DAHLONEGA, Ga. – For the University of North Georgia baseball team and head coach Tom Cantrell, the first of February can not get here soon enough as the Saints are ready to put 2012 behind them and focus on a new season.
The 2012 team went 24-28 with a 13-17 mark in the Peach Belt Conference en route to a fourth-place finish in the West Division. After a 10-5 start through the first 15 games of the season, the team struggled with consistency as they entered their league slate. They advanced to the conference tournament, but back to back losses to Armstrong Atlantic State University and the University of South Carolina Aiken ended the Saints' season.
"I am really looking forward to rebounding after a disappointing season in 2012," said Cantrell. "It is time for us to get back to where we need to be and I feel that this group can help us get there."
For Cantrell, that means winning. In his 17-year career as a head coach, Cantrell has posted a 676-336 record, including a 499-284 mark in 13 years at the helm of North Georgia's baseball program, and has claimed six conference championships.
Last season ended with Cantrell on the cusp of claiming his 500th win at North Georgia, and while it is certain he wants to claim that next win, he is not focusing on it in terms of his career; rather, he is thinking of it in terms of the team and program being successful. He has already passed the 500 and 600 career marks and that allows him to focus more on making the 2013 squad competitive in every game.
Cantrell and staff will have plenty of talent to work on that goal this season even though they will be the youngest squad in the PBC and one of the youngest in the country. Heading into the season, the Saints boast 13 freshmen and 11 sophomores taking on the bulk of the load but several of the underclassmen saw plenty of action last season. The team will also have five juniors – mostly transfers – and just three seniors filling in to help with the leadership.
"We don't care whether a player is a freshmen or a fifth-year senior," Cantrell stated. "We are looking to place the best nine guys on the field that give us the greatest opportunity to win. If that means fielding all freshmen and sophomores, then that is what we will do. I am counting on every man working hard out there to help us be competitive."
On the current roster of 32, 12 of those are listed as infielders. Of those 12, only Derek Hooper and Eason Spivey have played extensively at the college level and those are the two that Cantrell will rely on to keep the team together.
Hooper, who is in his third year in the program after beginning his career at LaGrange College, started 51 of 52 games last season mostly at second base. Of the returners who saw significant action, Hooper brings the second-most consistent bat to the plate as he batted .314 last season off 65 hits. He also accounted for 132 putouts and 161 assists.
As a redshirt freshman, Spivey was handed the keys to the defense last year as the starting catcher in 51 games. With that first year under his belt, Spivey will look to lead the 2013 defense and provide the Saints with a solid backstop.
Behind those two, the next most experienced player is Travis Naraine who served mostly as the designated hitter in 41 games a season ago with a batting average of .279. The other three positions will surely be an open competition as the beginning of the season draws near.
In the outfield, North Georgia will have eight players competing for the three positions, but two of those should already be locked up by returners Kenny Bellavance and Andrew Gordon who have played 202 combined collegiate games.
Bellavance is the most senior member of the squad as he is the only player to have three years at North Georgia under his belt. Last season, he played mostly in center field where he recorded 111 putouts and he was also one of North Georgia's leaders at the plate as he batted .333 in 200 at-bats. Cantrell and staff will continue to look to the Stone Mountain, Ga. native this season for that same leadership.
As a redshirt freshman last year, Gordon started 45 games in right field for the Saints where he recorded 107 putouts and seven assists. At the plate, he batted .265 and is second amongst the returners with 26 runs batted in.
On the mound, North Georgia will return a core group of five that, along with three junior transfers, will lead the pitching corps in 2013.
Returning starters Jacob Beauchamp and Taylor Keinat saw the most significant innings of work a season ago. Beauchamp returns with the best earned run average of the group with a 3.96 in 72.2 innings of work. Last season, he went 5-2 with one save and fanned 45 batters while Keinat went 4-5 with two saves in 68.2 innings, including one complete game.
Cantrell also brought in juniors Christian Turnipseed, Clint Spratlin and Trace McDaniel to help add experience to his pitching staff. McDaniel and Spratlin played together at Chattahoochee Valley Community College the past two years while Turnipseed comes over from Georgia Perimeter College.
"We are looking for competitors," Cantrell said of his entire team. "We are looking for guys that will, day and day out, give us a chance to win and leave it all out on the field."
The young squad will need to bring its "A Game" each and every week in 2013 as the Saints will embark on a grueling 50-game schedule that includes six ranked opponents according to the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper preseason poll. The Saints start things off against No. 28 Lynn University in the Valdosta State Tournament on Friday, Feb. 1 and will continue on with a full slate of Peach Belt Conference games along with a tough out of conference slate.