LAKELAND - The Florida Southern baseball team has the honor of getting the spring sports season underway as the Moccasins travel to Georgia for a two-game series Saturday and Sunday at Augusta University. Saturday's game gets underway at 2 pm with the first-pitch on Sunday slated for 1 pm.
This the second straight season and the tenth time in the last 16 seasons Florida Southern has begun the season on the road. Last year, the team dropped a 4-3 decision to West Florida, a team that will be the Moccasins' home-opening opponent next weekend.
In 60 previous season openers since 1957, Florida Southern is 43-17 overall with a 10-7 mark when playing the first game of a a new campaign on the road. The Moccasins are 45-15 in home openers since 1957.
Augusta was 18-28 last season and has a line-up that features 2015 All-American Clint Hardy who tied for the Peach Belt Conference lead with a .438 average with eight homers. Also returning for the Jaguars is All-Southeast selection Drew Taylor, who hit .403 with 12 round-trippers and 47 runs batted in.
Florida Southern will look for a turnaround after posting a 22-23 record last season, a year in which they finish sixth in the Sunshine State Conference. League coaches picked the Mocs to finish in a tie for fifth in their preseason poll.
Nationally, the Moccasins received votes in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper Top 40 National Poll and also garnered votes in the Preseason All-South Top 10 Poll from the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.
Head Coach Lance Niekro, who enters his fourth season at the helm of the Moccasins with a 75-70 overall record, will look to senior Ben Richardson to anchor a pitching staff that saw more than its share of injuries last season.
"Some of our starters numbers were inflated last season, because we didn't have the depth in our bullpen," said Niekro. "You have to have as many arms as you can."
"Ben (Richadson), being our Friday night starter, often got the worst of the situation," said Niekro. "His numbers were inflated big time. If he didn't have his stuff, we pretty much told him he had to go most of the game. It was unfortunate."
Richardson completed his third-season at Florida Southern with a 5-7 record and a 5.42 earned run average and led the staff with 48 strikeouts and 88.0 innings pitched. In his three seasons with the Moccasins, he has a 14-14 record and a 4.46 ERA with 116 strikeouts over 204.0 innings.
Looking to join the starting rotation are newcomers Logan Browning and Cameron Hanes. Browning, a 2014 graduate of Lakeland Christian School, transferred to Florida Southern from the University of Florida, where he made nine appearances for the Gators as well as seeing action in 19 games defensively. Browning will also see action in right field and could take over the lead-off spot in the batting order for the Mocs. Hanes comes to FSC from Seminole State College where he struck out 38 batters in 46.0 innings.
Also battling for a spot in the rotation will be Brady Arenson was was 5-2 in 13 starts last season while striking out 45 batters. He was also 3-1 in league action.
In the bullpen, Niekro will look to returnees A.J. Smith and Craig Savage as well as newcomer Mitch McCarthy. Smith led last year's corps with 17 appearances and three saves while Savage struck out 41 hitters while posting a 4-4 record in 15 appearances with nine starts. McCarthy, one of three Seminole State College transfers on the Mocs team, posted a 2.51 ERA over two seasons at SSC.
"McCarthy will be a big key out of the bullpen," said Niekro, "We haven't had a sidearm pitcher here in a while and I'm excited about that."
Turning to the offense, Niekro will have a big hole in the line-up to fill as rightfielder Jhalan Jackson signed with the Yankees after being selected in the seventh round of last year's Major League Draft. Jackson, who hit .417 and was named to three All-America teams last season, set a FSC record with 20 homers in 2015 while leading the Sunshine State Conference with 72 runs batted in. Another key player that will be missed is Chris Dennis, who hit .405 with 40 RBI while earning ABCA/Rawlings Gold Glove Honors at third base.
"Jhalan and Chris will be very tough to replace," said Niekro.
One possible big bat is the one carried by newcomer Mitch Reeves, who looks to be the starting third baseman. Reeves, part of the Seminole State trio, hit .333 last season at SSC with three homers.
"We're looking for Mitch to have a big year," said Niekro."He had a really good fall. Showed a lot of power with big-time average."
Machonis was named to the All-SSC 2nd Team last season after hitting .340 with 52 runs scored. Brugnoni will look to return to his 2014 form that saw him lead the team with a .340 average, earning All-South honors. Swann started 44 games last season and hit .273 with 39 RBI. He also put together a 15-game hitting streak during the season. Sierra posted a .347 average at the plate with 26 RBI while splitting time at first base and DH. Shawn Sanders, who hit .326 with 34 RBI last year, returns at second base.
The 2016 Moccasins will have bit of a local flavor, featuring four Lakeland area high school graduates. In addition to Browning, pitcher Jake Kinney also attended Lakeland Christian School, graduating in 2015. Catcher Evan Barnes played for Santa Fe Catholic School, while outfielder Garrett Conner is a 2015 Lakeland High graduate, where he played for former Moccasin All-American pitcher, Bob Gendron, a member of FSC's 1981 national championship team.
Longtime Moccasin fans may recognize one name on the roster, that of Vincent Leto. His uncles, Tim and Jason, played for Florida Southern in the early 1990s.
College football fans, especially those of Ohio State, will note that Nick Buchanan's brother, Ben, was a standout punter for the Buckeyes, finishing his OSU career ranked fourth in career punts and yardage.
Following the Augusta series, Florida Southern will open the home portion of its schedule on Saturday, Feb. 6, facing the University of West Florida in a 1 pm doubleheader at historic Henley Field. The same two teams will go at it again on Sunday at 1 pm. West Florida went 30-18 last season.
The Moccasins' 2016 schedule features 26 home games and 16 games against teams that played in the 2015 NCAA postseason tournament. Florida Southern will have its annual Spring Training exhibition with the Detroit Tigers on Feb. 29 at Lakeland's Joker Marchant Stadium.