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College Weekend Preview: March 26-28

By Will Kimmey
March 26, 2004

It's a great week to be in Alabama. Spring football just kicked off, and Alabama and Alabama-Birmingham each scored upsets over top-seed teams in the men's NCAA basketball tournament to advance to the Sweet 16.

Those events have the locals exciting and the local media blowing out the budgets.

"Those upsets still shared headlines with spring football scrimmages in local papers," one Alabama student said. "The Crimson-White game gets more pub down here than beating a 1 seed. Crazy down here, crazy."

Still there's another great story everyone's missing. The Birmingham-Southern baseball team has won 16 straight games. The Panthers did lose their first five games--three against No. 8 Mississippi, one against Alabama-Birmingham and one to Georgia--but Birmingham-Southern did knock off Georgia in the second game of that series and hasn't lost since. Sure, some of the wins have come against Siena Heights and Columbia, but the Panthers have also topped three Southeastern Conference teams in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi State.

That last win was a big one for Birmingham-Southern coach Brian Shoop spent seven years as an assistant to Ron Polk at Mississippi State before taking over the Panthers program in 1990.

Birmingham-Southern was an NAIA team until 2001, but capped its final year in that classification with a 55-11 record and an NAIA title after reaching the World Series the two previous seasons.

The Panthers made the move to Division I status the next year, becoming that level's fourth-smallest school with an enrollment (1,400) lower than plenty of high school across the country.

Plus, Birmingham-Southern was only granted provisional status those first two years, meaning it couldn't qualify for postseason play despite running up records of 32-20 and 33-18.

Those two years were spent building the foundation for 2004, a year that might as well have started with Bud Selig throwing out the first pitch at Scrushy-Striplin Field and reminding fans "this time it counts."

"Really coach Shoop started preparing for this transition back in 2001," says assistant Bob Keller, who came to Birmingham-Southern from Georgia State in 2002. "We're starting to see the benefits of that right now. This year's senior class knows how to win. They're real special because they're the last guys who played for that (NAIA) championship team."

Connor Robertson, one of those six seniors, hit a home run in the NAIA title game against Lewis-Clark State and then in the season-opener in 2002, which just happened to come at Louisiana State. Playing teams such as LSU and making trips to Hawaii and Washington State were some of the ways Birmingham-Southern has sold itself to potential recruits the last several years.

The Panthers aren't going to beat out Alabama or Auburn for big-time recruits, so the coaching staff prides itself on teaching and getting the most out of its talent.

"We don't have the guys you just recruit and let 'em go," Keller said. "So we just have to be a developmental program."

Robertson makes for a nice case study. He's always been able to swing the stick, and became the school's all-time home run leader by swatting his 46 career homer in win No. 14, but has also come along on the mound. He had made just seven career appearances entering 2004 but has enjoyed success as the team's closer this year, after Keller helped him adjust his arm slot to a more over-the-top position. He now tops out at 91 mph and is 3-0, 0.00 with two saves and 16 strikeouts in 10 innings to go along with his always-solid batting line.

"He competes as well as anybody out there," Keller said. "He really is a model for what it takes to compete. He's our team leader and we feed off him."

Robertson is hitting .346-7-26 and could get drafted as a corner infielder for his power potential. No other player has more than two home runs or 16 RBIs, because the Panthers are built on speed, defense and pitching. Offensively, they scramble to set the table with the .389 team on-base percentage and then make things happen.

Senior outfielders Matt Bogue and Michael Cline as well as sophomore Scott Billak all have at least nine steals and are a combined 29-for-30 on the bases. (The team is 41-for-46 overall.) The fleet-footed outfield has earned the nickname "The Rabbits."

Bogue, a rangy center fielder, led the team in steals last year and uses his blazing speed (6.47 in the 60-yard dash) to lead the club in that category as well as average (.387) and on-base percentage (.452). "He's so fast sometimes I think he's got a bicycle hidden in center field," Keller said.

Cline ranks third on the team with a .347 average and set a Birmingham-Southern record with a 27-game hitting streak last season. Billak actually has the worst average of any regular at .189, but still has a .397 OBP thanks to eight walks and 11 hit-by-pitches. ("He's a 'Moneyball' guy," Keller said.)

"When 'The Rabbits' get on base, Connor steps up and drives them in," Keller said. "As far as recruiting, you just go rabbit hunting. Our pitchers love it. They chase down everything."

