at a very high level.”
The Buccaneers 8-3 record reflects Skole’s comments, as they just recently had a six-game win streak snapped.
“I’ve been very pleased with the effort and passion our guys have played with thus far,” Skole said. “They have brought great energy to the park just about every day and it has paid off for us.”
The 2013 skid got underway Feb. 15, but the Buccaneers didn’t get off to the start it had quite envisioned. The Penn State Nittany Lions took game one of a three-game set, 6-4, but that would be the last time East Tennessee State fell for the next week.
The Bucs took the final two games from Penn State to win the series, before defeating Wofford in a mid-week game, and sweeping Seton Hall at home.
“For this ball club to be successful we have to play with a chip on our shoulder and really get after people,” Skole said. “We can’t just sit back and let it come to us.”
Even with an 8-3 record and a good start to the season after going 23-32 a year ago, Coach Skole, as any other coach would, admits that his team still has a ways to go in order to compete at a high level.
“I’m still not anywhere close to being satisfied with our performance thus far,” Skole said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we have gotten off to a decent start, but we have lots of areas where we need to continue to get better.”
“Specifically, we need to develop some consistency in our pitching staff and offensively we must execute better within our system,” Skole said. “If we can continue to improve in these areas, I think this ball club can be there at the end when the dust settles.”
The Buccaneers so far have been led by senior pitcher Kerry Doane, a native of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Doane has started three games for East Tennessee State, and boasts a 2-0 record with a 1.50 ERA. Through 24 innings, Doane has allowed just four earned runs, and has also thrown one shutout, a 3-0 victory over Marist, to give the senior his first collegiate shutout in a 1-hour, 58-minute gem in snowy conditions in Johnson City, Tenn.
Offensively, the Bucs have been paced by Clinton Freeman, a LHP/OF from Jonesborough, Tenn. Through 11 games, Freeman is batting .463 with 19 hits – two doubles, three triples, six home runs and 13 RBIs.
While the focus has been the on-field success for the Buccaneers, some of the attention has been on the team’s new facility, the 1,000-seat Thomas Stadium, which opened in February.
Unique to the new facility experience is a set of student condominiums, with apartment balconies that overlook left field, while the Blue Ridge Railroad borders the right field fence to make for a great atmosphere and experience for players, fans, students and visiting teams.
“This is our first year playing in our new facility and the atmosphere at Thomas Stadium has been outstanding,” Skole said. “Despite some of the brutal temperatures, we have had great crowds and student support, and it will only get better as spring arrives.”
To go along with the hopes of added support in the spring weather also comes the expectations of success as the Buccaneers enter conference play in the Atlantic Sun.
“Our league is very good,” Skole said. “We have great coaches who really work hard, and some really exciting players who can flat out play.”
The NCAA Tournament is the ultimate goal of every college baseball team, and Skole believes the A-Sun will be a multiple big league this year. But, in order for the Bucs to get to that point, Skole said it’s going to be a grind.
“If you don’t play at a high level you will get your teeth kicked in, so you have to have your team ready to go,” Skole said. “It is going to be an exciting race to the end and we hope to be right there.”
All photos courtesy of ETSU Media Relations