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Feb. 16, 2010
SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Just when the USC Upstate baseball team's momentum appeared to have slowed at the end of the 2009 season, the team finished with a remarkable flair, posting seven wins in its final 11 games, including a convincing, pitching-dominated sweep of Campbell, who finished the season with the third-most prolific offense in Division I.
By June, two of the team's best pitchers, juniors Teddy Fallon and Matt Branham, each heard their name called during the Major League Baseball Draft. It was the first time since 1988 that the Spartans had two players selected in the draft.
So now, as Upstate gets set for its third year of Divison I and Atlantic Sun Conference play, the Spartans will do so looking to improve on a 17-37 overall record and a 7-23 mark in the A-Sun. Of course, they will have a few tools at their disposal, making for a silver lining that could lift the Spartans back into the middle of the pack in the A-Sun, as they finished fifth in 2008 before falling to 11th in 2009.
To start with, even though Fallon has left to begin his professional career in the Pittsburgh organization, Branham has decided to return to the Spartanburg campus for his senior season. The team's ace, Branham set a school-record with 82 strikeouts as a junior. Joining Branham in the rotation will be junior Phillip Brannon, a 2006 draft pick by Pittsburgh who is back after shoulder issues robbed him of much of the past two seasons.
Offensively, the Spartans will return senior Jimmy Tanner, who is coming off a summer performance in which he earned Northwoods League All-Star honors. A three-year starter at catcher, Tanner enters the season 20 hits away from becoming the eighth player in school history to reach 200 in a career. Joining Tanner are a pair of players that have earned A-Sun All-Freshman Team honors in 2008 honoree, junior Blake Green, a second baseman/outfielder, and 2009 honoree, sophomore Austin Moyer, a first baseman/pitcher.
Add onto that one of the deepest recruiting classes in school history, which includes 15 newcomers, eight of whom will help the Spartans start the 2010 season with the deepest pitching staff in the school's D-I era.
"We are young," 13th-year head coach Matt Fincher said. "We have 13 freshmen and two junior college transfers who have not played on this level. We'll be playing inexperienced players a great deal throughout the season. Their development over the course of the season is going to have a direct and immediate impact on how we fare. We are hopeful that we have four or five guys that can develop quickly and can make an impact. I think it bodes well for the future but it could make things interesting this year at times."
Branham, a senior from Columbia, S.C., will once again look to lead the Spartan pitching staff. A 47th-round draft pick by the Houston Astros in 2009, Branham has already etched his name in several career record books. Already tied for 10th in school history with 11 career wins, Branham is just 22 strikeouts away from becoming the third player in school history to reach 200 in a career.
With a fastball that touches the low-90s and both a slider and changeup in his arsenal, the 6-5 right-hander will likely once again draw the attention of plenty of scouts this season.
"We're hopeful that he pitches like he has something to prove," Fincher said. "He has worked hard to improve his strength and conditioning. I have every belief that he will improve his numbers from last year and that he will be a true frontline guy for us."
Another pitcher that should draw the attention of pro scouts is Brannon, as the 6-2 right-hander will likely step back into the weekend rotation. Brannon, a 2006 MLB draft pick, posted an 8-0 record in two years at Spartanburg Methodist College before a shoulder injury took him from the mound. As a junior, he threw three pitches to one batter in his Upstate debut before being shut down and moving on to have surgery. After a lengthy rehab, the Broome High graduate could give the Spartans one of the best 1-2 punches in the A-Sun.
"He is the individual on the staff after Branham that has the most upside," Fincher said. "We think Phillip is healthy right now. I am very hopeful that he is a No. 2 starter for us. He has experience and has had a lot of success at the junior college level. We think he can be a very good pitcher in our program."
From the third starter slot to the two weekend slots, the Spartans can go in several directions, including sophomores Austin Moyer and Ryan Fern and freshmen Scott DeCecco, Ryan Newell and Gaither Bumgardner.
Moyer, a 5-10 Greensboro, N.C., native, spent most of his freshman season in the weekend rotation, finishing with a 3-7 record in 51 2/3 innings. Moyer posted three quality starts and has an arsenal that features a mid-80s fastball and a solid curveball.
Fern, a 6-1 Oviedo, Fla., native, also spent time in the weekend rotation as a freshmen, finishing with a 1-7 record. He tossed 46 1/3 innings and also appeared seven times in relief, giving him some versatility.
Three freshmen could also factor into the starting rotation, as DeCecco, Newell and Bumgardner, may all get starting experience. DeCecco, a 6-0 New Jersey native, will give the Spartans a varied look, as the left-hander had a monster senior year at Middle Township High School, finishing 7-3, with 101 strikeouts in 48 innings. Newell, a 6-3 Marietta, Ga., native played for the East Cobb Braves, one of the best summer league teams in the nation, serving as the team's ace thanks to his high-80s fastball. He struck out 70 and had a 1.70 ERA as a senior at Marietta High School. Bumgardner wraps up the freshman trio, as the 6-6 Fort Lawn, S.C., native went 8-4 as a senior at Great Falls High School with a 0.61 ERA. With a mid-80s fastball, Bumgardner earned Class A Region III Player of the Year and all-state honors as a senior.
