Saturday, August 10, 2019

Furman QB battle clears a bit at scrimmage

Furman placekicker Grayson Atkins booted a 60-yard field goal
during Saturday's scrimmage. Photo courtesy of Furman
Entering Furman's preseason camp, it appeared there would be a three-way battle for the starting quarterback position. At Saturday's first scrimmage, it appeared that number is now two. Redshirt freshmen Darren Grainger and Hamp Sisson took the majority of snaps Saturday, while transfer Luke Shiflett saw plenty of action - just not at quarterback.

Shiflett, who joined the Paladins this summer after departing Middle Tennessee State, took all of his snaps Saturday at wide receiver. That's a position he played in all 14 games at MTSU last year. While Shiflett has spent more time at quarterback than receiver over the opening week of preseason practice, Furman coach Clay Hendrix said that will probably flip moving forward.

There's a couple of reasons why. Hendrix said the one position he wishes had more depth at this year is receiver. Secondly, the staff has plenty of confidence in Grainger and Sisson, both of whom have the advantage of being in Furman's system for more than a year. Hendrix said they're also confident in sophomore Jack Hardin as the No. 3 quarterback.

"Luke's one of those guys who, every day, just seems to show up. He could play quarterback for us. I just don't know if he can do it this year," Hendrix said following Saturday's scrimmage. "He's also a guy who's never been under center.
"He's a big, athletic kid who's really bright. ... He's got all those things we're looking for. I have no doubt he's going to help our football team."

Grainger and Sisson kept up their strong preseasons Saturday. Most notably on display was Grainger's arm strength and Sisson's reads on tucking and running the ball. Hendrix said compared to last year, when the duo were competing to fill in for an injured Harris Roberts to start this season, the difference is night and day for both.

"It's not even close. We've been tracking all their numbers. We kind of break it up into 7-on-7 numbers versus team rep numbers and they're within two percentage points of each other through seven practices," Hendrix said. "They've both been really solid."

While the quarterbacks were solid and freshman running back Wayne Anderson Jr. shined, Furman's defense "won the day" for the most part. This was particularly true on third-and-short yardage situational drills as the Paladins front swarmed to the ball time and again, and forced a pair of fumbles. Taylor Hodge and Jonah Tibbs had particularly big hits to stuff runs.

Perhaps the biggest blowup of a Furman run play Saturday was courtesy of its newest defensive lineman, Caleb Auer. Auer, who began his Furman career at tight end before moving to offensive tackle, has switched to the other side of the ball for his senior season.

"I looked at him and said, 'did you hear that call?' ... He just kinda smiled at me," Hendrix said. "We felt really good about our depth on the offensive line. I think if you asked him a long time ago, that's (defense) probably where he wanted to be."

Once situational drills were done, the game scrimmage portion of Saturday's practice consisted of five possessions:

Grainger guided the Paladins down near the red zone on the opening possession. It ended when senior cornerback Amir Trapp made a great read and a leaping interception at the goal line.

Sisson got the next rep and that possession ended on the biggest highlight of the day. Junior placekicker Grayson Atkins attempted a field goal from smack dab in the middle of the diamond F. Atkins' 60-yard attempt went right down the middle of the uprights with quite a few yards to spare.

"It was one of those as soon as he hit it, you knew he hit it good," Hendrix said. "He's got such a strong leg."

Hardin's lone rep resulted in the lone touchdown when Anderson scored on a four-yard run. That play was set up when Shiflett caught a pass in traffic over the middle and raced to the left sideline for about a 17-yard gain.

With the staff already knowing what they have in running backs Corey Watkins and Devin Wynn, they really didn't get in the mix for carries Saturday. Anderson took full advantage of the opportunity to show off his quick feet. While the Paladins' defensive front controlled those short-yardage situations, Anderson routinely popped off 5- to 10-yard runs.

"He really showed up today, but he's shown up all fall," Hendrix said.

