CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- The Citadel returns seven position starters and most of its pitching staff as it attempts to return to the top of the Southern Conference for the first time since 2010.
The Bulldogs do lost two of their top hitters in outfielders Justin Mackert and Nick Orvin, but the combination of returning players, a key position change and an influx of talented freshmen makes this a lineup that will match up well against both right handers and lefties.
"I am cautiously optimistic in regard to our offensive potential, and our athleticism is back to where it needs to be" said Fred Jordan, who is entering his 22nd season as the head coach at his alma mater with a school-record 711 wins.
Jordan also emphasized the defense up the middle – a quartet that includes catcher Joe Jackson, second baseman Mason Davis, shortstop Johnathan Stokes and center fielder Hughston Armstrong – as well as the back end of the bullpen as strengths of his year's team.
The schedule is again challenging as The Citadel will play a total of 16 games against seven opponents who made the NCAA tournament field a year ago. The SoCon, which Jordan again feels will be among the top six or seven conferences in the nation, sent Samford, College of Charleston and Appalachian State into postseason play.
Senior Austin Pritcher will once again be the Friday starter. The right hander tied for the team lead with six wins last year, including a 3-0 shutout of UNC Greensboro, and topped the Bulldog staff with a 3.19 ERA and 61 strikeouts. In order to continue his development, Pritcher must improve his breaking ball percentages.
Cribb won three games and fanned 51 batters in 2012 and was the most consistent performer of the trio during fall scrimmages. Reeves was the most dominant hurler during the fall following a freshman campaign which saw him tie Pritcher for the team lead in victories. Connell has the potential to be a Friday starter in the future but must continue to improve.
Brecklin was the Florida Athletic Coaches Association Class 5A, District 9 Player of the Year last spring. Livingston, from Ashley Ridge High School, was the Lowcountry Player of the Year and selected co-Mr. Baseball in South Carolina by the High School Sports Report. Mason was rated the No. 6 right hander in South Carolina by Diamond Prospects.
Freshman right-hander Skylar Hunter has an exciting power arm and performed extremely well in the closer role in the fall, making him the favorite for the job this season. He was named on the top 500 prospects in the country by Perfect Game and the No. 10 right-handed pitcher in South Carolina by Diamond Prospects.
Three right handers – senior Ryan Hines, junior David Rivera and sophomore Zach Sherrill – have the ability to control the seventh and eighth innings with sophomores Connor Walsh and Ross White serving as left-handed specialists. Hines was the closer a year ago and recorded seven saves and three wins.
Sophomore right-hander Brett Tompkins will again be a spot starter but will see most of his action in long relief where he was extremely effective last year. Freshmen right-handers Zach Lavery, Layton Meachem and Zach Wimmer will be used in middle relief.
Junior Joe Jackson is back for his third season as the starting catcher and will be expected to handle as much as 90 percent of the duties behind the plate with the departure of the reliable Grant Richards. Jackson batted .279 with a team-high 15 doubles last year among his 20 extra base hits and built on his credentials with an outstanding summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League.
Sophomore Ryan Kilgallen will spell Jackson on occasion as the backup catcher.
Bo Thompson began his freshman season as the designated hitter before settling in at first base and finished the year with an average of .261 with 28 RBI to rank third on the team in the latter category. He has worked hard on his footwork to improve his defensive play at first, and Jordan is looking for him to become a mainstay in the middle of the lineup.
Junior Calvin Orth started 29 times at first base last year and batted .264. He can play either corner infield position, especially against left-handed pitching, and is also a leading candidate to man the designated hitter role.
Second base and the leadoff spot in the lineup is firmly in the hands of sophomore Mason Davis, who started all 58 games at that spot and enjoyed a solid debut season. He batted .266 and stole 14 bases, but the combination of his natural speed and improved technique should make him even more of a threat on the base paths this year.
Johnathan Stokes moved into the lineup at shortstop midway through his freshman season, providing a steadying influence to a position that has been lacking the last two years. Freshman Bret Hines, Ryan's brother and a member of the South Carolina all-state team, will be the third middle infielder and has the ability to earn playing time right away.
Sophomore Bailey Rush moved from shortstop to third base during the course of the 2012 campaign and has adapted well to his new position. He will be expected to handle the No. 6 spot in the lineup.
An important change to The Citadel's defensive look this season will be the move of Drew DeKerlegand from third base to left field. The junior played the position in high school, making the transition a lot easier. He will be expected to become a consistent middle of the lineup hitter and return to his freshman form when he batted .317.
Taking over in center is junior Hughston Armstrong, who Jordan called "the most improved player in the program." He started 24 times last year and is capable of playing all three outfield spots.
The incumbent in right field is junior Tyler Griffin, who battled through injures to have a solid sophomore season and will be looked to for stability in the No. 5 spot in the lineup. He belted four home runs a year ago, the most among returning Bulldogs, and had a total of 18 extra base hits while playing a steady right field.
Three other players will be competing for the remaining time in the outfield. Walsh was used exclusively as a pitcher last year but has earned the opportunity to content for an outfield spot versus right-handed pitching.
Freshman Jason Smith, the No. 4-rated outfielder in South Carolina by Diamond Prospects last year, had a tough fall but is an exciting young player who brings a lot of athleticism to the lineup. Bret Bullard is a fifth-year senior who transferred from Claflin and is competing hard to make the 35-man roster.