VMI on the Rise
By Patrick Hyde
for Big South coaches' survey results
years, Virginia Military Institute floundered in mediocrity.
Starting in 2001 – under
former coach Tom Slater, now the head man at Auburn – VMI has
The Keydets posted their
first winning record in league play in 14 years and set a school
record for wins in 2003. Slater left for an assistant’s position
at Florida after the ’03 season and handed the reigns over to
Marlin Ikenberry (pictured right), a former VMI catcher.
All Ikenberry has done is
led VMI to unprecedented success, setting school records in wins
the past two seasons and posting the school’s first back-to-back
winning seasons in more than 40 years.
Winning records and school
records are great, but Ikenberry and his team now have bigger
goals in mind.
“The NCAA [tournament] is
our goal,” Ikenberry said. “I’m ready to hang some banners
around this place.”
place Ikenberry is referring to is the Keydets’ 2-year-old,
1,400-seat, Gray-Minor Stadium, complete with a new $500,000
scoreboard. Coupled with the team’s recent success, the new
stadium is a coup for the fledgling program.
“We finally have the
facilities to compete with the big guys,” Ikenberry said.
Offensively, the Keydets
are going to need to find a way to produce more runs after
losing its top two hitters, Robert Crumpler and Eddie Van Es.
Defensively, the club returns seven starters.
The team returns its top
four arms from last season – senior Trey Barham, juniors Michael
Bowman and Chris Henderson and sophomore Chris Duty. But VMI
will have to replace closer Kevin Crum (14 saves), who
unexpectedly resigned from school in January.
“[VMI’s] rise has for the
most part been on the pitcher’s mound,” Coastal Carolina head
coach Gary Gilmore said. “Their pitching has been about as good
as anyone in the league.”
The strength of the
Keydets’ staff comes from a mixture of experience, dexterity and
“Our pitching coach [Ryan
Mau] has done a great job,” Ikenberry said. “Each guy has stayed
healthy and gotten better each year even though they were thrown
to the wolves as freshmen.”
Bowman, the staff’s ace
who set single-season school records for strikeouts with 110 and
strikeouts with 99, said that he would like to top his season
from last year, but that his ultimate goal was for the team to
win a conference championship.
“It’s flattering to get
the attention,” said Bowman, who went 6-3 with a 2.73 ERA. “But
I am more focused on the season coming up then the accolades.”
The main obstacle between
the Keydets and their first conference championship is reigning
Big South Conference champion Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers
are coming off a 50-win season and NCAA tournament appearances
in two of the past three years.
This year, Coastal is
playing a tough schedule in hopes of again hoping an NCAA
“We try to play a balanced
schedule,” Gilmore said. “We are never going to make it to Omaha
if we don’t play a good schedule.”
Coastal will be led
offensively and defensively by returning Big South player of the
year, junior outfielder David Sappelt (.359/10/50). The pitching
staff will be led by returning Big South pitcher of the year,
junior Bobby Gagg (12-2, 2.57). Senior outfielder Tommy
Baldridge (.383/15/38) joins Sappelt and Gagg as Louisville
Slugger pre-season All-Americans.
Liberty returns seven
starters, including four of its top five hitters, from a team
that finished second in the Big South tournament last season.
Liberty enters the season with new coach Jim Toman, who arrived
in Lynchburg, Va., after 11 years as an assistant at South
Winthrop and head coach
Joe Hudak return three of their top hitters in sophomore catcher
John Murrian, junior first baseman Eddie Tisdale and senior
outfielder/catcher Billy Froehlich. The Eagles will have to fill
the holes in their rotation left by the departure of Alex Wilson
and Jason Franzblau. They will turn to Ryan Schwartz and Josh
McDonald to fill the void.
Sal Bando Jr. and High
Point return their four best hitters in Jeff Cowan, Robby
Kuzdale, Alfie Wheeler and Chris Norwood, as well as pitcher
Bubba O’Donnell. The team needs to shore up its rotation if it
is going to compete for a place in the upper echelon of the
UNC Asheville returns two
of its top starters in seniors Alan DeRatt and Graham Baughn.
Offensively, head coach Willie Stewart will turn to seniors
Kevin Mattison and Elliott Arrington to lead the attack.
Charleston Southern lost
most of its top offensive players after last season and will
look to a mostly young and inexperienced team. Top returnees are
infielders Mark Perry and Will Rodriguez. The Buccaneers’
pitching staff is in much better shape returning Andrew White,
Payton Tweddale, Brandon Roberts and Cody Higgins.
Radford enters the season
with new coach Joe Raccuia, an alum who takes over the program
after several years as an assistant at Alabama and a successful
run as head coach at Marist. The team returns 18 position
players, including All-Big South first-teamer Alex Gregory.
Pitcher Eric Evans leads the Highlanders’ 10 returning pitchers.