LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN -- After a run to the regular season championship a season ago, the Covenant baseball team will begin its quest for a second straight NCAA tournament berth when they open the 2015 season on Friday against non-conference foe Emory & Henry.
For the first time this season, live video will be available for select baseball and softball home games, weather permitting. The link can be found on the schedule page of each sport. Friday's home baseball game vs. Emory & Henry will have live video available.
The Scots, under ninth-year head coach Doug Simons, return six All-USA South performers from last season and were picked to finish second in the conference's preseason poll released two weeks ago.
Covenant went 26-15 last year, 19-8 in the USA South, and earned the conference's automatic berth to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. It marked the second straight season the Scots made an appearance in a national tournament.
Gone are the likes of David Lockwood, Chris Rollins and Paul Phillips, but Simons believes his team has the talent available to make another run for a regular season USA South crown and an NCAA tournament berth.
"We are in a position to have as much talent on our team as any other team in the USA South," Simons said. "I don't believe we will be outmatched, talent-wise, in any game this season."
Offensively, the Scots should have one of the best lineups in the conference. Senior Scott Gillespie is the team's leading returning hitter after he batted .361 with 16 doubles in 2014 en route to being named to the USA South All-Conference second team. Senior second baseman Will Cleland hit .331 with 19 extra-base hits and earned postseason honors from the USA South, ABCA and D3baseball.com. Senior Will Carlton and junior Perry Rigby look to be Covenant's top power hitters. Carlton had four home runs last season to lead the team, while Rigby belted three.
Senior KC Simons is coming off a career year offensively with a .317 average to go along with a team-best 30 walks. Sophomore Alex Kerr figures to get increased playing time this season after he batted .394 in 15 games as a freshman.
"Every one of our starters has the potential of becoming all-conference," added head coach Simons. "We have three catchers who can all start for us, along with some freshmen who have the potential. Gillespie is our best hitter. Cleland and Rigby are also very good and I'm interested to see how Kerr plays with more playing time."
Defensively, the Scots are strong. Simons and Cleland will be in their fourth year of the double-play tandem up the middle infield, while the outfield boasts players with both speed and strong arms.
"Our whole infield is the best defensive infield out there, while also filled with guys who had a lot of offensive success," remarked Simons. "I wouldn't trade them for anyone. I feel our outfield will be stronger this year, both offensively and defensively, as long as we stay healthy."
On the mound, Covenant returns two top starters. Junior Garrett Kriston was masterful at times last season compiling a 7-3 record with a 3.57 ERA, while throwing a program-record 75.2 innings, and was an All-USA South first team selection. Kriston began the year with 17.1 scoreless innings and had four starts with at least 10 strikeouts. Senior Micah Mabe will look to return to his all-american form from 2013 after a tough season in 2014. Mabe went 4-2 with an ERA of 4.31 in 56.1 innings of work.
"I believe we have two number one starters," Simons said of his top two returning pitchers. "I'd match them up against any two starters we play against."
The third spot in the rotation is up for grabs as the season draws closer. Sophomore Jordan Lester along with junior Jonah Paul and newcomers could compete for the last start of a weekend conference series.
The recruiting class brought in by Simons will add depth to the team. Junior transfer Ryan Reilly (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) could be a big boost for the Scots with his ability to roam center field and provide another quality bat in the lineup. Freshman catcher Joel Johnson (Montgomery, Ala.) adds depth behind the plate while freshman Caleb Bloye (Dallas, Ga.), cousin of sophomore Taylor Bloye, has talent on the mound and as a hitter. Several other freshmen could also see significant playing time.
With high expectations, Simons has his team taking the same approach they have every other year.
"Obviously, we would like to win every game we play. We can't control winning, but we can control the process of how we play. We try to win each pitch, each series of pitches which then turns into plays and series of plays."
After a three-game weekend series with Emory & Henry, Covenant opens up its defense of the USA South with a three-game series vs. Methodist on Feb. 13-14 at home.