PENSACOLA - Florida Southern is set to kick off year three of the Lance Niekro era this weekend as the nine-time national champion Moccasins open their 60th season of competition with a three-game series in Pensacola against 35th-ranked West Florida.
The 16th-ranked Moccasins, who have won 2,018 games since 1958, made 41 NCAA Regional appearances and have won 20 regional titles in program, will open the 2015 campaign with a doubleheader on Saturday, Jan. 31 against the Argonauts at 2 p.m. ET, and then conclude the series with a 2 p.m. single nine-inning game on Sunday, Feb. 1 at Jim Spooner Field on the UWF campus.
"We're extremely excited, especially coming off the year we had last year, about getting the season going," said Niekro, who is 53-47 at helm of the Mocs. "We feel pretty about our team, everybody's kind of buying into what we've been working on all fall and so far in the spring. Everyone seems to be excited and ready to go this weekend."
Niekro's third Moccasin team, that was tabbed to finish second in the Preseason Sunshine State Conference Coaches' Poll, returns four position starters, six pitchers and 18 lettermen from last season's 35-19 squad that finished as South Regional runners-up. In SSC play, the Mocs finished tied for third with a 14-10 mark. Along with welcoming back 18 lettermen, Niekro and his coaching staff added 13 newcomers during the offseason, including 10 transfers and three high school players.
It will mark the third straight season that the Mocs will open the season against UWF as the two teams played a three-game series in Pensacola to open the 2013 campaign and then played a three-game series at Henley Field in Lakeland to open the 2014 season. The Mocs opened the season with a 2-1 win in 15 innings in the first game of the doubleheader against the Argonauts, before falling 6-2 in the nightcap and then suffering a 4-1 loss in the series finale.
"It is always tough opening with West Florida. From both sides, it kind of lets you know where you stand and the beginning of the year," the Mocs coach added. "I have no problem facing the best teams and putting together a tough schedule. I think it prepares you for conference play and hopefully we play as we expect to and come out of there with three wins."
That one win for the Mocs over the Argonauts in last year's season opener proved to be beneficial as Florida Southern earned the final at-large berth into the NCAA South Regional Tournament over West Florida, who was ranked one spot ahead of the Mocs in the next to last South Regional rankings.
"I know with how regionals unfolded last year, they're going to be ready to play this weekend, as you are every opening weekend, but I think they have more of a chip on their shoulder than probably any other team in the country," Niekro said. "They deserved to get in last year, but that's the bad part about having a six-team regional. I know UWF was pretty upset at the end of the year, and I know they will be ready to go, so we have to make sure we are on the same level as them."
West Florida, who finished with a 34-11 record last season and tied for second in the Gulf South Conference with a 22-7 mark, welcomes back five returning position starters, two starting pitchers and 15 lettermen from last season's squad. In addition to the 17 returners, head coach Mike Jeffcoat has added 18 newcomers to his team's roster.
"I think they (UWF) are 35th in the preseason rankings and they deserve to be much higher than that," said Niekro. "I'm sure they'll come out this season looking to prove something at the very beginning."
Among the key returners for the Argonauts, who won the NCAA Division II National Championship in 2011, are junior infielder/outfielder Sean Plunkett and junior infielder Alex Greene. Last season, Plunkett, who was named a First-Team All-SSC selection last season and Preseason NCBWA All-South Region honoree, hit a team-best .366 with 13 doubles and a .481 slugging percentage a year ago, while Greene played in 25 games and hit .274 with 20 hits and four stolen bases.
Perhaps the biggest strength for the Argonauts is pitching as two starting pitchers and five relievers return in 2014. The top two returning hurlers for UWF, who posted a 2.50 team ERA in 2014, are sophomore righthander Walker O'Connor and senior lefthander Kevin Peters. O'Connor was named the GSC Freshman of the Year last season after posting a 5-0 record and a 2.86 ERA in 13 appearances and four starts, while Peters went 3-2 with a 3.34 ERA in nine appearances and four starts. The Agros also return senior righthander Alex Stevens, who is the team's closer. Last season, Stevens picked up eight saves in 16 appearances on the mound.
Leading the list of returning position players for Niekro and the Mocs are junior outfielder/third baseman Dominic Brugnoni (St. Clair Shores, Mich.), senior second baseman Chris Dennis (Rockledge, Fla.), senior catcher Joey Miller (Sarasota, Fla.) and senior shortstop Casey Eddinger (Crawfordville, Fla.).
Brugnoni, who was named a Preseason Second-Team NCBWA All-South Region selection and was an All-SSC selection a year ago, posted a team-best .340 batting average and recorded 67 hits, scored 34 runs, hit five home runs, had 42 RBIs and hit four triples, while Dennis tied for the team lead in hits (70), scored 47 runs, hit 13 doubles and batted .333.
Miller, who was named a Capital One/CoSIDA Academic All-American in 2014, posted a .294 batting average and had 47 hits, scored 21 runs, hit three home runs and had 27 RBI and Eddinger played in 45 games and recorded 33 hits, scored 16 runs, had four doubles and 11 RBIs.
