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College Baskeball: Catawba will have a new look

By Mike London

Salisbury Post

Catawba’s baseball team is coming off a storybook year in which it rolled to a 47-14 record and earned top-10 recognition in national polls.

Catawba shared the SAC regular-season title, ruled the SAC tournament and was runner-up in the regional tournament.

The Indians set a school record for wins and didn’t fatten up on cupcakes. They opened at defending national champion Florida Southern and finished against eventual national champion Tampa.

“I’m not sure if anyone’s ever started and ended like that,” said coach Jim Gantt, who has won 78 percent of the time since taking the reins of the Indians in 1997.

Gantt’s latest squad won’t match the 93 homers the Indians blasted last season. Catawba has swapped power for speed and will play more little-ball. It will manufacture runs instead of waiting for a bopper to launch a three-run homer.

“We’ll have to run more and bunt more,” Gantt said. “There were times we scored in the teens or 20s last year. That’s unheard of, something we may never see again. But the style we’ll have to play is the kind of baseball I enjoy coaching.”

Gantt, who will be assisted by Michael Lowman and Dusty Blake, didn’t just roll out of bed one morning and decide he was weary of watching home-run trots. His change in philosophy is dictated by a revised roster.

Gone are designated hitter Jimbo Davis and first baseman Aaron Rimer, who clouted 30 homers between them.

Gone are the slugging Smith twins, Matt and Mark, who combined for 121 RBIs.

Gone is Nick Lefko, who sparkled in right and hit .347.

Gone is lefty reliever Brian Benton, least famous of last year’s seniors, but as important as the stars. He made 27 appearances, many in game-deciding situations.

Beyond the numbers, Catawba lost enough leadership to fill Yankee Stadium.

“The seniors we lost, you’re not gonna replace them,” Gantt said. “A key to this year’s team is understanding they aren’t last year’s team. They have to do the things that they can do well and go out and make their own name.”

Pitching is the constant. It was superb last year, even in hitter-friendly Newman Park, and should be again.

While the run support was outlandish, the numbers posted by returners Tim Smith (13-1, 3.99 ERA), Alex Fairweather (9-2. 3.57) and Blake Ketner (8-3, 3.38) speak for themselves. All three have gotten physically stronger.

“We expect pitching to be the strong point — it has to be,” Gantt said. “If those guys don’t get it done, we don’t win.”

Smith, who broke the school record for victories, was SAC Pitcher of the Year and Honorable Mention All-America. Over the summer, he was 4-0 in Alaska against mostly Division I competition.

Fairweather made All-SAC second team and pitched brilliantly against Tusculum, Catawba’s chief competition, in the SAC tournament.

Ketner, who made the South Regional all-tournament team, was fantastic over the summer for Kannapolis’ American Legion team.

Left-hander Paul Link will play an important role as a fourth starter and long reliever. Link, catcher Brian Sommer and shortstop/closer Zach Evans are the only seniors. Link has dedicated himself to having a huge final season and has refined his changeup.

Matt Seabolt, a big right-hander with a nasty splitter, had a great run in the regional tournament. He can start or relieve.

Evans, who fires bullets on short notice, will close again. He had three wins and seven saves.

Chad Baker, the starting second baseman, could be the main set-up man for Evans.

Newcomers Lee Dupre, Travis McSweeney, Keith Carrigan and Cliff Poole add to the staff’s depth.

Gantt hopes the left-handed Dupre can fill Benton’s role, and he also may start. Carrigan is a tall southpaw. McSweeney has a polished curveball. Poole wasn’t recruited but has impressed since arriving from Guilford Tech.

Catawba’s lineup will be built around two returning outfielders coming off phenomenal seasons.

Switch-hitting junior center fielder David Thomas is arguably the league’s most consistent player. For Thomas, 0-for-3 is a serious slump. He was SAC tournament MVP, batted .413 and registered a SAC-record 100 hits.

Thomas has been the lead-off man for two years, but he doesn’t hit just singles. He had 11 homers and 23 doubles and turned some singles into doubles by swiping 27 bases.

If Thomas isn’t the SAC’s best player, it’s sophomore left fielder Jerry Sands, who is blessed with the whole package — size, breath-taking power, good speed and a superb throwing arm. He was a third-team All-American and SAC Freshman of the Year. Sands hit 16 balls into the trees, batted .399, drove in 65 runs and gunned down 13 baserunners.

“There’s no reason to think Jerry won’t be better, but he has to realize he may not put up the same kind of numbers he had last year,” Gantt said.

The challenge for Gantt is to give opposing hurlers a reason to offer Thomas and Sands something to swing at.

Gantt has pondered moving Thomas to third in front of Sands, so both can’t be pitched around. But for that to happen, someone has to emerge as a bona fide lead-off man.

The vacancy in right field is being contested by veteran reserve Matt Kepley and freshman Zeb Link. Both have plenty of speed.

Also in the outfield mix are freshman Jacen Killebrew, veteran Jared Temple and football receiver Lee Page, who is shaking off rust after a two-year detour from baseball.

Freshman Brett Hatley, the only lefty hitter, has shown enough with his bat and mitt that he’ll likely start at first base. He can also pitch.

Freshman Matt Walker is another first-base candidate. He has light-tower power and is making strides on defense.

At second base, Baker (.300, 36 RBIs) is as solid as the brick walls at Newman Park.

Freshman Andrew O’Neal is recovering from shoulder surgery and working mostly at second base. He has ideal lead-off speed.

Evans, who has soft hands and pop in his bat, is counted on as the regular shortstop.

Freshman Craige Lyerly offers great wheels and highlight-film defense. He has the inside track at third base.

Veteran infielder Bubba Morris has looked sharp. He’ll see time at second and short.

Catching could be strong, even without Matt Smith. Sommer has experience and a good bat. Ryan Query throws well, hits line drives and may wind up being the guy who protects Sands. Kevin McMillan, who played summer ball in Alaska, is a skilled receiver and will see plenty of action.

The Indians open Friday against Wingate at Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium, with a bull’s eye on their jerseys and a No. 28 preseason national ranking.

That ranking is based partly on 2006 but also on the knowledge that Catawba is always a contender.

The Indians will find out just how good they are right away. They play four games Feb. 9-11 at Tampa, the preseason No. 1 in Division II.

*

Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or mlondon@salisburypost.com.

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