VALDOSTA -- The new bleachers and press box at Valdosta State's Billy Grant Field are complete, but Blazers' baseball is still under construction.
The groundwork has been laid with five starting bats returning, but an almost brand new pitching staff leaves some questions to be answered beginning today when Valdosta State opens the season at home against Edward Waters. First pitch is set for 2:30 p.m. The Blazers are ranked No. 20 in the nation by the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.
"Potentially, we have a very good team... but right now we're just a contender," said Blazers' head coach Tommy Thomas in his 38th season with the baseball program.
If the Blazers are to contend in the Gulf South Conference East division, they'll need another standout year from senior shortstop Robert Morgan. The South Georgia College transfer set six school records in his first season on campus in 2004, hitting at a .436 clip with 32 doubles and a 31-game hitting streak.
But can he do it again?
"I don't know, I'm just going to have fun," said Morgan, who hit nine homers and drove in 53 runs a year ago. "I'm struggling a little to find my swing, but it's early."
The Blazers lost their leading RBI producer, Greg Connell, who knocked in 58 runs last season at third base, but Morgan returns in the infield along with second baseman Ryan Chromek and first baseman Josh Owsley, who will start the season at designated hitter because of arm troubles.
"Probably not as much (power) as last year, but we've got much more solid contact hitters this year," said Morgan, a preseason all-conference selection and an All-American in 2004. "The homeruns aren't something you really look for."
Davy Cheek, a senior from Albany, will start the season at first base while Thomas says he'll likely platoon catchers Matt Rucker and Brad Brown.
T.A. Danner, originally signed as a catcher, will replace Connell at third. Danner, coming off knee surgery, showed tremendous quickness at third in the preseason, Thomas says, and is a versatile player.
In the outfield, preseason all-conference pick John McDonald is the only returner in right field after hitting a team-high 10 home runs last season to go along with a .368 average and 57 RBIs.
Valdosta State will platoon three players in left and center, starting with Central Florida Community College transfer Brian Hicks in left. Juan Alonso, a former Lowndes High graduate, will begin the season in center, while Nick James will see time at both positions after transferring to Valdosta State in January. James, the brother of former Blazer Neal James, came to the Blazers from Southern University in Louisiana.
Pitching will likely be the key to Valdosta State's success as it was a year ago. The top two starters, Adam Lingenfelter and Robbie Wachman signed minor league contracts, leaving the Blazers with just one start at Valdosta State combined between their top three pitchers.
"The pitchers overall have shown they are not consistent with their control," Thomas said. "I think the difference in last year and this year, we're going to see a lot better pitching (deep in the rotation)."
Starting the season on the mound today will be junior Rob Petrucci, a righthander from Spring Hill, Fla., who Thomas calls 'Mr. Steady.'
"He has had the best performances in both the fall and preseason," Thomas said. "He has shown he doesn't get himself in trouble. In all of preseason, he's walked one man and thrown one wild pitch."
Jacques Wattecamps, who has been around the program for three seasons now, will likely be Valdosta State's No. 1 starter, although Thomas is saving him for North Florida next Tuesday.
"He throws with more velocity and he's got great stuff," Thomas said. "He does have the possibility of control problems."
Mike Martinez, a senior righthander from New York, is the tentative No. 3 starter, while Thomas says Bret Hart, a transfer from Armstrong Atlantic State who delivers with a three-quarter release, could be the Blazers' regular closer.
Nick Kitchens, who had two starts last year, and Lowndes High graduate Brian Bass, could play into the mix. Other pitchers who are either injured or are coming off surgery but could see significant time are Luke Taylor, Russ Crum, John Lewis, Brandon McNamara, Parks Robinson and Chris Weaton.
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