JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – With first pitch for the 2018 baseball season eight days away the first part of three installments focusing on position previews for Carson-Newman looks at the pitchers and catchers with preseason second-team All-South Atlantic Conference pick Will Gardner.
While the team is looking to replace 15 seniors from a year ago, just four of those players were pitchers. All four played big roles on the team but the returning crop of hurlers features eight of the top options on the rubber.
Gardner was picked as a member of the South Atlantic Conference's preseason second team after leading C-N in wins, six, innings pitched, 83 2/3, strikeouts, 67, and complete games, five. The righty led the league with five complete games and threw 247 pitches across two starts over in the SAC Championships registering a 1-1 record with a 1.80 earned run average with 10 strikeouts in 15 innings pitched as opponents hit just .220 against the right-hander to be named to the all-tournament team.
After appearing in 26 games in two seasons at Tennessee Tech, Gardner appeared in 13 with the Eagles a year ago. No other player has tossed more than 100 innings entering the year.
"It's by example," Gardner assessed of his leadership role. "They take care of themselves through throwing and what they do on the mound. What we are trying to do is implement that extremely hard work ethic in the weight room, running and what to do off the field. If you take care of those aspects it takes care of stuff on the field. They are good enough to play college baseball. Our job is just to lead them off of the field mostly."
Six pitchers are vying for a spot in the rotation. Jordan Davis (Maryville, Tenn.) made his bid in an elimination game against Tusculum in the 2017 SAC Championships. The right-hander yielded five runs, four earned on eight hits and five walks while punching out five batters and tossing 143 pitches. It was one of his 22 appearances in his rookie campaign.
Kyle Cagle (Fairview, N.C.) made six starts as a freshman before being shutdown with an injury. He went a season-high 5 2/3 innings against Saginaw Valley State on March 5 and fanned a season-high five men in 4 2/3 frames versus Northwood on Feb. 19.
Among the contenders, only Tanner Fee (Knoxville, Tenn.) is a returner from last season as the junior appeared in five games last season.
Among the newcomers, Dalton Long (Powell, Tenn.), a Roane State Community College transfer and freshmen Matt Bradley (Talbott, Tenn.) and Jacob Hanson (Lawrenceville, Ga.) round out the starting options.
The bullpen has two fresh faces but returns quality innings across the board. Greg Valentine (Knoxville, Tenn.) is on pace to become the program's all-time leader in appearances after seeing time in 49 games after his first two seasons.
Ryan Victory (Brentwood, Tenn.) was used at a high volume in 2017 throwing 34 1/3 innings in 24 games with a team-best 3.93 earned run average.
"It's another year for maturity and for them to get some more innings," Gardner stated. "I think Jordan Davis has matured a ton from last year to this year. Ryan Victory, Austin Conner and those type of guys – it's going to be essential for them to step up on the mound this year. There is no reason why they can't. I have loved what I have seen so far this fall. This is one of our deeper staffs."
Nick Adkins (Knoxville, Tenn.) and Dillon Cate (Sevierville, Tenn.) are two newcomers at the back end of the bullpen. Adkins, a lefty, tallied three saves at Roane State last season. Cate pitched in 24 games for East Tennessee State in 2017.
Behind the dish, the group needs to replace the reliable and experienced Gooch Greer, a Gold Glove winner in the conference in 2016, and Greg Jones, the team's top run producer and a current member of the Colorado Rockies organizations.
Stepping in to fill the shoes on an everyday basis will be Ethan Goforth (Blacksburg, Va.). The redshirt-sophomore notched 25 at-bats and played in 23 games last season. In the summer, Goforth was given Player of the Year honors by the Carolina-Virginia Collegiate League.
"Ethan is going to be special," Gardner said. "He had a chance to sit behind two of the best catchers to come through Carson-Newman in a long time. Ethan was ready to play college baseball last year but he had the chance to sit behind and get experience. Not only is it going to help him this year but in the future when he is the one passing the torch down. Michael Novak has done a really good job as a freshman."
Michael Novak (Clearwater, Fla.) hit .475 with three homers and 27 runs batted in as a senior at St. Petersburg Catholic High School. The freshman expects to be second in line behind the plate with several other players putting the mask on in preparation for the year.
The previews roll along on Saturday morning when Brendan Campbell joins the party for a look at the outfielders in part two of three for Carson-Newman baseball's position previews.
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