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22 February 2008

JSU Baseball Home Opener Today

JSU outfielder Clay Whittemore was OVC Player of the Year in 2007, when he led the league in hits, doubles and RBIs. Photo: Steve Latham/Jacksonville State University

JSU Hoping Potential Can Replace Departed Experience

By Al Muskewitz
Star Sports Writer

Reprinted here in its entirety.

JACKSONVILLE It's a good thing Jacksonville State senior outfielder Clay Whittemore is a good player in real time. He'd make a lousy fantasy league general manager.

Whittemore had an All-America type season last year for the Gamecocks. But now, as the team eyes a return to the NCAA Regionals, the Cullman native wants to do something that would be considered sacrilege among fantasy-league players forget the numbers.

Whittemore hit .391 and led the Ohio Valley Conference in hits (93), doubles (20) and RBIs (69) last season. But the only thing the 2007 OVC Player of the Year wants to carry with him into 2008 is the confidence that season built.

"There's no doubt about it, last year was really special for me; it was incredible," Whittemore said, "but I think if you dwell on that too much it'll certainly have an adverse affect on you.

"That's what I'm trying to do. It is nice to try to carry that momentum and have it coming in, but at the same time I know you can't rely on that. It's a new year, we're 0-0 and I'm batting zero. It's a clean slate and that's how you have to treat it."

Whittemore may be trying to let last season go, but opposing pitchers will have a hard time doing that. It's likely they'll try to handle him differently this year, but even if the Gamecocks lost their Killer Bs Jake Ball, Eric Beck and Garrett Bass, who combined for 35 career homers and 299 RBIs and they promise to be younger than usual, there's still plenty of versatility in their lineup to protect him.

"If you look at some of the hitters we have in our lineup, if you look at all the different people we can put in our 3-4-5 hole even the 2-hole, I guess their talent level and their ability to just cause some major havoc at the plate, that takes a lot of it off me," Whittemore said. "A lot of times (his numbers) would cause a lot of attention, but if you look at the personnel we have hitting in the top part of our lineup, I think that takes a lot of emphasis off of my bat."

Among the projected infield starters, junior second baseman and leadoff man Bert Smith has the most experience. A starter each of the last two years, Smith's start of this season will be delayed as he recovers from surgery on his right shoulder. The All-OVC pick hopes to return as early as next week's Millsaps series, but head coach Jim Case is gearing toward March 1 at College of Charleston.

"It's hard to say right now," Smith said. "I still have pain in my shoulder, but it's come along a lot faster than I thought. I'm able to move my shoulder more. Before I had the surgery, I couldn't lift it at all not at all. It was killing me."

Smith hit .359 last year, scored 65 runs and was 31-for-35 stealing bases.

Until he returns, the Gamecocks likely will go with freshman John David Smelser at second, with Josh Sanders at short and Stephen Leach at third. The Gamecocks have several options for first base, including preseason All-OVC junior Jay Harrington, and options behind the plate with sophomore Andrew Edge and freshman Spencer Brandes.

The outfield figures to be Whittemore, Kyle McCreary and Daniel Adamson, with several freshman, including Jacksonville's Todd Cunningham, providing depth. There are plentiful options at designated hitter, too, with Harrington, Brian Piazza and McCrary.

"We have a little bit of flexibility where we can move some guys around," Case said. "We can put an outfield out there that can really defend the field. It may not be our best offensive outfield, so we may move one of those guys to the DH spot."

The curious thing about the Gamecocks' pitching staff is that it does not have a left-hander on it. The Gamecocks lost two veteran starters, including ace Donovan Hand, who was drafted as a junior.

Sophomore Ben Tootle gets the first shot to become the ace and he'll draw today's Opening Day start against Middle Tennessee, joining Hand as the two youngest pitchers to draw Opening Day starts under Case. Tootle, an Oxford native, was 6-3 with a 5.91 ERA a year ago.

"I feel like he deserves that, I really do," Case said. "You don't put a guy as heavily into the fire as we did Tootle (last year) with the Ohio States, Mississippi State. He threw some tough games all in a row, (but) he really hung in there. He's very, very driven, a very, very hard worker. In my mind, he's the guy who deserves that opportunity."

Ole Miss transfer Nick Hetland will draw the Game 2 start with Mitch Miller, back after redshirting last year, going in Game 3.

Hard-throwing Jacksonville High graduate Justin King, recovering from off-season surgery to relieve circulatory problems in his pitching hand, also figures in the rotation. Submarine-style closer Alex Jones also returns and 6-foot-8 Danny Andres is back to give it a try after missing the last two seasons with arm injuries.

Case said he plans to use "a lot" of pitchers before settling on a core of 8-10 prior to the start of the OVC season.

Speaking of the OVC, the Gamecocks were installed as preseason favorites to win the league, a slim two points ahead of defending champion Austin Peay.

The Gamecocks have played in the title game of the tournament all four years they've been in the league. The expectations haven't changed this year. They're still looking to take the next step in their development, which is to make the NCAA Regional and win a game.

Last year was expected to be their best shot, having so many veterans in the lineup and on the mound. This year, it's their depth that will carry them through.

"We looked at it last year as we had a lot of experience, and the main thing we had in our mind was we had the personnel to do this," Whittemore said. "We don't have the same personnel as we did last year, but I think the story's the same: We do have the personnel to do this. And the quicker we realize that and it's happening on a daily basis in practice the better off we'll be."

"I'm not going to say it's any harder or any easier, but the guys we have on the team this year, I really think we can truly make it happen."

Today: Jax State vs. Middle Tennessee
3 p.m., 91.9 FM

About Al Muskewitz

Al Muskewitz covers golf and Jacksonville State University sports teams for The Anniston Star.

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