With only 11 returning players, the Lee University baseball team could have a hard time finishing in the top three of the NAIA World Series for the fifth time in Mark Brew's six years as head coach.
But no one should bet against the Cleveland-based Flames, who entered the season as the No. 3-ranked team in the NAIA and opened Friday with two wins against Talladega College, 14-2, 4-1.
"No doubt we lost a lot of key players, but we feel confident we have been able to replace them with another strong recruiting class," said Brew, whose first five seasons produced a 270-66 record. "I have been very impressed with this team's overall attitude and work ethic. They simply are working at a higher rate than any of our teams in the past."
Senior returners Roberto Reyes and Preston Scoggins return at first and third base after strong offensive junior years, but they are challenged by juniors Corey Davis and Roberto Duran. Junior Edmanuel Rivera is the shortstop, backed up by senior Max Harvell, who also is competing at second with freshman Adam Lee, juniors Matt Ellis and Brandon Rader and senior transfer Blake Barber from Cal State Fullerton.
Junior Jorge Saez and senior Taylor Comford provide experience behind the plate, and freshman James Fowlkes from Soddy-Daisy is a backup there and an outfield candidate. Two fleet junior center-field possibilities, Chris Avey and Brady Renner, head a deep outfield that also includes senior Lindenwood transfer Mike Moore and left-handed-batting junior Trevor Burgess and sophomore Cameron Brewster.
As for the pitchers, junior right-hander Kris Hall has transitioned from closer to a highly regarded starter, and lefty Patrick Merkling from Chattanooga State and fellow junior transfer Vince Spilker both were pro draftees last June. Junior Jose Samayoa also was a winner at the two-year level, and returning junior lefties David Eskew and James Rechenbach are in the mix as well.
Another Lee transfer who has been drafted is sophomore Andy Hills from the University of Tennessee.
In Friday's games, Avey and Reyes each drove in three runs and Hall struck out seven in five innings pitched in game one, while in the second game, Merkling struck out five in four innings of work and got RBI hits from Davais, Saez and Renner.
Scheduled to open its baseball season today at West Georgia Tech, Cleveland State has three position-player regulars and three pitchers with significant mound time back from the 2010 team that went 28-24 overall and 15-15 in the TCCAA.
Right-handers Ross Spurgeon and Hunter Hammond and lefty Jared Burton are the experienced Cougars pitchers, but Burton has a strained elbow ligament and likely will miss a month or more, according to Mike Policastro, but the veteran coach likes the possibilities for such freshmen as Derek Chandler, Zach Taylor and Tyler Sexton as starters and said Tyler Kilgore from Sequatchie County and Jeb Scoggins from Cleveland High.
Grant Zawadzki is the returning shortstop but will get a late season start because of injury, so freshman DeAndre Allen from Sequoyah High is working there and also a second baseman, and freshmen Randall Coley and Colby Harmon are competing at third base and Damo DeMatteo and Jared Davis are solid freshman catchers.
Sophomore Cody Commons is in center field, and Derek Shugart will play a lot again while redshirt freshman Cody Hiefnar and freshmen Chase Edwards and Devin Fish also are in the outfield mix.