LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN -- With a tough 2015 season behind them, the Covenant baseball team looks to rebound in the 2016 campaign that begins on Saturday with a doubleheader at Greensboro.
This year's Scots, under 10th-year head coach Doug Simons, feature plenty of talent offensively, defensively and on the mound. 26 of the team's 37 players are either freshmen or sophomores giving Simons one of his youngest teams in the last few years.
"I think we have talent and depth to be contenders in the conference, we just have to play with confidence," Simons said. "We have three good arms for the weekend. We have potential to score a lot of runs. Have team speed at the top and bottom part of the lineup, so it'll be fun to see what the guys can do."
Even with the young talent, Covenant returns a few of its top players.
Senior Garrett Kriston will anchor the starting pitching staff once again. Kriston has compiled a 3.48 earned run average through his first three seasons and will look to continue that trend in 2016. Fellow senior Jonah Paul broke into the starting rotation last year and appears to be the leading candidate to be the third starter in weekend series.
Besides Kriston and Paul, the Scots will look to young arms to round out the rotation and spots in the bullpen. Freshman Matt Reitz was impressive in the fall and Simons expects him to be the No. 2 starter, while freshmen Ryan Gosney and Drew Bradley will vie for the fourth spot for midweek games.
"Reitz has been very impressive so far. He was our Pitcher of the Fall and is picking up where he left off in the spring," Simons noted. "Gosney and Bradley both have good stuff and will give us a solid fourth starter."
The bullpen returns senior Alec Mitchell and could also see significant contributions from junior Taylor Bloye and sophomore transfer Matt Herrin. Herrin comes to Covenant after one year of playing at Division II Montevallo. Additionally, freshman Grant Kierpa offers more depth in the pen- something that Simons has not had the luxury of for the last couple of seasons.
Outside the pitching staff, Simons and assistant coach Ben Wharton have had to be creative with their returners and how to best fit in young talent. Gone is the middle infield combination of KC Simons and Will Cleland, though Simons will serve as an assistant coach this year, and the Scots also lost outfielder Scott Gillespie to graduation.
The first solution was moving senior Perry Rigby to shortstop. Rigby has played third base for his entire collegeiate career, but Simons is confident that Rigby can make the adjustment and play the position well. Rigby's bat will also be key to the Scots' lineup. Sophomore Joel Johnson will move from catcher to third base. Johnson is already familiar with the position as he has played there frequently during the summers in Sweden. Second base is open for competition as several players will fight for the opportunity to start.
Caleb Bloye, the USA South Rookie of the Year in 2015, will be back at first base and in the middle of the order. Bloye hit .347 a season ago with 28 RBIs on his way to earning the conference's top rookie award.
Catcher, left field and designated hitter are spots where Simons has some options. Alex Kerr, Forrest Hunter and Z Arima are the top returners behind the plate, but Arima will not join the team until after the Covenant basketball season concludes. Freshman Jonah Carignan will also add some depth behind the plate.
Moving from center field, where he started in 2015, to right field will be junior Luke Harvey. Sophomore Devin Cerrato should settle in as the starting center fielder, while left field is open currently. Simons believes that sophomores Jay Epperson and Kyle Delk along with freshman Donny Lewis will compete to win the left field spot, or he could platoon the trio. Overall, the outfield will feature three players that all have the talent and speed to play center field.
At DH, Simons hopes to be able to use a catcher that is not starting or one of the left fielders.
Team speed is something that Simons is excited about when it comes to his batting lineup. The top and bottom of the order will feature players with the ability to put pressure on the defensive with speed. The middle will be headlined by power threats with Bloye, Rigby and Kerr.
Aside from the talented freshman class mixed in with the returners, Simons is excited about how his team has come together already. "I think this year, we have some of the best team chemistry we've had. The guys are going to play hard and for each other," the longtime head coach said.
The team's motto for the year bears that chemistry out even further: No complaining. No excuses. Work hard. Have fun.
"It's long but it fits our attitude coming into the year," Simons added about the team's mantra heading into the season. "We want to work harder than anyone else and grind it out. With the young talent we have, we want to establish that now and have it carry on throughout their careers."
After opening on the road at Greensboro, the Scots have a three-game home series against Emory & Henry on Feb. 12-13. Home games this year will feature live stats for all games, while live video will be offered for select contests. All links can be found on the team's schedule page or by visiting athletics.covenant.edu/live
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