Anderson and linebacker Josh Agbenou are "the two (freshmen) who have really stood out," according to Hendrix. Other freshmen that Hendrix expects to "help us" this season are offensive linemen Even Jumper and Pearson Toomey, at least one of safeties' Austin Jones and Hugh Ryan, and at least one of cornerbacks' Kam Brinson and Cally Chizik.

Ryan, who had an interception during situational drills Saturday, is one of three Paladins recovering from mono. He helped Dutch Fork win the last three Class 5A state championships.

"I think we can get him out of the red (limited-contact jersey) next week," Hendrix said. "He's won a bunch of games and he's smart, which is a great combination. You always like having guys that are used to winning."

The fourth possession culminated when Atkins missed a 28-yard field goal before connecting on a do-over from the same spot. The final possession ended with the Paladins around midfield as the scrimmage wrapped up.

Overall, Hendrix felt pretty good about what he saw in the two-hour plus practice on a brutally hot afternoon at Paladin Stadium.

"I was pleased with how we started on defense, but our offense started slow," Hendrix said. "It's a double-edged sword. We created some turnovers, which is something we haven't been great at, but we turned it over a few times (on offense). What I do like is that we (defense) created them. We had a couple of good breaks on balls.
"We got a lot of really good situational work done, which we need. ... I don't think we got anybody dinged up. ... I don't think we've got anybody that's ready to play a football game conditioning-wise. We're in good shape, but it's just a little different when you've got to go play, push on somebody and have somebody push on you."

Friday, August 2, 2019

Donnelly introduced as new Furman AD

One day after being introduced as Furman's new athletic director,
Jason Donnelly addressed the football team following its opening
practice of the season Friday. Photo courtesy of Furman.
When Jason Donnelly was introduced as Furman's new athletic director Thursday morning, he said the No. 1 thing that impressed him so far on his visit was breakfast at Tommy's Country Ham House.

So Donnelly really became a Paladin a couple of hours before he officially became one.

Furman President Elizabeth Davis introduced Donnelly to full crowd in the football team meeting room at the Pearce-Horton Complex. Along with the shout out to the Furman Sports Report's sponsor, Donnelly talked about the excitement he has for his new job.

"I can't begin to tell you how excited my family is to be a part of Furman," Donnelly said. "It's been a life-long dream to have an opportunity to be at an institution with this kind of class and dignity. This is what I've been working for my entire career. I'm so fired up to be here.
"I've come to understand that Furman is unique, not only because it upholds the right values and bounds between academics and athletics, but also because of the people who make up the community."

Donnelly, who will begin his duties at Furman on Aug. 12, had worked at Villanova since 2005. Back then, he served as a men's basketball assistant coach and director of basketball operations on Jay Wright's staff. He was later a special assistant to Wright and helped improve a program that captured NCAA championships in 2016 and 2018.

"Furman is getting a hard-working, loyal visionary as its athletics director," Wright said. "His fundraising, leadership and loyalty to all Villanovans has been vital to Villanova's athletics and academic success."

Donnelly was director of athletics development from 2013-15 before leading the Villanova Athletics Fund. In that capacity, he managed fundraising and external support for all 24 Wildcat athletic teams. Since 2015, he helped the school's athletic department raise more than $120 million. That includes three consecutive record-breaking fundraising years that represented a 330 percent increase in money raised.

Donnelly's arrival comes months after Furman's men's basketball team earned a thrilling overtime win at Villanova, which vaulted the Paladins into the top 25 polls for the first time ever. The women's cross country team also finished one spot ahead of Villanova at the 2018 national championship.

"I think he thought, 'well if you can't beat them, join them,' " Davis said with a smile. "It was important for me to find an AD who understands Furman. One who has a real commitment to the kind of student experience we want our students to have, and that's what I found in Jason Donnelly.
"He was a student-athlete, teacher, coach, administrator and fundraiser. He has all the skills that we need in our athletic director."

Davis said one of the things that stood out in the interview process was Donnelly's questions.

