Valdosta Daily Times

May 1, 2013

Surging Blazer baseball confident heading to tourney

Ed Hooper
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA —  Look out. This team is hot and has a lot of confidence.

Ever since starting conference play with an 0-5 record, in the midst of a 6-game losing streak in early March, the Valdosta State baseball team has turned things around, building a lot of confidence along the way.

Since losing a pair of weekend road series to Alabama-Huntsville and West Florida, the Blazers reeled off 21 wins across their final 25 games of the regular season, winning six of their final seven Gulf South Conference weekend series, including last weekend when they took two of three games against second-ranked Delta State.

“I think it is a combination of several things: when we started the conference, we were the only team that had to play the first two weekends on the road, and we played two of the better teams on the road,” Valdosta State head coach Greg Guilliams said. “They were competitive games and we just couldn’t find a way to win them. And we started to get better throughout the year and we only had one returning guy from last year. We had so many new guys.”

Now, the Blazers (29-15, 14-10) are riding high heading into Thursday’s GSC tournament opener against North Alabama, set for a tentative 4 p.m. first pitch in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“If anything, the players have some confidence going into it,” Guilliams said. “Anytime you play in an 8-team tournament you have to get some breaks. Whatever team wins that thing, they are going to look back and say, ‘One pitch here or one thing there and we could have lost it.’ You really need some breaks in a tournament like this.”

Since that six-game losing streak, the Blazers have fought back, beating team after team, working their way to a 29th place ranking in the latest National Collegiate Baseball Writers poll, and a seventh place ranking in the latest South Region poll.   

Despite being ranked, Guilliams said he thinks the Blazers will have to win the GSC tournament to advance to the NCAA South Region tournament next month, largely because of the way they started the season.

If they don’t win this week’s tournament, the Blazers will fear being knocked out of the top eight of the region rankings, because of the automatic bid that is awarded to the champion of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC), which does not currently have a team in the latest standings.

“If some things fall into the place where the right teams doesn’t do well in the tournament and we made the championship game, it is possible,” Guilliams said. “But I don’t have a lot of confidence of us making it without winning the tournament after talking to who I’ve spoken with on the region committee.”

Winning the tournament, which the Blazers last did in 2010, isn’t out of the question, though. This team has won a lot of games lately, including two of three against the tournament’s top-seeded team, Delta State. These Blazers have confidence heading into Thursday night.

“I would hope so; you would think our players feel that way,” Guilliams said.

The Blazers open the GSC tournament Thursday against North Alabama, the last team to beat the Blazers in a weekend series. Regardless of Thursday’s outcome, the Blazers will advance to Friday and face either Delta State or Christian Brothers.

The GSC tournament is double-elimination, and a win on Thursday or Friday will guarantee the Blazers an appearance in the weekend portion of the tournament for the first time since they won the whole thing in 2010.

One large reason the Blazers have struggled the past two years is the transitional stage the program has been going through, going from a power hitting team to a quick, speed team that plays small ball.

That transition seems to be complete and it looks like the new era in Blazer baseball has arrived.

“I was telling Shawn Reed this early today: In 2009 we hit 110 home runs. This season we have hit 11,” Guilliams said. “In 2009 we had over 10 players hit 10 or more home runs. This year, we’ve had none.”

The Blazers’ one major home run threat is sophomore Bryant Hayman, the reigning Freshman of the Year in the GSC, who was also named the conference’s Player of the Week on Tuesday.

Hayman played a major role in the Blazers’ series win over Delta State. The sophomore from Waycross hit .412 with 7 hits in 17 at-bats, scoring three runs and driving in six during the process. He hit one home run in the Blazers’ win over Delta State.

“Credit to him, he led the Gulf South Conference in batting this year,” Valdosta State coach Greg Guilliams said of Hayman, who fought injuries in the beginning of the season. “He hit over .400 in conference play. Now he didn’t have the highest batting average overall but, if you look at what guys have done in just conference, he had the highest batting average in conference play.”

Hayman also led of seven Blazers named to the All-GSC teams, released Tuesday afternoon. Hayman was a first team selection, along with outfielder Matthew Fears and pitcher Benjamin Weil and Jeremy Holcomb. Pete Whittingslow, Nick Rodda and Jake Fields were all named to the second team.

Every Blazer baseball game in the GSC tournament this weekend will be carried live on Talk 92.1 FM, with Adam Smith serving as the play-by-play announcer.