For the second straight year, an experienced pitching staff should be a strength for UNA heading into the baseball season.
Nine arms return from last season’s NCAA Division II South Regional team. That includes the Lions top two weekend starters, their closer and middle reliever.
Consider the five junior transfers UNA added, and it’s arguably stronger than it was a season ago.
“We are deeper this year,” said UNA coach Mike Keehn, whose team opens the season Tuesday at 2 p.m. at home with a doubleheader against Lemoyne-Owen. “Last year, we didn’t really have a lot of options for starters beyond the weekend guys. We always seemed to be scrambling for a fifth guy. We didn’t know we it was going to be. This year we do. We legitimately have five quality starters, who seem almost interchangeable. But you don’t know for sure until you play.”
Leading the group is Chad Boughner, a sixth-year senior who was an All-America selection last season with a 10-5 record and a 2.75.
Effectively the staff’s ace last year, he was slotted third in the weekend rotation as the regular Sunday starter. This season he will move to the front of the rotation as the first starter on Saturdays.
“I don’t think it will be a big deal, maybe a little different, but I should be able to adjust quickly,” Boughner said.
“We’ve got at least five guys who can start for us, probably more. It’s just building on what we had last year.”
Michael Watkins, slotted as the No. 2 last season in seven-inning games, will be the starter on Sundays in nine-frame contests. He went 7-2 in 2012 with a 4.86 ERA.
Cade Medley, a 6-foot-4 junior transfer from Wallace State Community College, will step into the No. 2 starting role.
Left-headed junior Eric Wilson, a transfer from Northeast Mississippi Community College, also could move into a weekend role, Keehn said, as could Daymon Eriksen, a 6-foot-3 junior transfer also from Northeast.
Sophomore lefty Brantley Claunch returns as the Lions’ top reliever after compiling a team-best 2.52 ERA, a 7-1 record and three saves in 31 relief appearances last season.
Also back is sophomore closer Ben Seabrook, who had 12 saves, a 1-1 record and allowed seven earned runs and 22 hits in 23.2 innings of relief last year.
Position players leave more of an uncertainty, and it could take 10 to 15 games hammer down a consistent lineup, Keehn said.
Four starting position players return: Andrew Almon, Josh Carpenter, Josh Cyr and Josh Doyle.
Almon, a preseason All-South Region second team pick by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, returns at third base after enjoying a breakout season and strong finish to last year.
Coming off a solid-hitting preseason, Cyr returns to first-base.
Doyle will move from right to centerfield. Carpenter, a preseason All-South Region first-teamer, also will move from shortstop to second base.
Matthew Tittle, an Austin High School alumnus and transfer from Calhoun Community College, will start at short.
“Josh had a good offensive year last year,” Keehn said. “He’s had to make a tough transition after starting at shortstop the last two years, but he’s done a good job. It’s just a thing where we needed to get that position more consistent defensively.
Another transfer, former Deshler standout Dylan Boston, will bring some power into the lineup at designated hitter. A sophomore, he has three years of eligibility remaining after playing junior college ball last year at Northwest Florida State.
“We have our core guys coming back, but we also have those talented new guys coming in,” Almon said. “I think that’s really going to help us offensively compared to last year. We were up-and-down a good bit last year.
“Dylan Boston, Bradley Noland, those two guys have pop in the middle of the lineup that’s going to help us.”
Catcher and the remaining two outfield spots should prove trickier for Keehn to fill.
Sophomore Hunter Thomas is working his way back from surgery. That leaves juniors Will Dennis and Thomas Lundborg vying for starts.
Meanwhile, the outfield might be deeper than the pitching staff.
Noland, a Northwest Mississippi junior college transfer, and Central product Drew Humphrey, a senior who saw time mostly at DH in 2012, are in play for left field.
In right, Wilson and former Russellville standout and Shelton State transfer Jake Ward are two of several options.
“The outfield is probably our deepest position by far,” Keehn said. “Getting those positions set is probably going to be one of our biggest problems. All of those guys have had good days (during preseason), but they are all left-handed hitters.”
Keehn and his players are in agreement about feeling good about this group. But even with the increased depth and pitching experience, making a regional tournament appearance could prove more difficult than before for UNA, which has made it as the No. 7 seed the last two years.
“The biggest challenge is that the South Regional has been cut from eight teams to six,” Keehn said. “With the level of teams in this conference and region, we have to be solid and consistent. There is no room for error. Hopefully, our returners and seniors provide leadership and understand all the little things we talk about. They have done well at this stage. I like this team. We just have to get out there and play.”
Bryan App can be reached at 256-740-5730 or email@example.com. Follow @bappster on Twitter.