"I know that might sound strange, but questions show a real insight," Davis said. "They can let you know how deeply someone has thought about where they're going to be. They were deep, probing questions.
"It was clear that he had done his homework on Furman and was excited to be a part of the Furman family."

Donnelly praised the work put in by his predecessor, Mike Buddie, who left earlier this summer to become AD at Army. During his four years at Furman, the Paladins won 26 Southern Conference championships and finished 73rd out of 294 Division I schools in the latest Learfield Sports' Directors Cup competition. Buddie also secured several financial donations, signed a multi-year deal with Nike, balanced the athletic department's budget for the first time, and led a charge to bring the NCAA men's basketball tournament back to Greenville.

For Donnelly, a New Jersey native, the Furman job also provided an opportunity to make good on a promise to his family. Donnelly's wife Rachel is a native of Bakersville, N.C. The couple have three children ages three to nine.

"Rachel and I have been married for 15 years now. She's only had one goal in mind the entire time we've been married - to live in a community of faith, friendship and love, and to live in the South," Donnelly said. "For us, this is really important. As a husband, I've finally checked that box for her. I can't wait to be down here, where we're literally two hours door-to-door from family.
"We hope that we're a part of the Furman community for a long, long time. We're excited to be entrenched in a campus culture that embodies our values and everything that we're all about."

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Paladins second in SoCon preseason polls

Furman left tackle Bo Layton, left, and linebacker Elijah McKoy represented
the Paladins at the Southern Conference's Football Media Day this year.
SPARTANBURG - For the second consecutive year, perhaps the biggest question for the Furman football team is who will be its starting quarterback. For the second consecutive year, that uncertainty hasn't fazed those predicting how the Paladins will fare this fall.

Coming off a share of its Southern Conference-best 14th championship, Furman has been picked to finish second this season by the league's media and coaches. The preseason polls were revealed at this year's SoCon Media Day. Prior to last season, Furman was predicted to finish second by the media and third by the coaches.

"We were sitting here (at Media Day) two years ago and were picked seventh, so it's nice to be (higher) in the discussion," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We want to be regarded as one of the better teams. That won't do anything for us. It won't make us a first down or stop anybody, but that's where we want to be."

Things are a little different in this year's starting quarterback battle this year. Unlike last season, those battling to replace Harris Roberts this year have some meaningful in-game collegiate experience. Thanks to last year's new redshirt rule, Darren Grainger and Hamp Sisson were each able to redshirt as freshman while they played in four and two games, respectively.

A new face is in the quarterback mix this year in sophomore transfer Luke Shiflett. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Dalton, Ga. native played wide receiver and punter at Middle Tennessee State last season and participated in all 14 games. In two-plus seasons at Northwest Whitfield High (Class 4A), Shiflett threw for more than 5,000 yards and 52 touchdowns and rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns. As a senior in 2018, he was his region's player of the year in football and basketball.

"We've got a couple of guys who've been in our program now for a year and they can do everything we want them to do. We've added a guy in Shiflett and we will give him a chance to compete," Hendrix said. "I think they've had really good offseasons. It will be an interesting competition.
"We really kind of know what we have, from an ability standpoint. ... I think their supporting cast is considerably better than it has been."

Whoever emerges as the starting quarterback will have plenty of experienced protection up front. The Paladins return all five starting offensive linemen as well as four reserves. Among those returning starters is junior left tackle Bo Layton, who was Furman's lone offensive representative on the preseason All-SoCon first team.

Layton has started in 17 of the 18 games he's played in during his Furman career, including all 10 last season when he logged a unit-high 574 plays. After being just the second SoCon champion ever left out of the FCS playoff field despite a four-game winning streak to end last season, there's plenty of motivation for the Paladins this year. Another motivation is to get off on the right track after starting 0-3 each of the last two seasons.

"We kind of want to pick up where we left off," Layton said. "We've had a thing the past two years where we've gone on a (winning) streak. We just want to keep that one (from last season) alive."

