The MTSU baseball team wants to put the disappointing ending to the 2013 season in the past and get back to competing for a conference title and NCAA tournament berth this season.
However, the program will make the move from the Sun Belt to Conference USA this season. Like most college teams in the south, the Blue Raiders had to hold preseason practice in very cold conditions, but it is ready to start 2014 at Kennesaw State on Friday.
“It is a sense of motivation because we lost three out of our last four series,” second year head coach Jim McGuire said. “We were sitting in pretty good shape, and then things just fell apart on us at the end. We are using it as motivation because we got to come out and get off to the start like last year.”
Added senior center fielder Ryan Stephens: “I think it’s in the back of everybody’s head. We do have a chip on our shoulder from all of the comments that were made at the end of last year. We just got to be able to close out games and win ball games in tight situations.”
The Blue Raiders started off 2013 with a 9-2 record, including a win at Auburn and a weekend sweep of Kennesaw State. However, by the end of it, MTSU finished with a 7-10 record and it missed qualifying for the SBC Conference Tournament with a final record of 28-28 overall and 11-19 in the Sun Belt.
Now, the program is hoping for fresh start inside a challenging C-USA, and both the players and coaches have been happy with preseason practice so far this year.
“It is going great,” Stephens said. “We are still competing for positions, and that is what I like about our team. They are giving it 110 percent because they are looking for that job.”
This year’s Blue Raiders have a mix of five position players and 10 pitchers returning to go along with several newcomers from the JUCO and high school ranks.
So far, the clubhouse leader of the team is Stephens, who hit .329 with 11 doubles, four home runs and 33 RBIs last season when he was selected second team All-SBC. He also was selected to the C-USA Preseason team last week, and McGuire hopes he continues the success in 2014.
“It is a great honor for him,” McGuire said. “He had a great year last year. He has provided senior leadership as well. I am very proud of him to be in that situation. He was not highly recruited out of high school, but he wanted to come here. It was a great fit for us and him. He has been a great contributor all four years for us.”
Added Stephens: “I was not expecting it, and I am very honored. I try to take what the coaches say to me, and I try to put it in the cage.”
As for the Blue Raiders, they were picked to finish ninth out of 13 teams in the C-USA Preseason Poll. Powerhouse Rice was once again selected in the top spot, followed by Florida Atlantic, East Carolina, Southern Mississippi and Tulane. Tradition has shown C-USA could once again get multiple bids into the NCAA Tournament this year after only having one into the field of 64 in 2013.
"I am not shocked that we were picked ninth,” McGuire said. “Is that where I want to be? No. It’s all about where you are going to be at the end of the season, not where people are predicting. We have won championships before after being picked sixth or seventh either in the SBC or the Ohio Valley Conference. Things can happen, and I think we got a team that can compete right away.”
The Blue Raiders face Kennesaw State on Friday at 3 p.m. MTSU’s first home game will be Feb. 18 against Tennessee Tech. The team will also host the Mule Mix Classic Feb. 21-23 against Dayton, Miami (Ohio) and Indiana State. Its first C-USA game will be at UAB on March 7.
2014 Projected Lineup
Catcher: Junior Michael Adkins
First Base: Senior Trent Miller
Second Base: Junior Austin Bryant
Shortstop: Junior Dustin Delgado
Third Base: Senior Hank LaRue
DH: Junior Jake Ingold
Left Field: Junior Jared Allen
Center Field: Senior Ryan Stephens
Right Field: Senior Jake Ellison or
Sophomore: Trevor Haggard
Starting Pitchers: Senior Zac Curtis, junior Johnathan Frebis, sophomore Garret Ring, junior Nathan Forest, junior Matt Blackham and junior Brandon Zajac