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Teddy Cahill looks at college baseball’s biggest series heading into the weekend
After four weeks of nonconference action, the Southeastern Conference begins league play on Friday. For 10 straight weeks, the 14 SEC teams will put on a show in front of stadiums packed full of fans and scouts alike.
|TOP 25 SERIES|
|Boston College at (1) Louisville|
|(2) Florida State at Virginia Tech|
|Kansas at (3) Texas Christian|
|(4) Oregon State at Arizona State|
|(5) Florida at Auburn|
|Georgia at (6) Louisiana State|
|New Mexico at (7) Cal State Fullerton|
|Mercer at (8) East Carolina|
|(15) Virginia at (9) Clemson|
|(10) South Carolina at Tennessee|
|(11) Texas Tech at Texas|
|(12) Arizona at UCLA|
|(13) North Carolina at Georgia Tech|
|Appalachian State at (14) Louisiana-Lafayette|
|West Virginia at (16) Baylor|
|Vanderbilt at (18) Mississippi|
|(20) Coastal Carolina at Texas State|
|Rutgers at (21) Florida Gulf Coast|
|Kentucky at (22) Texas A&M|
|Northwestern State at (23) Oklahoma State|
|Northern Illinois at (24) Michigan|
|Utah at (25) Washington|
|Top 25 Tournaments|
|Sean McGrath Invitational, Norfolk, Va.|
|(19) St. John’s, Iona, Massachusetts-Lowell, Towson|
Last season saw a stark contrast between the top and bottom of the conference, as half the teams hosted a regional and the other half got left out of the NCAA tournament. The league again features some elite teams, with No. 5 Florida (13-5), No. 6 Louisiana State (13-5) and No. 10 South Carolina (11-5) playing the role of favorites. But the start of a new SEC season presents a new opportunity for the whole conference, and especially for the teams trying to get back to regionals after missing last year.
Of the seven SEC teams that missed the NCAA tournament last year, a few are off to hot starts this season. Missouri (16-1) hasn’t lost since Opening Day, tying it with No. 1 Louisville for the longest winning streak in the country. Tennessee (12-2) made an early-season statement with a perfect weekend at the Tony Gwynn Classic in San Diego. Arkansas (14-4) is tied with Texas A&M for the best record in the SEC West.
Now, all three will try to carry their hot starts over to conference play. This weekend, Missouri travels to Alabama (10-7), Tennessee hosts South Carolina and Arkansas hosts Mississippi State (12-6), the defending regular season champion.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn knows how important it is to get off to a strong start in the SEC.
“It’s always big for your confidence to get a good start in league play,” Van Horn said. “You’ve got to battle. Very few games are going to be handed to you. You’ve got to go out and beat somebody. If we get off to a good start, it’s good for the psyche more than anything.”
While Van Horn and Tennessee coach Dave Serrano are SEC veterans, this is Missouri coach Steve Bieser’s first year in the conference.
“I’m kind of excited to get started in SEC play,” Bieser said. “It’s an opportunity to compete against the best. We have the opportunity to open against Alabama and the club is excited.”
The Tigers are off to the best start in program history and are on their longest winning streak in more than 30 years. It hasn’t always come easy for Missouri, which has four walk-off wins in its last seven games, including a 7-6 victory in 13 innings Wednesday against Chicago State.
Missouri is led by junior righthander Tanner Houck, a two-time veteran of USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. He opened the season with a loss to Eastern Michigan, but has improved with each start, Bieser said. Houck is 2-1, 2.92 with 28 strikeouts and seven walks in 24.2 innings.
Much like Houck, Bieser said the Tigers are still developing and building confidence daily.
“We’re continuing to progress as a team,” Bieser said. “We understand we’ve got to get better every single day. With the ebb and flow of the league, you’ve got to play your best baseball every day. It all starts with pitching and defense. The pitching has done a solid job, we’ve just got to clean up the defense.”
Tennessee has taken a step forward this season, but will now face a tough South Carolina team to begin SEC play. The Volunteers have been much better on the mound, where returning starters Hunter Martin (3-1, 3.68) and Zach Warren (2-1, 3.44) have been supported by freshmen Zach Linginfelter (0-0, 3.57) and Garrett Stallings (0-0, 0.89).
Tennessee has also been bolstered by the return of righthander Kyle Serrano, Dave Serrano’s son who missed almost all of last season due to Tommy John surgery. Serrano has moved to the bullpen and will serve as closer this spring. He is still limited to one-inning stints on nonconsecutive days, but Serrano said as the season progresses and the weather warms up, Kyle Serrano will be available for longer outings.
Offensively, the Volunteers are off to a strong start as a team, hitting .326/.419/.488. Redshirt senior Jeff Moberg (.475/.537/.831, 5 HR) has been spectacular in his return from a knee injury that sidelined him most of last year. Fellow senior Jordan Rodgers (.411/.452/.607) has also started the season well.
After starting the season so well, Serrano said he wants the Volunteers to ride that momentum into conference play.
“I hope they don’t change what they’ve been doing,” Serrano said. “I hope their personality doesn’t change because of those three letters, the SEC. We’re aware of the competition for 10 weeks in a row. We believe we can play with anyone in this league. Now it’s time for us to go out and prove that.”
Arkansas started strong last season, going 3-0 in the 2016 Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic and entering SEC play 15-3. But the Razorbacks faltered in conference play, finishing last with a 7-23 SEC record.
The Razorbacks are dealing with some injuries this spring, most notably to starters Isiah Campbell and Keaton McKinney, who were both expected to be in their rotation. But increased depth from its 12th-ranked recruiting class has helped Arkansas persevere this season.
Arkansas’ offense has been strong this season. The Razorbacks are averaging 7.89 runs per game this season and have hit 25 home runs, led by Grant Koch and Dominic Fletcher, who have five each. Van Horn said the Razorbacks need their offense to continue to produce as they get into SEC play.
“We did feel like we had a team that could put big inning on you,” Van Horn said. “I want a team that can put together a big inning, but can also punch in a run here and there.”
Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee will all look to get off to strong starts in SEC play. But with a 10-week gauntlet of conference games ahead, Serrano said he has learned it is important to remain level-headed throughout the campaign.
“What I’ve learned is that you can’t get too excited about the wins and you can’t get too down about the losses,” he said.