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21 May 2008

JSU Dominates OVC Awards:
Whittemore Co-MVP —
Cunningham, Case Also Take Top Honors

Jacksonville State's Clay Whittemore was named the Ohio Valley Conference co-player of the year Tuesday, sharing the honor with Samford's Michael Marseco. Photo: JSU

By Al Muskewitz
Star Sports Writer

Reprinted here in its entirety.

JACKSONVILLE — Clay Whittemore called the season he enjoyed in 2007 the best year of baseball ever.

It got better Tuesday.

The Jacksonville State senior outfielder was named Ohio Valley Conference Co-Player of the Year — winning the award for the second year in a row.

It was a nice honor last year, he agreed, but he always felt there was something missing from making it great. This year he has a conference championship to go with it, making it all complete.

"Last year it seemed surreal how everything went," Whittemore said. "It was the best year of baseball that I've ever had

"This year, from an individual standpoint, I think it's been better, and also from a team standpoint it's been better. The thing that comes to my mind is, I was able to help win a conference championship, which is something I was unable to do last year. To me, that tops it all right there."

The eve of the OVC Tournament proved to be a big day for the Gamecocks on the awards front. The regular-season champions collected three of the four major OVC awards and placed 10 players on the all-conference teams.

Whittemore shared Player of the Year honors with Samford shortstop Michael Marseco.

Outfielder Todd Cunningham was the runaway winner of Freshman of the Year and Jim Case was voted Coach of the Year.

It was the first time since 1992 that two players shared the OVC's top player award, and Whittemore became the first player since Murray State's George Dugan (1964-65) to win it in consecutive years.

After an All-American junior year, Whittemore put together an even better season this year. He hit .421 with 90 hits, eight home runs and 63 RBIs. In OVC games, he hit .457 with six home runs and 34 RBIs.

"I think it's been better (than last year) and the reason I say that is because he's assumed such a leadership role," Case said. "Clay has been a guy who has not only held up his end — and his numbers speak for themselves— but I think he's been a guy who's helped others push themselves.

"I look back at where he was as a sophomore and not that he didn't play hard and get after it — he did — but it was more of a lead by example. He's certainly been more vocal as a senior and his leadership skills have really helped us."

Whittemore, the Gamecocks' all-time hits leader, takes a 13-game hitting streak into the top seed's OVC Tournament opener on Thursday. True to his character, he wanted to spread the credit.

"Last year I had great guys in front of me," he said. "Some of them are gone now, but they were replaced by really good guys.

"Todd Cunningham, Steven Leach is back with us and a great guy to have in front of you, and Brian Piazza hitting behind me, I'm going to see a lot of pitches to hit because he's swinging it really good now, too."

Cunningham hit .343 with an OVC-leading 62 runs, 14 doubles, a home run and 29 RBIs. He hit .356 in 27 OVC games. Since he became JSU's leadoff man, the team has gone 27-5.

Case guided a team that won its second OVC regular-season title, set the single-season record for OVC victories and is sharing the longest active winning streak in the country.

He is 225-181 in his JSU career and has been linked to current SEC coaching openings at Mississippi State and Auburn.

The Gamecocks put five players on the All-OVC first team, three on the second and had three selections on the newcomer team.

Whittemore was joined on the first team by second baseman Bert Smith, infielder Steven Leach, starting pitcher Ben Tootle and reliever Alex Jones. Tootle will draw the start in the Gamecocks' tournament opener on Thursday.

Cunningham, designated hitter Brian Piazza and reliever Brian Booth were second team picks. Booth, 8-0 as a reliever this year, was listed as a starter even though he's started only one game in 75 career appearances. Cunningham, pitcher Jordan Beistline — JSU's projected tournament second game starter — and infielder Jake Sharrock made the All-Freshman Team.

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