"We have some competition which we didn't have last year," Fincher said, "and we can make adjustments as we go through the season. This year, we have our fingers crossed that we have the depth to make adjustments."
The team will look to its senior leaders in Stover and Oliver in late game situations. Stover, a Durham, N.C., native, led the Spartans with three saves and a win from the pen in 2009. Oliver, a Lawrenceville, Ga., native, has led the Spartans in appearances in each of the last two years and the lanky right-hander won two games in 2009.
"T.O. is the logical guy to step up out of the group because he is a senior," Fincher said. "I don't think I did him any favors last year because I used him too much. Hopefully, this year we can get into a systematic approach in regards to his use. Barrett Stover wore down, too. If we can give them an opportunity to rest, they can be more effective for us."
From the right-handed side, the Spartans can look to three pitchers with significant experience in sophomores Adam Waters, Andrew Wyant and Robert Stegbauer. Waters, a 5-10 sophomore, will look to fight off a back injury suffered early this winter to provide some added depth to the Upstate bullpen. As a freshman, Waters appeared in 20 games, tossing 30 innings and finishing 1-1. Wyant, a 6-6 sophomore, appeared in six games out of the pen as a freshman. Stegbauer, a 6-6 redshirt sophomore, also returns after fighting off an illness that took him from USC Upstate for the 2009 spring semester. Fully healthy this spring, Stegbauer can both spot start and be used in any relief role.
On the left-handed side, Upstate has four pitchers that can contribute. Senior Brian Dempsey can once again be used in middle relief after tossing 19 1/3 innings in the last two seasons. Chris Knauff, Stephen Rozenman and Jordan Rusk will also contribute from the left-handed side for the Spartans in any variety of roles.
"We're hopeful that the three left-handed freshmen that they can produce a competitive inning from time to time," Fincher said. "If you have options from the left side in the bullpen, it strengthens the team."
"They are going to be in competition," Fincher said. "We think they can both catch, throw and hit, so we'll see how it turns out. They both provide us with options, as far as other positions, so that's a good thing."
Tanner, a 5-11 Fayetteville, Ga., native, is the lone catcher on Upstate's roster with collegiate catching experience, but he does have 96 games of experience over his first three seasons at Upstate. The best contact hitter on the team, Tanner paced the Upstate offense with a .354 average and 41 runs in 2009. His 80 hits were fifth in school history and leave him just 61 away from the school record of 241 hits set by John Caddell (2004-07).
Medley, a 6-1 Greensboro, N.C., native, will look to take over as the Spartans' second catcher. As a freshman, he played third base, appearing in 43 games and hitting .255, also adding two homers and 21 RBIs. Perhaps most importantly in his transition to catcher, he displayed a very strong arm.
"If one of the freshmen does develop, we are always in competition," Fincher said. "If they make themselves available, we will certainly use them."
At first base, the Spartans can turn to the direction of no fewer than four players in senior Jimmy Tanner, sophomore Austin Moyer, junior Joe Barnes and freshmen Gaither Bumgardner and Trey Richardson.
Moyer will likely platoon between first base, the mound and designated hitter. A 2009 All-Freshman Team selection, Moyer hit .278 as a freshman with four homers and 34 RBIs, but due to his patience at the plate, he posted a .419 on-base percentage. Tanner likely could also platoon at first base when he is not behind the dish.
Barnes, a 5-11 transfer from Grand Rapids Community College, will also likely see time at frst base as well as second and third. A first baseman at Grand Rapids, Barnes hit .447 with 60 RBI as a sophomore. Richardson, a 6-1 Lakeland, Fla., native, could also see time at first after hitting .448 as a prep senior to earn honorable mention all-state honors.
Junior Blake Green will look to continue to hold down his spot at second base after playing 29 games at the position as a sophomore. Green hit .269 with 22 runs and 20 RBI and was one of the team's best fielders, making just four errors all season. He also played eight games in centerfield and could see time in that position again.
The Spartans will likely start the season with freshman Brody Greer taking over for departed two-year starter Eric Guillen at shortstop. A solid fielder, Greer helped Belton-Honea Path win a state title as a senior after hitting .324.
"Brody Greer won the job in the fall and he is going to be given every opportunity to play shortstop for us," Fincher said.
There are plenty of other players that could see time in the middle infield, including returning sophomores Austin Liput, Branden Millhouse and Adam Waters. Liput, who can play second, shortstop or third, played in 27 games as a freshman, posting nine runs. Millhouse appeared in 20 games, posting six hits and providing some sparkling defense. He will likely serve as a backup at second base. Waters appeared in nine games and had three hits and three RBI. If his back cooperates, he could serve as a backup at second base or third base.