A total of eight starters return on offense, while seven starters are back on defense for Furman. That doesn't include the lone defensive player on the All-SoCon preseason first team - sophomore bandit Adrian Hope. As a freshman in 2018, Hope earned second team AP All-American honors after leading the country with 15 sacks. For the season, he totaled 32 tackles, 16.5 for loss, and five forced fumbles - all after coming off the bench every Saturday.

"Having a guy who can go get you sacks consistently definitely helps the rest of the defense," said junior linebacker Elijah McKoy, who ranked second in the SoCon with 91 tackles last season. "It takes a lot of pressure off people like me when he's drawing double teams."

It will be interesting to see what Furman's defense looks like under the guidance of Duane Vaughn, who was promoted to defensive coordinator after Chad Staggs left for Coastal Carolina. The Paladins piled up 61 sacks over the last two seasons under Staggs.

Along with a new coordinator, there are new faces coaching on the defensive side of the ball as Rod Ojong (cornerbacks) and Corico Wright (safeties) were hired by Hendrix this offseason.

"I think they've made us better in a lot of ways," Hendrix said. "I see losing a good coach as an opportunity to hire a better coach. I've been really pleased with what they've done."

McKoy believes it was important for Vaughn, who's been a Furman assistant since 2011, to get the opportunity to lead the defense.

"With him, we didn't have to completely change defenses. It was important more so because of who Coach Vaughn is," McKoy said. "He's been a position coach at so many different positions, he knows how things need to work. He takes the confusion out of a lot of things and he's an emotional guy. He wants us to be able to play, have fun and let loose. He definitely understands how that affects our performance."

Joining Layton and Hope on the preseason All-SoCon first team was kicker Grayson Atkins. The junior from Boiling Springs already ranks No. 10 on Furman's all-time scoring chart with 144 career points. After missing his first two field goal attempts of the year at Elon, Atkins didn't miss another the rest of the way to take a streak of 11 consecutive makes into this season. Four of those 11 were from at least 50 yards out.

Senior right tackle Andy Godwin, senior wide receiver Thomas Gordon, junior running back Devin Wynn and McKoy earned preseason All-SoCon second team honors.

The Paladins will report to preseason camp on Aug. 1 and open the season 30 days later at home against Charleston Southern.

"I like this football team. I like how we work. We've had a phenomenal offseason and we're fairly healthy starting into the year," Hendrix said. "There's just still a lot of work to do now until we start playing."

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Reflecting on Furman's historic hoops season

Furman coach Bob Richey
It's been nearly four months since Furman's record-breaking 2018-19 men's basketball season ended. For those who followed the team all year, the memories of the finale are probably as clear as if it was held just four days ago.

Furman and Wichita State lived up to the mantra of "playing like there's no tomorrow." After 14 lead changes, 12 ties and no lead greater than seven, Wichita State advanced in the NIT Tournament with a 76-70 win. You can read more details about the game in the story I wrote for the Spartanburg Herald here: Wichita State outslugs Furman in NIT.

That story was written against a tight deadline, but a longer deadline - maybe even a four-month one - couldn't have helped a story do that game justice. Quite simply, it was one of the greatest games Timmons Arena has ever held.

"What a game," Furman coach Bob Richey said in the postgame press conference. "That was a big-time college basketball game out there.
"I couldn't be more proud of our team and what they've accomplished. A lot of times in this business it's really easy to lose perspective, but what they've done is incredible."

With a No. 41 ranking in the new NET rankings that were supposedly created to help seed the 68-team NCAA Tournament field, Furman was hoping to return to the Big Dance for the first time since 1980. Instead, it was selected to host an NIT game for the first time in school history: Snubbed Furman excited about NIT No. 3 seed.

