Written by: Alex Tostado
Valdosta State takes the field for its 2014 campaign as the Blazers host the Comfort Suites Classic at Billy Grant Field this weekend.
The Blazers play Truett-McConnell on Saturday at 3 p.m. and Georgia Southwestern on Sunday at 1 p.m.
VSU Head Coach Greg Guilliams is expecting a lot from his players this season, especially coming off of the successes of last season, which include winning the Gulf South Conference Championship for the first time since 2010.
Guilliams maintains that it won’t take anything fancy for his group to build upon last season.
“My expectation is for our guys to do the same thing we do every day at practice, nothing more and nothing less,” Guilliams said. “If they execute the same things that we do at practice, I think we will have a good day.”
The task of moving on after losing four of their top five pitchers from last season is far from easy; Guilliams understands that his pitchers are not quite at full strength for the season.
“Different guys are at different stages as far as where they are at with their arms,” Guilliams said. “I don’t think anybody right now is at 100 percent, but most of the guys are from about 80 to 90 percent.”
Despite not having a full-strength pitching staff, Guilliams and his staff have named two familiar players as the starting pitchers for this weekend.
Lefty senior Josh Mann will start on Saturday, and right-handed junior Dom DeMasi will start against GSW.
“Both [Mann and DeMasi] started for us last year (so we know what they can do),” Guilliams said.
The Blazers’ offense also lost some key swingers, but there are many returning players and some new faces that Guilliams is hoping to see fit into their roles.
Key contributors returning to VSU are junior catcher Bryant Hayman, senior outfielder Matthew Fears and sophomore third baseman Michael Gouge.
Hayman started 52 games last season. He batted .335 with eight home runs and drove in 43 runs, which was good enough to earn a spot on the 2013 All-GSC Team.
Fears was also selected to the 2013 All-GSC Team after batting .407 in 21 starts and tallying 13 doubles and 21 runs.
As a freshman, Gouge started in 47 of his 48 appearances. He hit .300 while driving in 27 runs on 45 hits.
One of the new faces that Guilliams expects a lot from is Boston College transfer Jimmy Dowdell, who should immediately make an impact. Guilliams believes the senior outfielder is “one of the best hitters in the GSC.”
The Palm Harbor, Fla., native came to VSU to be closer to home.
“We have a pretty good squad this year,” Dowdell said. “Our hitting is pretty solid one through nine. We should put up a lot of runs and hopefully not give up too many.”
Aside from team goals, Dowdell has one big personal goal—stay healthy the entire year.
“Up in Boston I got hurt a lot, so I’m just happy to be playing,” Dowdell said. “That’s the number one thing. Hopefully I’ll put up some good stats, but the number one thing is winning. If I’m helping the team win, and I bat .260… I’m happy.”
Even with this much offensive talent, Guilliams still expects the bats to be rusty for the first few games of the season.
“A challenge early in the season is that a hitter’s timing is not going to be as good as it will be a couple of weeks from now,” Guilliams said. “Off-speed pitches usually give hitters a lot of trouble so we have been trying to work on that at practice.”
Guilliams has the same approach for the first and last game of the season.
“Our approach remains the same,” Guilliams said. “We try to hit the ball through the middle and backside of the field. If we are able to do that, we will be able to handle the off-speed pitches. It’s nothing different than what we work on at practice; the challenge is getting your guys to do it in a game.”
This article was written by Alex Tostado.