JOHNSON CITY — The wait is over for East Tennessee State’s baseball team.
There’s plenty of work remaining, but the Buccaneers will begin play inside their new home this weekend.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said ETSU baseball coach Tony Skole, who begins his 13th season at the helm today against Eastern Kentucky. “There’s been a lot of anticipation, obviously myself, our coaches and our players, especially. And even everybody in our community is excited about the new park.
“It’s going to be a beautiful facility once it’s done. Obviously, I think, there’s a lot of energy and excitement around it right now. It looks so nice. I know our players enjoy being out there. I think it’s going to be a great thing and we look forward to being out there (today).”
The first pitch at Thomas Stadium will be thrown at 1:05 p.m. this afternoon, with Eastern Kentucky on the grid Saturday and Sunday as well.
Due to the ongoing construction at the site, early start times will accompany the Bucs at home. Fans are asked to park in the ETSU student parking lot across from McDonalds, where a free shuttle will run from the lot to the stadium.
All spectators will be seated along the third-base line, and, because of limited seating, fans are asked to bring lawn chairs to home games. Admission will be free for each of the games.
Up until this week, the school was unsure whether the new stadium, featuring a new, synthetic playing surface, would be able to accommodate the opening series.
“To see the project come to life and actually be able to get down there and compete on it is an exciting time,” Skole said. “It hasn’t been without stress. There’s been a ton of things over the last month or so that have had to get done. There’s a lot of people that we owe a lot of credit to that have made it happen. It’s been a difficult couple of weeks not knowing where we were going to play and if it was going to happen or not.”
The new facility is another boost to the Buccaneer baseball program, which recorded its most wins since 1981 one year ago with a 36-21 campaign.
Much of that team returns, including five field starters and three starting pitchers. Although the Bucs lost three draft selections in Paul Hoilman, Derek Trent and Bo Reeder, the makeup of the veteran squad, with 17 returning letter winners, has the potential to challenge for a postseason run.
“We’ve got some high expectations,” said Skole. “Obviously, we lost some very good players last year and those guys are probably impossible to replace. So we’re going to have a little bit of a different look this year. We’re going to focus more on pitching and defense. We’re not going to be as offensive as we’ve been in the past. We’re going to have to try and generate runs offensively, instead of just sitting back and waiting for the big inning.
“I like our team and our kids are very athletic, they work hard and we can pitch and defend pretty well. And we’ve got some guys that can do some damage. It’s going to be an exciting year. Last year sort of left a sour taste in our mouth how it ended not getting a bid in the tournament. We have no one to blame but ourselves for that. We definitely have high goals and just want to go out and play as well as we can.”
The Bucs return three starters in the outfield, led by senior Matthew Scruggs and junior Andrew Green, both of whom hit over .300 a year ago. Another senior Dylan Pratt, a unanimous preseason All-Atlantic Sun designated hitter selection, could see time in the outfield after spending much of last season as a DH en route to an appearance in the collegiate home run derby.
The infield will built around junior shortstop Kerry Doane and junior second baseman Derek Niesman. A group of other guys will battle for spots on the corners as well as at the catcher position, where the Bucs will replace a four-year starter in Trent.
The Bucs’ pitching staff returns the most experience on the team, behind senior John Long, the opening day starter, and junior Derek Bushey, who was a second-team All- Atlantic Sun selection a year ago.
Sophomore Clinton Freeman of Jonesborough and sophomore transfer Jake Long are two other guys that could see some action in the starting lineup.
“That’s the one bright spot,” said Skole. “We’ve got basically over 80 percent of our innings back from last year. That experience and talent we have coming back on our pitching staff, we’re going to lean on those guys and rely on those guys heavily. They’ve had a great fall. We’ve got a new pitching coach in Kyle Bunn, who has done a great job with the staff.”
The Bucs have an impressive home slate with series against Indiana, Furman and LaSalle as well as a home and home with Tennessee and road trips against the traditionally-strong Arizona Wildcats and SEC foe Georgia. The biggest key to the season, however, will be play in the always-tough Atlantic Sun.
“As good as it was last year, we had five teams ranked in the top 60 of the RPI, the league’s better this year,” Skole added. “All of those teams have all of their players returning. The draft didn’t really effect our league too much except for us. Most of the players who were drafted came back to school.
“It’s going to be a great league, and that’s what we want. We’re excited about that and we had three teams in the NCAA Tournament last year and I think this year we can possibly get four in. There’s just no easy weekends. You’ve got to be ready to play and hopefully our guys understand that.
“We didn’t play as well as we wanted on the weekend last year. We had a lot of big mid-week wins and things like that. We’ve got to start playing better in the conference.”
TRACK AND FIELD
The opening of Thomas Stadium is just one of two big events on campus this weekend.
ETSU hosts the Atlantic Sun Indoor Track and Field Championships at MSHA Athletic Center today and Saturday.
The reigning men’s champion Buccaneers will be looking to garner their fifth league championship since joining the league, while the women want to improve upon a fourth place finish one year ago.
ETSU’s men and women visit Belmont Saturday for pivotal Atlantic Sun tilts, with the men visiting Lipscomb Monday.
The Buccaneers are tied for fifth in the men’s standings with Lipscomb, while the Lady Bucs are holding onto eighth on the women’s side.
The road contests set up a pivotal closing home series against Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast next Thursday and Saturday, respectively, before the Atlantic Sun Tournament begins in two weeks.
The Buccaneer duo of Rhys Enoch and Rhys Pugh garnered more accolades as they were selected to the preliminary Great Britain and Ireland squad for the St. Andrews Trophy Match in late August.
Nine of the 12 players selected will make the final cut to face the best from the European continent.
Enoch leads the Bucs with a 73.6 average following a second place finish at the Sea Best Invitational, with Pugh following with a 75.8 average.
The Bucs begin play in the Puerto Rico Classic Sunday.
Wes Holtsclaw is a sportswriter for the Elizabethton Star. You may contact him at email@example.com