Home court was about the only advantage that the Paladins had as a No. 3 seed. In Wichita State, Furman faced a team that had went to the NCAA Tournament each of the prior seven seasons after winning the NIT championship in 2011. After seeing them up close and personal, it became pretty evident that the only thing keeping the Shockers out of this year's NCAA Tournament was an 8-11 start to this "rebuilding" season for Gregg Marshall's team.

Wichita State validated that thought by going on to win by eight at Clemson in round two and by 10 at Indiana in round three. In running their NIT winning streak to eight consecutive game, the Shockers became the first team ever to win three NIT games on the road to advance to the Big Apple. Their run ended in a 71-64 loss to Lipscomb in the semifinals at historic Madison Square Garden.

In his final game as a Paladin, Matt Rafferty capped off an incredible senior season with one of his signature stat lines. Rafferty had team-highs in points (27), rebounds (8), assists (5) and steals (5). Rafferty did all of that while still playing with a thumb injury suffered at the Southern Conference Tournament. After the game, Richey dropped the bombshell that Rafferty was also playing with a torn labrum - an injury he suffered a month-and-a-half earlier at Wofford and aggravated against Wichita.

"They don't make them any tougher than that guy," Richey said.

In a season full of chills, one last collection of goosebumps formed with Rafferty and fellow senior Andrew Brown checked out of the game with one second left. Each section of the sold out crowd - the ones in purple and the ones in black and gold - gave the winningest basketball players in school history a rousing standing ovation.

Matt Rafferty and Andrew Brown embrace
after their final game at Furman.
That crowd was a big part of what made that night - even with the Paladins' loss - so special. The energy the fans provided was a perfect soundtrack to the beautiful basketball performance each team provided. Among those in the crowd were a good number of Wichita State fans, who made the long trip on short notice. (Basketball is taken pretty seriously in the Sunflower State).

For longtime attendees of Furman home basketball games, it had to be a surreal sight. This was a sold out Timmons Arena on a church night for a game that wasn't scheduled until late in the night three days earlier. That could be the best indicator yet of the incredible transformation the program has made over the last five years.

But that transformation is ongoing. After a school record 25-win season this year, Richey is confident that its another step on the journey up - even without Rafferty next season.

"I remember four years ago we won 19 games and Stephen Croone was the Player of the Year in the league. All we heard that whole offseason was, 'they're losing the player of the year. They're going to take a step back,' and all this program did was take a step forward," Richey said. "We won 21 regular season games and a share of the Southern Conference title and then it was 'they're losing Kris Acox. What's going to happen? They're going to be smaller.'
"So then last year, they match the school's win record at 23 games and then it's, 'wow, they're losing their three starting guards and four seniors. This is probably going to be a little bit of a rebuilding team.' And all this group went on to do was win a school record for overall games, wins on the national stage that haven't been done in a very long time. You can go on and on and on about what this team's accomplished.
"This journey the last four years, to be honest, was pretty unexpected. But that's the motivation, the passion and the drive moving forward."

Wins at 2018 Final Four participant Loyola (Ill.) and 2018 national champion Villanova earned Furman quite a bit of national recognition. More publicity came when Jordan Lyons tied the single-game NCAA Division I record for 3-pointers, Rafferty obliterated the school's single-season steals record and the Paladins made the top 25 for the first time ever.

Opposing coaches have noticed too. Even in the moments after his team's huge victory and his 500th career win, Marshall reflected on the Furman program.

The Greenwood native said he grew up watching the likes of Jonathan 'Stitch' Moore and Clyde Mayes play for the Paladins and attended former coach Joe Williams' basketball camps in the mid-70s. He then noted the 1991 NIT team coached by Butch Estes before turning his attention to the present.

"This is a special win because of those circumstances and because we beat a really good team that's very well coached," Marshall said. "I can't sing Coach Richey and the Paladins' praises any more.
"I think what Bob's doing here is very similar to what I saw Coach (Bob) McKillop do when he got things rolling at Davidson."

