The MTSU baseball team has a lot of tradition, but 2014 will start a new one as the Blue Raiders compete in Conference USA for the first time.
The unofficial first pitch of the season began on Tuesday with the annual 41st annual Groundhog Day Luncheon at Murphy Center. Second year head coach Jim McGuire is excited about the beginning of the season on Feb. 14 at Kennesaw State. The team has been able to get some work done outside.
“It went pretty well considering the conditions,” McGuire said. “We have gotten done what we needed to do. We have gotten our pitchers on the mound and our hitters to face pitches to get its timing back. Overall, I am really pleased on how focused they have been. They've got the mindset and know they've got a job to do to get their work in and get prepared because it is going to sneak up on us.
"I tell them all of the time we do not have time to worry about the weather. We've got to go right now. I feel good about these few first days of practice.”
However, it will be a tough road for the Blue Raiders, especially right from the start during non-conference play as they will face Kennesaw State, Dayton, Miami (Ohio), Indiana State and recent College World Series participate Kent State during the weekend series.
MTSU will also face Tennessee Tech and Vanderbilt during midweek games before the C-USA schedule starts on March 7 at UAB.
Blue Raider senior center fielder, Ryan Stephens believes the team is up to the challenge.
“There is a lot of good competition out there, and I think it will be good for our starting pitchers to face great competition right off the bat,” said Stephens, who was named to the C-USA preseason team. “Every year I feel our non-conference games are always challenging. Every weekend is a dogfight because there are a lot of good teams out here.”
Just like the program’s previous home (Sun Belt Conference), its new conference is one of the top leagues in the nation. C-USA is home to powerhouse and recent College World Series qualifier Rice, and this season is no different as the Owls were picked to finish first in the league. Rice will play MTSU at Reese Smith Jr. Field for a weekend series March 28-30.
Also watch out for Florida Atlantic, East Carolina and Southern Mississippi inside C-USA this season. Except for last season when Rice was the only NCAA Tournament qualifier from C-USA, recent history has shown the league gets several bids into the field of 64.
As with all of the teams on campus this year, the baseball team is excited with the move to C-USA.
“We are very excited, including the little things like putting the C-USA logo on our jerseys,” Stephens said. “All of the hype that comes with it with our whole school moving into C-USA, I really enjoy being part of the movement.”
The Blue Raiders were picked to finish ninth out of 13 teams, but the program has won conference titles in the past after being selected near the bottom during the preseason poll. This year’s team hopes to continue the tradition of competing for a league title, but this time in a different conference.
Statues to honor Stanford, Smith
MTSU's baseball players will wear a special sleeve patch honoring former MTSU baseball coach and university athletic director John Stanford, who died in July.
Stanford and another man who was instrumental in the growth of the Middle Tennessee baseball program also will be honored with statues.
The Stanford statue will stand in front of Reese Smith Field along with a statue of the man whose name graces the stadium, Reese Smith, Jr.