|Furman ace Grant Schuermann will get the opening day start Friday|
when the Paladins begin the 2018 season against Marist at 4 p.m.
Gone are Colorado Rockies' third-round draft pick Will Gaddis as well as outfielder Carter Grote, who may have had more moxie than anyone to ever wear a Furman uniform. Other key starters who've graduated include catcher Cam Whitehead and outfielder Sky Overton. These players helped lead the 2017 Paladins to a school-record 33 wins in a season and a spot in the final game of the SoCon Tournament.
Picked to finish fourth in the SoCon by the league's media and sixth by the coaches in the preseason, Furman will kick off the season with a three-game series against Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference preseason favorite Marist beginning Friday at 4 p.m. at Latham Stadium.
"One of the biggest things that we keep talking about is that we've got to have some serious grit. We don't think we're quite as talented as we were last year. But with the leadership and experience we have, if we have a little grit and refuse to let ups and downs get to us, I think we can be very successful," Furman coach Brett Harker said. "We definitely still have enough talent to do it. ... We can embrace being the underdog that's getting overlooked and use it to our advantage."
While Gaddis capped off his spectacular career with another great season last year, it was Schuermann who commanded the Friday starting spot by season's end and he will resume that role in the season opener. Coming back from Tommy John surgery that cost him the 2016 season, Schuermann went 4-0 with an 0.71 ERA over his final five starts last season capped by a 6-1 win over regular season champion Mercer at the SoCon Tournament.
After Schuermann, the weekend rotation consists of junior right-hander Jake Crawford Saturday and true freshman lefty Matt Lazzaro on Sunday. Junior Heath Hawkins, whose been Furman's best reliever, was expected to challenge for a starting spot. However, Hawkins has been dealing with a nagging bicep injury that Harker said will likely see him need to build up arm strength coming out of the bullpen again. The left-right-left rotation gives the Paladins a new look that Harker believes could be a benefit.
"It's something we haven't been able to do since I've been here, so it'll be nice to switch it up," Harker said. "Schuermann and Lazzaro are very similar, so it's kind of nice to put in a righty that's completely opposite in between with Jake being a harder thrower with a big breaking ball.
"Lazzaro has flat out earned his spot. To earn that spot as a weekend starter for a freshman isn't easy to do. He's not only going to have a bright future with us, I think he's going to have an immediate impact and win us a lot of games as a freshman."
In a sport where defense is often overlooked but can prove very detrimental when not played well, Harker is happy to have his starting infield back intact. It's led by All-SoCon first baseman Brandon Elmy (.341, 11 HR, 49 RBI), who had his terrific 2017 season end with a hamstring injury with two games left in the regular season. Other starting infielders include Sims Griffith at second, Bret Huebner at shortstop and Crawford at third.
Senior Jason Costa (.318/5/21) takes over behind the plate in place of Whitehead. Costa made 33 starts, including 17 at catcher last year.
The Paladins should also receive a boost from first baseman Deon Sanders, who will miss the first portion of the season due to spring football practice. He hit seven home runs and played terrific defense in replacing an injured Elmy as a freshman in 2016, before missing last season with an injury.
In the outfield, preseason All-SoCon pick Landon Kay (.332/11/37) is back in right while Jabari Richards (.304/6/30) mans left. In center, it will either be redshirt freshman David Webel or highly-touted true freshman Ben Davidson. Webel was an opening-day starter last season and hit .333 over six starts before having his season cut short by injury.
"We've got a lot of innings returning in the infield. Our right side has been starting for three years and we feel good about that," Harker said. "I think the strength of our program is our outfield. We've got four outfielders who are going to make it hard to decide who to put out there. I think we're pretty fast and we will be able to cover some ground out there."
This weekend's games will be live streamed on the SoCon Digital Network. When not conflicting with men's basketball, audio streams will be available on TuneIn Radio and IHeartRadio.com and WPLS-FM 95.9 in the Furman area. Links are available at FurmanPaladins.com.
Single-game tickets are $5, while season tickets for all 30 home games - including Fluor Field contests against Clemson and South Carolina - are available for $50 at FurmanPaladins.com.
For the second season in a row, I'll be providing recaps of each game, as well as features and notes throughout the season here at furmansportsreport.com.
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