Coming soon: There's one more basketball story from this season that must be told. It's a story about how the bond of friendship between Matt Rafferty and Andrew Brown got them through hard times off the court and helped make them winners on it.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

ETSU's late rally eliminates Paladins

Freshman Mason Kenney took a no-hitter into the sixth inning Friday, but ETSU
rallied for a 7-5 win to end Furman's season. Photo courtesy of Furman
One day after wasting a solid effort by a starting pitcher by blowing a fairly comfortable lead, Furman did so again Friday night at the Southern Conference Tournament. Unlike in Thursday's win over Western Carolina, there was no late counterpunch by the Paladins this time.

ETSU scored six runs over the final three innings, including three in the ninth, to knock out Furman by a score of 7-5. A Furman team that struggled with fundamentals quite a bit in 2019 before playing its best baseball down the stretch, had some of those same struggles reappear this week at Fluor Field in seeing its season end at 26-31.

The Paladins held a 5-1 lead through six innings before ETSU (34-20) scored two runs in the seventh and a controversial run in the eighth to cut the lead to 5-4 going to the ninth.

A pair of singles and a hit batter loaded the bases for the Buccaneers with one out for leadoff man Cullen Smith. After falling behind 0-2, Smith hit a groundball to first that looked to give Furman a chance at a game-ending double play. But Jared Mihalik, who's been solid this year after being pressed into duty at first base for the first time, couldn't field it cleanly. The ball trickled into right and a pair of runs scored to give ETSU a 6-5 lead.

The Bucs added an insurance run one batter later. Logan Taplett, who's been spectacular manning the hot corner lately, fielded a grounder and stepped on third for one out. His throw to first to try to complete the double play went low and wide as ETSU pushed the lead to 7-5.

After committing a total of seven errors over 10 games in May to end the regular season, the Paladins had eight in their three games at the SoCon Tournament.

Furman faced ETSU starter Daniel Sweeney, who entered Friday with a record of 6-3 with a 3.21 ERA. He had 70 strikeouts and just 12 walks in 73 innings this season. But against the strikeout-prone Paladins he only had one K in his five innings of work. Furman actually matched its season-low with a total of three whiffs on the night.

The Paladins took a 2-0 lead in the first on Trent Alley's RBI-double - his fourth two-bagger of the tournament - and Dax Roper's RBI-single. Taplett's sac fly in the third pushed the lead to 3-0.

Meanwhile, freshman Mason Kenney was mowing down ETSU. The lone Buc to reach base over the first five innings came on a two-out walk in the third. ETSU broke up the no-hitter when Cade Gilbert led off the sixth with a single. He later scored on a sac fly to cut the lead to 3-1, but Furman answered in the bottom of the sixth on Mihalik's two-run double with two out.

After Kenney had a strikeout to start the seventh, nothing went right for the Paladins the rest of the way. The next three batters reached via a single, a Furman error, and a run-scoring double that ended Kenney's night at a career-high 92 pitches. A wild pitch plated another run in the seventh to cut the lead to 5-3.

In the bottom of the seventh, Furman's Bret Huebner was hit by a pitch leading off the inning. He took second on a wild pitch before taking third on a sac bunt, but was left stranded there.

Then came the eighth, which Smith led off for ETSU. Furman reliever Jordan Beatson jumped ahead of him 0-2 before delivering a pitch right down the middle of the plate. As the pitch was traveling home, Smith stepped out of the box as if he was given timeout. The home plate umpire raised up, but gave no signal. Furman coach Brett Harker vehemently argued for some explanation as to what just happened. After the umpires huddled, it was simply ruled a ball rather than a "no pitch," making it an unbelievably horrible call.

Smith ended up drawing a walk. After Beatson struck out the next two batters, David Beam singled to put Bucs on the corners. Beatson was then called for a balk allowing Smith to come home from third and cut the lead to 5-4.

In the bottom of the ninth, Furman got a pair of baserunners thanks to singles by Banks Griffith with one out and David Webel with two outs. Freshman Jordan Starkes, who entered as a defensive replacement for the hot-hitting Alley when the Paladins had the lead, grounded to short to end the game.

