They may have to dodge a few snow showers and brave the chill in the air, but it is once again baseball season at Cleveland State Community College.
Following a 2012 campaign where Murphy’s Law seemed to take center stage much of the time, Cougars coach Mike Policastro and his assistants have been hard at work in the offseason, both on the diamond and the recruiting trail, as they try to mold a very formidable team for the 2013 campaign.
“We had a good fall, really since we got back in August,” said the coach as he starts his 19th season as the head Cougar. “We had a good nucleus returning with good leadership and we have a good class of freshmen coming in that have worked hard and bought in to what we are trying to do. Team chemistry has been really good so far, and up till now things have gone well.”
One of the biggest concerns for coach Policastro leading up to the first game on Tuesday afternoon at Roane State (1 p.m. non-conference doubleheader) is the number of ailments and if they have enough tables in the training room to take care of the wounded Cougars. Broken hands seem to be an epidemic as three Cougars, Ethan Davis, Trey Potts and Stephen Collum are all recovering from hand problems. Hamstring issues for former Walker Valley Mustang Chris Caffrey have slowed his progress. A quad injury for Tyler Kilgore, a back problem for starting shortstop DeAndre Allen, several assorted knee injuries and even a case of pneumonia have also plagued the Cougars in the early going.
“We’re pretty banged up right now,” the coach explained. “Hopefully, by the time we get through the first part of the season and get to conference play in March, we’ll get some of these guys back.”
Pitching, like in most camps, will play a big part in the success of the Cougars this year. The three-game weekend series starters for conference games have a hometown flavor to it as former Cleveland Blue Raider Jeb Scoggins will return and team up with a former foe from Walker Valley, Brandon Zajac, a transfer from Tennessee, to make up two-thirds of the rotation along with returning sophomore Thomas Huddleston.
“It all starts with pitching and we are going to be much better in that department than we were a year ago,” said Policastro. “We have some depth, some good velocity guys, some flexibility and we feel good about the possibilities of this year’s staff. They have all thrown strikes for the most part to this point and that is the key, and when we hopefully get everybody back and healthy we should be in good shape.”
Filling out the rotation for mid-week games and seeing time out of the bullpen will be another pair of hometown boys, as Bobby Towne moves down the highway from Walker Valley along with former Bradley Bear Jordan Whitmire. Filling out the rest of the pitching staff will be returning sophomores, Derek Chandler, Ethan Davis and Tyler Kilgore, who will all start and see time out of the bullpen while Towne, Whitmire, Hayden Bailey and Kegan Frederick will be in the mix as well. Josh Morgan will join the fray after recovering from a couple of assorted ailments and fireballer Andre Wilson is slated to be the closer.
“We feel good about our bullpen and the depth,” said Policastro. “We have a lot of good arms who can come in and throw strikes and we have a lot of options depending on the situation.”
Damo DeMatteo will return to anchor the pitching staff behind the dish as will J.D. Cowart; a third catcher will also be available as Jared Davis returns after a knee injury sidelined him last year. Davis will also anchor the middle of the lineup and serve as the designated hitter.
DeAndre Allen will return at shortstop and will once again terrorize the opposition on the base paths while a pair of newcomers, Dalton Rogers from Soddy-Daisy and Evan Speicher from McCallie are in a race for the second base job. Former Polk County Wildcat, Michael Hargrove will once again call first base his home as the big left-hander will also find a spot in the middle of the batting order. There will be a three-way battle for the third sack as Colby Harmon returns along with a pair of freshmen in Keith Buckhault and Chris Caffrey, when he heals. Randall Coley will serve as a backup first baseman while Michael Allen will see time at the middle infield positions
Freshman Zach Janes will patrol center field and add another base stealing threat to the lineup while Cody Hiefner and Chase Edwards return for their sophomore campaign and will flank him in left and right field. Stephen Collum, Matt Allen and Trey Potts will also patrol the outfield for the Cougars at times this year.
“We still have a couple of positions wide open and we will go with matchups and whoever has the hot bat at the time,” said Policastro. We will platoon some guys the first month and see where we are, and then get a couple of guys healthy, hopefully in time for our first conference games in March.”
“We feel we have a good balance of returning and new guys, both defensively and offensively,” the coach continued. “We have a lot of left-handed bats so that will give us a lot of flexibility in the lineup as far as matchups. We have quite a bit of speed so we can hopefully manufacture some runs along the way.”
The Region VII Conference race will be an even one according to the head coach, with any of seven or eight teams having a shot at making noise come tournament time. One twist to the season will come at the end of the year with a change in the conference tournament to be held at Volunteer State in Gallatin in early May. The regular season winner will get an automatic bid to the District playoffs while the next four teams will make the double elimination conference tourney with the winner advancing to the playoffs. This format was adopted in part to accommodate the final exam and graduation schedule of the schools.
“I like the new format, but it will put a little more pressure on everyone,” explained Policastro. “It comes down to playing consistently each and every weekend; you can’t afford to have a bad weekend or it could cost you a spot in the tournament. It’ll be interesting.”
After kicking off the year today at Roane State, the Cougars open the year on their home grass with a three-game set against Vincennes University starting with a doubleheader on Saturday at 1 p.m. and a single game Sunday at noon. The Conference season will open on March 1 when Chattanooga State comes to town for a three-game series.