|Brett Harker's third season as Furman baseball coach begins|
Friday against Morehead State. Photo courtesy of Furman
On the eve of Friday's season opener against reigning Ohio Valley Conference champion Morehead State, Furman coach Brett Harker said those expectations serve as nothing more than motivation for his team.
"This is the most excited I've ever been about being picked seventh because of the identity of this team. This team has a chip on its shoulder and its unity and leadership is the best I've ever been around," Harker said. "So you have that mixed with people overlooking you? What a sweet recipe to have a big year.
"We don't have any big names at the start of the year, but I think we're going to have some big names at the end. ... It's been a lot of fun to show up at the ballpark every day and we haven't even played a game yet."
While 17 lettermen are back this season, Furman will look to replace seven of its top 11 hitters from last year. Two of those seven were unexpected as freshman All-American centerfielder Ben Anderson transferred to Georgia shortly after last season and Jake Crawford suffered an elbow injury that will sideline him for the entire 2019 season.
Crawford will red-shirt this year as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but will still contribute as the team's first base coach. That will allow new assistant Andrew Cox to serve as a "bench coach" alongside Harker in the dugout.
First pitch of game one of the season is scheduled for 4 p.m. Friday. Saturday and Sunday's games are each scheduled for 1 p.m. starts - weather permitting.
Harker said the biggest change he expects to see offensively is the's team overall speed on the basepaths. He believes Furman has legitimate basestealing threats in six spots in the lineup (No. 1-5 and 9). Here's a look at the Paladins projected starting nine:
- Jordan Starkes CF: After Anderson led off last season, another true freshman centerfielder will lead off this year. Starkes was a two-sport standout at Northwestern High. He helped the baseball Trojans go 29-4 and win a state championship in 2017. In his high school football career, Starkes had 2,303 yards receiving, including a 74-yard touchdown catch in Northwestern's 2015 state championship victory.
- Banks Griffith 2B: Another freshman will follow Starkes in the lineup, but the last name is familiar as he's the younger brother of former Paladins, Ryan and Sims. Banks Griffith comes to Furman after starting all four years at Class 6A Gainesville (Ga.) High, where he's the all-time leader in hits.
- Dax Roper C: While one former Belton-Honea Path High standout is out of this year's lineup in Crawford, another one is in with Roper. Roper is a junior transfer, who hit .355 with seven home runs and 38 RBIs in 42 games at Florence-Darlington Tech last season. Harker believes Roper has the across-the-board tools to be a SoCon Player of the Year contender.
- Trent Alley DH: After going 2-for-17 at the plate in 2018, Alley has made perhaps the biggest strides in the offseason. Harker said Alley's hit close to .375 with some big power numbers in fall ball. "He's really made the jump we've been looking for him to make," Harker said.
- Jabari Richards LF: After hitting .255 with six homers and 32 RBIs last season, Richards is a preseason All-SoCon second team selection. With 22 career home runs, Richards is just three shy of entering the top 10 in school history. Harker said Richards has had consistently good at-bats this offseason.
- Logan Taplett 3B: For the second year in a row, Taplett will be filling the shoes of an injured player as he takes over for Crawford at third base. Taplett hit .273 last season and was a catcher for much of the year as Jason Costa's injuries limited him to DH duties.
- John Michael Boswell 1B: Harker said Boswell won the first base starting job this offseason, but fellow senior Deon Sanders and freshman Anthony Fontana should contribute there as well. Boswell hit .239 in 26 games last season and was 7-for-11 (.636) as a pinch-hitter.
- Bret Huebner SS: Huebner is set for his third season as starting shortstop and was one of two Paladins to start all 52 games in 2018. After hitting .143 over his first 10 games last season, Huebner finished the year with a .293 average, one homer and 22 RBIs.
- David Webel RF: After earning the opening day start as a true freshman in 2017, injuries have limited Webel's availability ever since. Harker said the "little sparkplug" is completely healthy and ready to cause havoc on the basepaths. Harker added that it's like having leadoff-type batters at the top and bottom of the order.
The Paladins return two of three regular starting pitchers, but will have to replace Grant Schuermann. Schuermann, who led Furman in innings pitched (81 1/3) and strikeouts (53) in 2018, has graduated and spending his final year of playing eligibility at Central Florida.
"This is the most confident I've ever been for our guys going out and making you hit the ball and throwing the ball in the strike zone," Harker said of this year's pitching staff.