Kenney allowed three runs, two earned, on four hits in a career-long 6 1/3 innings. He had one walk and five strikeouts. Webel was the lone Paladin with more than one hit as he went 2-for-4 with two runs scored.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Richards' blast lifts Paladins to wild win

Jabari Richards' 31st career home run lifted Furman to a 9-7 win over Western
Carolina at the SoCon Tournament Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman
In a wild elimination game between Furman and Western Carolina Thursday at the Southern Conference Tournament, the Paladins trailed by one when Jared Mihalik led off the eighth with a single. Attempts to move him into scoring position didn't go so well.

Jabari Richards fouled off a bunt attempt before taking an inside pitch that the Paladins argued hit him. After a video review, the umpires ruled it simply a ball. Richards showed bunt on the next pitch before pulling the bat back for ball two. Richards then showed why when one of the most prolific home run hitters in school history is at the plate, you're always in scoring position.

On the next pitch, Mihalik took off for second as Richards swung away. Rather than hit it where the defender left on the hit-and-run, Richards hit it where the defender never was. His shot zoomed out over the rightfield fence for a two-run home run that gave Furman the lead and the Paladins went on to a 9-7 victory.

"We got the bunt on, then there's all this controversy whether it hits him or not. I look over at (hitting coach Taylor) Harbin, who gives me the hit-and-run. I said, 'let's do it,' and sure enough, the kid puts a huge swing on it," Furman coach Brett Harker said. "You can't stop believing in yourself. You're always one pitch away, one at-bat away, one swing away from changing the game and helping us survive.
"It was a really cool moment for a senior to step up. If Jabari is playing the way Jabari plays, that's just another at-bat. But to pull himself up out of the way he'd been swinging ... when we needed him, he pulled it off."

The win advances fifth-seeded Furman (26-30) to another elimination game on Friday at 7 p.m. against sixth-seeded ETSU.

It was Richards' ninth homer this season and 31st of his career, which is tied for fourth-most in school history with Rock Hurst (1982-85) and Jim Morrill (1995-98). A day after Furman's 11-2 loss to Mercer in the opening round, Harker juggled his lineup and it paid off. After hitting just five home runs over the past 13 games, the Paladins slugged four on Thursday.

David Webel's first collegiate home run was a two-run shot atop the Green Monster that gave Furman a 2-0 lead in the third. An inning later, John Michael Boswell led off with a 12-pitch at-bat that included seven foul balls. That 12th pitch traveled 417 feet worth of fair territory, hitting the building beyond the Green Monster for his first home run since returning to the lineup following a 16-game absence due to injury.

A two-run double by Trent Alley in the fifth and an RBI-double by Banks Griffith in the sixth pushed Furman's lead to 6-0.

"We lived and died by the long ball today and had some big ones," Harker said. "Webel hits the first of his career. That's unbelievable. Bos hits one where the leftfielder doesn't even more."

With David Dunlavey in command on the pitching mound, the Paladins seemingly had everything under control. However in the bottom of the sixth, Dunlavey hit the leadoff man and Luke Robinson followed with an RBI-triple. Dunlavey got two outs sandwiched around a walk and Robinson still on third before each of the next two Catamounts reached on Furman errors. That cut the Paladins lead to 6-3, and chased Dunlavey from the game with a pitch count of 118.

Nik Verbeke came on and got a groundout to escape further damage. Verbeke quickly retired the first two batters in the bottom of the seventh before a four-pitch walk to Robinson ignited what became a stunning four-run inning that gave Western Carolina a 7-6 lead.

After Richards' blast put Furman ahead in the top of the eighth, Furman reliever Rob Hughes retired the first two Catamounts in the bottom half on six pitches. Once again, Robinson tried to start a two-out rally for WCU as he doubled. The Catamounts (21-32) loaded the bases before Webel hauled in a fairly deep drive to centerfield to end the inning.