At third base, the Spartans will likely use a couple options, including Bumgardner and Medley. Bumgardner, a 6-6 Fort Lawn, S.C., native, was three-time Class A Region III Player of the Year at Great Falls High School and he hit better than .500 in each of his final two seasons at the school. He could provide some much-needed power for the Spartans. Medley, who will also platoon at catcher, will likely see time at third base, where he played all 43 games as a freshmen and he could also play at designated hitter.
In the corner outfield slots, the Spartans will look for leadership from two returners, senior Brian Dempsey and redshirt sophomore Tyler Cook. Dempsey, a Montverde, Fla., native, has seen spot action in each of his first three seasons, appearing in 72 games and posting a .270 average and 21 RBI. Cook, a Bloomington, Ill., native appeared in 16 games as a freshman. One of the team's best defensive outfielders, Cook posted five runs.
Junior Andre Harris will start the season in centerfield. A two-year letterwinner at Grand Rapids Community College, Harris hit .418 with 43 runs and 55 RBI as a sophomore. Green could also see time in centerfield.
Two other freshmen could also see time at any of the outfield slots in freshmen McCrae Norton and Tyler Miller. Norton, who was the High School Sports Report Class 4A Player of the Year after hitting .477 to lead Gaffney to the state title, will add some extra speed and versatility, as will Miller, who earned all-region honors as a senior.
"Dempsey and Cook, because they've been here, are the logical candidates to fill the voids," Fincher said. "Tyler Miller played well in the fall so we're hopeful he can earn time. Between Cook, Dempsey, Harris and Miller, we are hopeful we can find a competitive outfield."
Upstate, celebrating its 25th season of play in 2010, will not stray from the path that Fincher has laid out for the team in its move to the Atlantic Sun Conference and Division I play. Once again, the team will find itself challenged every step of the way, beginning with a game against Appalachian State, which went 33-21 and finished 83rd in the RPI in 2009, on Feb. 20.
The Spartans will have a few more advantages up its sleeves in their schedule during the 2010 season, thanks mainly to 30 games in the friendly confines of Harley Park and no non-conference mid-week games more than three hours from the Spartanburg campus, heading only as far south as Charleston and as far north as Knoxville, Tenn.
Upstate will also continue to develop rivalries with traditional regional foes and powers, like the Atlantic 10's Charlotte (at Charlotte, March 31; at Harley Park, April 6), the Atlantic Coast Conference's Clemson (at Clemson, April 21), the Southern Conference's The Citadel (at Charleston, March 10; at Harley Park, May 12) and the Southeastern Conference's South Carolina (April 20, Columbia), and Tennessee (March 23, Knoxville). Upstate will also keep rivalries with the Big South's Presbyterian (Feb. 20, Harley Park; Feb. 21, Clinton; April 7, Clinton), UNC Asheville (March 30, Harley Park; April 14, Asheville) and Gardner-Webb (March 3, March 24, Harley Park), all within an hour's drive of Spartanburg, and Charleston Southern (March 9, Charleston; March 16, Harley Park).
The team will also start a few other non-conference relationships, including home-and-home agreements with SoCon power the College of Charleston (April 13, Harley Park; May 11, Charleston) and 2009 NCAA Regional participant, the Colonial Athletic Association's Georgia State (Feb. 23, Atlanta; Feb. 24, Harley Park).
Fincher has also worked to keep developing the working relationship with Wofford for the Courtyard by Marriott Classic, a co-operative classic run by the two schools. This season, the tournament will occur on the second weekend of the season, from Feb. 26-28, with five games occurring in three days at Harley Park and Wofford playing four games at Russell C. King Field. The Spartans will host Dayton, NJIT and Butler during the tournament.
A reduction in the number of conference games from 30 to 27 in the 2010 season will also allow Upstate to play three more games at home, as the Spartans host George Washington for a three-game non-conference set on March 6-7, reuniting Fincer with close friend and former Peach Belt Conference foe at Georgia College & State, Steve Mrowka. The Spartans will also play a two-game homestand to end the season on May 18-19 against the Colonial Athletic Association's William & Mary.
The conference season favors Upstate this year as a mix of tough match-ups will head to Harley Park, as both the 2009 A-Sun Tournament champions and the two-time defending A-Sun regular season champions will visit Upstate. FGCU, the regular-season champs, will kick off Upstate's A-Sun season on March 12-13 while 2009 A-Sun Tournament champs Jacksonville visit on April 2-3. Also on Upstate's home slate in A-Sun series are Campbell (April 16-17) and Kennesaw State (May 14-15).
The Spartans will hit the road five times for three-game A-Sun series, heading to ETSU (March 19-20), Belmont (March 26-27), North Florida (April 10-11), Mercer (April 23-24) and Stetson (May 7-8).