Here's a look at the Paladins' projected starting pitchers this season:
- Friday - Nik Verbeke: Harker's "most competitive pitcher" gets the opening day start this season after sliding into the Friday starter role for much of last season. A second-team All-SoCon preseason pick, Verbeke fought through some nagging injuries last season to go 5-5 with a 4.50 ERA that was lowest among the starters. In SoCon play, Verbeke went 2-2 with a 3.50 ERA.
- Saturday - Matt Lazzaro: After earning a spot as a weekend starter to open last season as a freshman, Lazzaro is back and the southpaw gives Furman a righty-lefty-righty weekend rotation. Lazzaro went 3-4 with a 4.85 ERA before being shut down - outside of one relief appearance - over the final six weeks due to arm fatigue. He had 34 strikeouts and just 10 walks in 52 innings.
- Sunday - David Dunlavey: After going 12-1 with a 3.58 ERA at USC-Lancaster in 2017, Dunlavey was expected to compete for a starting spot last year before missing the season following Tommy John surgery. "He's come back stronger than ever and is a dominant force with a three to four-pitch mix," Harker said. "He's gives us some velocity we haven't had in awhile."
- Midweek - John Michael Bertrand: After missing the 2017 season with an injury, Bertrand went 5-3 with a 4.88 ERA in 16 appearances (seven starts) last season. The left-hander had just 12 walks in 51 2/3 innings and earned the team's Carter Grote award as the "heart and soul of the team."
- Midweek - Rob Hughes: Hughes is a 6-foot-3, 220-pound freshman right-hander who was a teammate of Starkes at Northwestern. Hughes was 8-1 with a 1.30 ERA as a senior, went 11-1 with an 0.50 ERA on the Trojans' state title team in 2017, and went 5-0 with four saves as a sophomore. "The kid's got electric stuff," Harker said. "He's going to have a really special career for us."
The Paladins must replace Tyler Kimbrell, who led the 2018 team in ERA (3.79), appearances (25) and saves (6), Heath Hawkins, who had a solid career as a reliever the past four seasons, and Crawford.
Sophomore Jordan Beatson appears to be in line to get the first shot as closing games this year. Beatson had an ERA under 4.00 until mid-April before struggling over the final month last season. He finished 2-2 with a 6.45 ERA and was second on the team in appearances (21) and opposing batting average (.275).
Harker is also counting on left-handed juniors Andrew Holweger, Hank Nichols and Jeremiah Garcia. Nichols and Garcia are new Paladins this season, but not new to the local area. Nichols is a 6-foot-5 transfer from South Carolina, who played at J.L. Mann. Garcia is a sidearm pitcher who played at Woodmont High and transferred in from USC-Lancaster. Bertrand and Hughes will also obviously be available out of the bullpen as needed.
One noticeable thing over the first two years under Harker has been some pretty cool games on the schedule. After playing a weekend series at traditional power Wichita State last season, the coolest part of this season's schedule is a unique minor league ballpark tour series against Wake Forest.
Game one will be held March 1 at the minor league home of the Winston-Salem Dash. The next day, the teams will face off at the Charlotte Knights' beautiful new ballpark before wrapping up the series at the Greenville Drive's Fluor Field.
That's one of six regular season games this season scheduled for Fluor Field, which has become the Paladins home away from home. This includes five consecutive games on the schedule from March 3-10 and a game there against South Carolina on March 19. While it's fun to play in a gorgeous minor league park, Harker said it doesn't exactly hurt recruiting either.
"Fluor Field has our logo on the home dugout for a reason. ... Obviously, if we want to win SoCon championships, that (Fluor Field) needs to be our home and we've got some good games there," Harker said. "I use downtown Greenville in addition to Fluor in recruiting. I was born and raised here, so I have a ton of pride in Greenville."
The schedule also features Big XII member Kansas visiting Furman for a three-game series over the last weekend in April during the Paladins' off weekend from SoCon play. The Paladins also visit former SoCon foe and Harker's alma mater, the College of Charleston, March 15-17.
"I could say that would be just another series, but I'd be lying. ... That will be a whole lot of fun returning there and facing their really good ball club," Harker said. "It's a challenging schedule, but it gives us a great opportunity to show what we're made of.
"It's not all going to be roses, but this team has the mentality to be able to weather the storms. I'm excited to get in the foxhole with them and start competing."