Logan Taplett's sixth homer of the season provided a big insurance run in the top of the ninth. In the bottom half, Hughes once again retired the first two batters before a walk and a single brought 2019 SoCon Player of the Year Justice Bigbie to the plate. With Robinson looming on deck, Hughes got Bigbie to ground out to short to end the game. Bigbie, who hit .371 this regular season - including .381 in SoCon play, went 0-for-5 for the first time all year Thursday.

"That's the hardest that the third out has been to get I think in my coaching career," Harker said. "All those late innings, it was so elusive.
"At the end of the day, we're just doing anything we can to play tomorrow and we did just enough."

Despite all the fireworks that happened down the stretch Thursday, a pretty amazing play that took place in the bottom of the fifth could not be forgotten. As seemingly every inning went, there were two outs and nobody on before WCU threatened when Immanuel Wilder reached and took second on a fielding error.

Daylan Nanny followed with a sharp single up the middle that Furman shortstop Bret Huebner made a diving stop of. After the dive, Huebner rolled and made a throw towards home plate as he was falling on his back. The throw was a little up the first base line, but catcher Dax Roper caught it, ran towards the plate, and dove just in time to tag out Wilder trying to score to end the inning.

"It's one of the more incredible plays I've ever seen in person," Harker said. "I don't know if the average fan understands how much savvy it takes to throw that ball. That was pretty special."

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Paladins fall in SoCon Tournament opener

Trent Alley went 3-for-4 in Furman's loss to Mercer.
Photo courtesy of the Southern Conference
After winning its final four Southern Conference series of the regular season, Furman hoped to carry momentum into the SoCon Tournament. But in the fifth-seeded Paladins' tournament opener at Fluor Field Wednesday afternoon, any lingering momentum faded fast.

Furman batters combined for no walks and 10 strikeouts. Furman pitchers combined for nine walks and three strikeouts. And for one stretch in the third inning, Furman's defense had more errors in about 17 minutes than it had in the previous 17 days. It all added up to an 11-2 loss to fourth-seeded Mercer.

The Paladins (25-30) will face No. 8 seed Western Carolina in an elimination game Thursday at 9 a.m. Furman avoided trying to stay alive against top-seeded Samford as the Bulldogs rallied in Wednesday's opening game. The Catamounts led 4-0 with two out and nobody on in the bottom of the eighth before Samford scored a pair of runs that inning, added two more runs in the ninth, then got a walkoff home run to start the bottom of the 10th.

Furman jumped out on top in the first inning Wednesday. With two out, Dax Roper singled and came around to score when Trent Alley hit a rocket off the left-centerfield wall for a double.

Mercer (30-26) answered with single runs in the first and second before dealing Furman a back-breaking third inning. The inning started with the first two Bears reaching on groundball errors. After a sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk, the Paladins committed their third error of the inning on a dropped pop up in foul territory.

Furman starter John Michael Bertrand struck out the next batter and had a chance to get out of the mess, but his 3-2 pitch to Jordan Ammons missed for ball four to force in a run. Mercer No. 8 hitter Bill Knight followed with a grand slam home run into the Green Monster seats to make it 7-1.

Furman got a run back in the fourth on Logan Taplett's RBI-single, but the Bears piled on with single runs in the fourth and fifth and two more in the sixth to put the game out of reach.

The error-prone third inning Wednesday came after the Paladins combined for just two errors over the final seven games of the regular season. The nine walks issued by Furman matched a season-high last done on April 26. The 10 strikeouts at the plate marked the 22nd game this season in which the Paladins had double-digit whiffs, but only the third time in the past 13 games.

Alley went 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles, while Taplett and Bret Huebner each went 2-for-4 to lead Furman.

Knight finished with two hits and five RBIs to lead the Bears. Alex Crotty had two hits and three RBIs and Collin Price had two hits and two RBIs also for Mercer..