by Billy Dixon, Kingsport Times-News
JOHNSON CITY - Fall is traditionally football season, but the autumn months also are important for college baseball teams, which are allowed four weeks of practice by the NCAA.
At East Tennessee State, fall baseball practice this year is especially crucial. Bucs coach Tony Skole has brought in a top-50 ranked recruiting class for the second year in a row, and those freshmen need the time to acclimate themselves to a different level of play.
"We're younger this year than last," said Skole, who fielded the youngest team in the Southern Conference last year. "We've got 13 freshmen, but they are very talented."
This is Skole's third year as skipper of the Bucs. For the first two seasons, he had to be patient.
"The first two years, we had to stress fundamentals and that's about all we got done," Skole said. "There's not been as much of that this year. We've been able to go out and play a lot of intrasquad games. That's something we needed in the past, but have been able to do this year."
The four-week practice session is winding down for the Bucs, who are playing the last games in the Blue-Gold World Series on Thursday and Friday. The losers of the series are made to run in the Jingle Bell 10K Run come December.
While the Bucs are extremely young in places, there is a core of veteran players capable of leading this team to the top of the Southern Conference.
Senior pitcher Reid Casey tops the list of returnees. Casey is widely considered to have some of the best stuff in all of college baseball, but has had trouble winning games the last two years.
Skole attributes Casey's previous tough luck to lack of depth in the bullpen. With every pitcher back from last year, plus the addition of several more, that problem has been remedied.
"He has lost a lot of games late because we've had to decide whether to stay with a tired Reid Casey, or come with someone out of the pen that we might not have the most confidence in," Skole said. "Almost any coach in the country would stay with Reid, but its not always worked out.
"We've got more depth this year and it's quality depth. We have 10 to 15 arms that I feel comfortable with at any time."
Returning outfielder Kirk Keithley has pro potential, according to Skole.
"Kirk is the best of all the returners," said Skole. "He stayed here over the summer and came into fall practice tremendously strong and a lot faster. He may be one of the fastest players in the country."
With considerable speed from top to bottom in the projected lineup, the Bucs will play a different style of ball this year. Last season's squad relied on the home run abilities of graduated players like Andy Baxter and Nathan Copeland, both of whom played pro ball last summer.
"We've stolen more than 60 bases this fall," Skole said. "We're not going to have to sit back and wait on the long ball. We have the ability to make things happen. We won't hit as many home runs, but our run production will not drop off at all."
The change in game plan will better suit the style of successful teams in the Southern Conference.
While Cardinal Park is home run friendly, Riley Park in Charleston, S.C. (home of the 2001 SoCon tournament) is better suited to speed-based teams. In fact The Citadel, which plays its home games at Riley Park, has been among the nation's leaders in stolen bases for several years.
To help the hitters get stronger and develop, Skole has mandated the use of wooden bats for the entire fall season. The batters struggled early, but have improved the team batting average by almost 100 points in the last two weeks.
Jeremy Terry and Ryan Hyder will provide defensive stability in the middle infield, with Brandon Cross at third. Brian Crouse will patrol the outfield. After that, the young guys have free reign to win starting spots.
One of the most impressive freshmen in fall practice has been Caleb Moore, who is hitting .367 and runs well. Moore may see duty as starting catcher and weekend pitcher.
Matt Traylor has the jump on another starting outfield spot, while several other newcomers are in the mix. Figure in a predominately sophomore pitching staff consisting of Josh Kite, Tim Turner, Donnie Sharp and Matt Hensley, and the Bucs have all the tools to compete now, instead of a year or two down the road.
"Our pitching is so much better. Better than ever," said Skole. "The defense continues to be solid and we our team speed is tremendous. I can't pinpoint any area where we've not improved this fall. Even the weather has been great. It all depends on what kind of year our veterans have. If they play well, anything is possible."