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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mid-major spotlight

Kendall Rogers        
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South Alabama coach Mark Calvi isn't real keen on needing long-term plans for building a program into a consistent NCAA postseason contender.

Not too long ago, the Jaguars were one of the nation's elite mid-majors, consistently reaching NCAA Regionals and even some Regional title games. However, that hasn't been the case the past few seasons, and it's something Calvi is desperate to change, sooner rather than later, of course.

Though the Jaguars certainly have much work to do to not only make the NCAA postseason this spring, while also getting a chance to advance to an NCAA Super Regional, there's zero doubt Calvi has this program headed a positive direction.

South Alabama, which enters its second week of Sun Belt play, has a fantastic 18-4 overall record to go with an outstanding RPI of 12.

"We had a lot of injuries last season, and we lost a lot of games last year. Coincidentally, there's a pride factor involved in something like that," Calvi said. "We're much more solid this season. The game starts and stops on the mound, and if you don't have quality pitching, you're in trouble in today's college baseball environment. We've really had that so far this season.

"Maybe we're ahead of the curve a little bit," he continued. "I'm not going to sit here and say I thought we would have this type of record this early in the season. But I'm really impressed with what this team has accomplished to this point. We've got a great group of guys working extremely hard toward our ultimate goal."

There are vast differences between this year's South Alabama club and the one that graced the field last season and finished with a 23-34 overall record, .500 in Sun Belt Conference play.

Besides the injuries the Jaguars sustained last season, it should be noted South Alabama entered Calvi's first full season as head coach with just 32 returning innings back on the mound and few returning position players. This season, the Jaguars have more experience, and some talented fresh faces in key spots around the diamond.

The offense is the first noticeable area of improvement with Calvi's club. Even with a tough schedule to start this season, the Jaguars are hitting .304 as a club. That's an impressive 30 points higher than where this club finished the 2012 campaign.

Impressive two-way player Jordan Patterson leads the Jaguars. At the plate, he leads the team with a .408 batting average, seven doubles, a triple, three homers and 27 RBIs. Meanwhile, his contributions on the mound so far this season have forced the Jaguars to ponder using him solely as the designated hitter as opposed to also being a position player.

As a pitcher, Patterson, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound, junior left-hander, has a fastball sitting anywhere between 90-93, along with a fantastic 1.50 ERA in six innings of work. Patterson was clutch this past Sunday when he struck out three in two scoreless frames to finish off a huge road series win over Troy.

Elsewhere offensively, Nick Zaharion, who was expected to have a huge year at the plate, hasn't fully regained the magic in his bat after an early season elbow strain. Consequently, he's only hitting .125 in 24 at bats, with redshirt senior outfielder Jeff DeBlieux doing a serviceable job in his place.

Third baseman Bud Collura and outfielders Nolan Earley and Cole Billingsley are talented hitters to watch moving forward. Collura is hitting .333 with 14 RBIs, while Earley clearly is the team's second-best hitter with a .321 average, 10 doubles and 27 RBIs. Meanwhile, Billingsley is hitting .319 with three triples and 11 RBIs. Also keep an eye on hot-hitting Dustin Dalken, who's hitting .373 with five homers and 15 RBIs.

"I would say we're much better offensively than we were last season. All of our hitters seem to be stronger, and most importantly, better," Calvi said. "They've worked pretty hard out there, and they all seem to be much more comfortable.

"Earley is the type of guy who rarely gives at bats away. He has 15 walks as opposed to nine strikeouts, so that's impressive," he continued. "But overall with this group, we have a few more guys than last season, so when someone gets hurt or dinged up, there's someone waiting in the wings to take their place and not skip a beat."

As impressive as South Alabama's offense has been so far this season, the pitching staff has been far more pleasing for Calvi when you compare this year's team's 4.20 ERA against last year's 5.63 mark.

"Our bullpen has been the strength of this pitching staff thus far," he said. "Though we didn't get great starts overall against Troy, the bullpen really stepped up."

Though ace Friday starter, junior left-hander Jacob Noble, was lifted against Troy after allowing three runs on seven hits in 1 2/3 innings, he still is having a great campaign. Noble, who has a fastball sitting 84-88, and has gotten higher than that at times, throws a two-seam fastball along with a changeup, slider and curveball.