"I think our biggest strengths this season are our offense and our depth," the Moc coach added. "Pitching, we don't have as many pitchers number-wise as we normally carry, but we've got a solid foundation."
Thanks to that depth this season, Niekro says that he will have the flexibility to make adjustments during the game depending on certain situations.
"We're fortunate to where we'll be able to make some moves in games, early in games, whether its righty on lefty or lefty on righty, or pinch run to get more speed on the bases. We feel very confident with the guys that we can bring in to do those jobs and then go in on defense, which we haven't really had that luxury in the past few years."
Niekro said that several players changed positions during the offseason thanks to losses of centerfielder Keith Curcio, who was a drafted in the sixth round in the 2014 MLB Draft by the Atlanta Braves, first baseman Trey Vavra, who was drafted in the 33rd round of the MLB Draft by the Minnesota Twins and second baseman Conor Szczerba, who has switched roles this season and is serving as one of Niekro's assistant coaches.
"Losing Keith, Trey and Conor are big shoes to fill. We moved Chris Dennis over to second. Chris is an unbelievable player, in my mind, one of the best players in the country," the Mocs coach stated. "We moved Blake Swann to first, who we were expecting big things last year as a catcher, but unfortunateley, he missed the year with a shoulder problem. We've got him at first and we're really happy with that. In center, we've got Sam Machonis out there along with Kyle Richards."
With the movement of Dennis to second to start the season, Niekro has shifted Brugnoni from right field to third base at the start of the season.
"We're looking at Dominic (Brugnoni) and Jason Sierra at third base. Jason just transfered in at the break," said Niekro, who was drafted in the second round of the 2000 MLB Draft by the San Francisco Giants. "I honestly can say I don't know what lineup I am going to write down for the first game, but Dom and Jason will be in that lineup, I just don't know which one is going to play third."
Other players expected to start on Saturday for the Mocs are junior David Lugo (Homestead, Fla.) in left field, junior Jhalan Jackson (Winter Haven, Fla.) in right field and junior Shawn Sanders (Citra, Fla.) will fill in for Eddinger at shortstop as Eddinger is out with an injury at the start of the season.
While the team's starters in the field at certain positions are still undecided, the Mocs pitching staff will be anchored this season by junior righthander Ben Richardson (Orlando, Fla.) and junior lefthander Brady Arenson (Glenview, Ill.). Another expected starting pitcher, junior Jason Carmichael (Cape Coral, Fla.), who is a transfer from the Univeristy of Florida, will sit out the first few weeks due to arm issues.
Other key returning pitchers this season are sophomore Craig Savage (Apopka, Fla.), senior Austin Barnett (Lakeland, Fla.), senior Casey Eskew (Sarasota, Fla.), sophomore A.J. Smith (Merritt Island, Fla.) and redshirt junior Jake Popovich (Danville, Calif.).
Last season, the Mocs pitching staff finished with a team ERA of 3.00, which was the lowest for the program in nearly a decade. FSC, though, must find replacements for Clay Chapman, Brian Johnson, Nick Krolczyk and Nate Carter, who were all seniors a year ago.
Richardson will get the starting nod in Saturday's opener. As a sophomore last season, he posted an 8-6 record and 3.14 ERA. He made 16 starts and threw three complete games and three shutouts, which tied a single season school record and in a team-best 97.1 innings of work, he struck out 55 and walked 20. He was the team's No. 3 starter in weekend conference games a year ago.
"Ben (Richardson) definitely earned the No. 1 spot in the rotation this year," Niekro said.
With the absense of Carmichael for this weekend's series, Niekro said that junior Stephen Brooks (Glen Allen, Va.) will start the second game of Saturday's doubleheader. In his first season at FSC in 2014 after transfering from Army, Brooks made five appearances on the mound and posted a 1.42 ERA in 6.1 innings of work. Brooks will be the third starter of the series when the schedule shifts to a single game on Friday and a doubleheader on Saturday format.
The third starter this weekend will be Arenson, who is a transfer from Palm Beach State College and began his collegiate career in 2013 at Coastal Carolina University. Arenson, who joined the Mocs prior to the beginning of the second semester, made 13 appearances last season at Palm Beach State and posted a 2-4 record and 4.06 ERA. In 62 innings of work, he stuck our 42 and walked just 23 batters.
Niekro said one of the team's biggest surprises heading into this season is Richards, who is a senior outfielder from Groton, Conn. Last season, Richards saw action in 17 games in left field after transfering from Iowa Western Community College.
"There are some guys that we knew were good and maybe have done better than we thought, primarily Kyle Richards. He didn't play a lot for us last year and this spring he's been doing unbelieveable," said the Mocs coach. "He's really worked himself into a position where we have to get him in the game every game."
Following this weekend's three-game series in Pensacola with UWF, the Mocs will remain on the road as they travel to Orangeburg, S.C. for a three-game series next weekend, Feb. 6-7, at Claflin University. The teams will play a single game on Friday, Feb. 6 at 6 p.m. and follow with a doubleheader on Saturday, Feb. 7 beginning at 1 p.m.