Jarron Cito, who was a consistent arm for the Jaguars last season, still is trying to get into a groove this spring with a 5.73 ERA in 22 innings of work, while junior right-handed pitcher Brandon Boyle has been moved to the weekend rotation after starting the year out of the bullpen.

"Noble doesn't panic out there, and he does a really good job of not letting things he does beat him. Meanwhile, Cito has a better fastball and overall arsenal this spring, but he's leaving more pitches over the plate," he said. "Boyle is a talented righty to watch with a very good arm. He, like some of our other guys, has been 92-93 with his fastball."

Relievers Dylan Stamey and Kyle Bartsch are the big arms to watch the rest of the spring. Stamey, a junior right-hander, has been phenomenal with an 0.51 ERA in 17 2/3 innings of work, while Bartsch, a senior left-hander, has yet to allow a run in 10 1/3 innings of work.

Both Stamey and Bartsch are interesting prospects. Stamey is 6-foot-2, 186 pounds, with a fastball sitting 90-93 with some deception and plus command, while Bartsch has a fastball in the low-90s, and a good curveball and slider to go with plus command.

"We've been really fortunate to have a really good bullpen that steps in with short or long relief in tight situations," he said. "Overall, this bullpen has been pretty good this season to say the least."

South Alabama's starting pitching undoubtedly will need to be more consistent as the season progress, but this team at least has a productive offense to go with a good and very talented bullpen.

It's still early, but things are looking up for the Jaguars. Well ahead of schedule, of course.

Mid-major hot board

Central Arkansas: What a campaign the Bears are putting together this spring. They had yet another solid week that included a road series win over struggling Southern Mississippi.

Mercer: The Bears are off to a very solid start in the Atlantic Sun, earning an impressive road series win over Kennesaw State last weekend.

Florida Gulf Coast: Though the Eagles dropped an exhibition performance against Ave Maria, they're still having a fantastic campaign with a great weekend rotation, including ace right-handed pitcher Ricky Knapp.

Louisiana-Lafayette: The Ragin' Cajuns are having a tremendous campaign, earning a series sweep over Louisiana-Monroe last week. Though the Cajuns haven't gotten a lot of publicity, keep an eye on reliever Matt Hicks, who has a 1.76 earned-run average in 11 appearances and 15 1/3 innings.

Campbell: The Camels had yet another solid week on the diamond, beating East Carolina and taking two of three from Gardner-Webb. The Camels have a very solid leading hitter in Ben McQuown, who's hitting .408 with four homers and 16 RBIs.

Lamar: The Cardinals had yet another solid week that included a road series win over Texas-Pan American. Ace pitcher Jonathan Dziedzic continues to have an outstanding campaign.

Arkansas State: The Red Wolves had an outstanding weekend that included a series sweep of Arkansas-Little Rock. ASU has a trio of solid starting pitchers in Bradley Wallace (2.38, 22 2/3), John Koch (2.51, 28 2/3) and Daniel Wright (3.48, 31).

Canisius: The Golden Griffins are off to a fantastic 14-5 start this spring. Keep an eye on talented ace pitcher Garrett Cortright moving forward. Cortright has a 0.97 ERA in 37 innings of work. He also has struck out 27 and walked eight, while teams are hitting .204.

Creighton: The Bluejays are having a solid campaign so far this spring. Keep an eye on two-way player Jake Peter moving forward. Peter is having a solid offensive campaign, and has been up to 94 with his fastball in relief work.

Georgia Southern: The Eagles are coming off a huge midweek win over red-hot Georgia Tech. T.D. Davis had a strong weekend and midweek performance against the Yellow Jackets. He's hitting .385 with six homers and 26 RBIs.

Western Carolina: The Catamounts hit the road over the weekend and took two of three from College of Charleston. Tyler White (.353/7/22) and Cody Jones (.338/2/28) are having great offensive campaigns, while starting pitcher Jeremy Null has a 2.84 ERA in 25 1/3 innings of work with 37 strikeouts and eight walks.

Dartmouth: The Big Green remains the only unbeaten team in the land with an 8-0 record. Big Green starting pitchers Cole Suilser and Kyle Hunter have yet to allow a run in a combined 23 innings.

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