The staff is led by junior lefty Wes Letson, who's gone 3-1, 4.03 and has delivered key performances in wins against Alabama and Mississippi State. Letson held the Crimson Tide to two runs on eight hits over seven innings in a no-decision, working out of a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the second inning. He threw seven four-hit innings Tuesday in the 10-1 win at Mississippi State.

Letson hasn't come out of nowhere; he ranked as the No. 7 prospect in the Alaska League last summer after pitching in the high-80s and topping out at 91 mph. As a freshman, he beat Ball State's Bryan Bullington, who was the first overall pick in that year's draft. Letson might go as high as round five this June.

"He is our stallion," Keller said. "We feel he can match up against anybody. His secondary pitches have really come along, his changeup especially. He was in complete control against Mississippi State."

Juniors Josh Britnell, David Horn and Mac Godwin make up the rest of the rotation, and Godwin is the lefthander. All the pitchers throw strikes and make use of 'The Rabbits' in the outfield, helping the staff to a 3.08 ERA and 151 strikeouts and 78 walks in 181 innings.

"Our deal is right now we almost don't have enough innings for the guys we want to run out there," Keller said. "It's not like we've got a bunch of Nolan Ryans, but I like our guys and I like to use our bullpen. We've got 16 wins spread between seven guys."

Birmingham-Southern will take those 16 wins to Coastal Carolina this weekend. The Chanticleers are off to the same 16-5 and have won the last three Big South championships.

But winning the series at Coastal Carolina isn't the main focus this weekend. Nor is sustaining the winning streak. Keller realizes it's a cliche, but he and the coaching staff always remind the players to focus on every pitch.

"What you hear coming out of our dugout is winning the next pitch," Keller said. "I went to the mound against Alabama and told Wes, 'We're going to win the next pitch.' I said, 'Throw a changeup off the shoetops and get a double play.' And he did and we got out of the inning.

"Those are little things but the next thing you know, the little things add up to big things like wins."

And maybe, those little things can help the seniors would like to complete the bridge between postseason play in the NAIA and NCAA tournaments.

Around The Nation

Right next door to Alabama, Mississippi baseball is also coming to a head. Or Head, as in Mississippi two-way star Stephen. Head and the No. 8 Rebels will be visiting Alabama this weekend in Southeastern Conference play. Mississippi dropped a taut midweek game at No. 16 Southern Mississippi on Tuesday. Golden Eagles junior second baseman Jarrett Hoffpauir went 4-for-5 with a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth for an 8-7 win. Southern Miss plays its first road series in Conference USA play this weekend at South Florida.

The third key team in the state, Mississippi State, seeks a rebound from tough midweek losses to Birmingham-Southern and Samford this weekend. Things won't be easy for the Bulldogs, however, as they must step into a sure-to-be raucous situation at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, La., as No. 3 Louisiana State plays host to its first SEC series of the year.

Everyone has surely been following Jered Weaver's junior season for No. 7 Long Beach State, and hopefully got to read Allan Simpson's early draft preview look at him and the other top 50 prospects. Weaver's just been phenomenal this season, going 7-0, 0.71 with 73 strikeouts and six walks as well as two 15-strikeout performances. Those numbers rival Mark Prior's junior statistics at Southern California. Actually Weaver's are better.

So when you thought Weaver couldn't top himself anymore, he goes out against a very explosive offensive club in No. 11 Wichita State on Wednesday and throws six shutout innings in a 10-1 win. He recorded 18 outs, 16 by strikeout to tie a Long Beach State record and set a new career high. He got 14 of the first 15 outs on strikes. The other two outs came on a foul pop to first base and when third baseman Derek Schermerhorn walked and got picked off first base Weaver.

"It was pretty amazing," said UC Irvine coach John Savage, who drove across town to watch the Dirtbags before they travel to face his No. 19 Anteaters in two games this weekend. "Sixteen strikeouts in six innings. It was 0-2 on every batter before they got in the box. His command is special, three pitches for strikes."

Would anyone else like to vote for first baseman Mike Hofius having let the popup fall to see if Weaver could have fanned 18? In all seriousness, we don't expect a player to actually do that, but there is historical precedent.

Don Baylor did what Hofius could have in Roger Clemens' first 20-strikeout game on April 29 1986, dropping a foul pop along the first base line hit by Gorman Thomas in the fourth inning. Baylor was charged with the only error of the game, and the Rocket ended up getting Thomas on a called strike three to add an extra K to the docket. (Thanks to retrosheet.org for refreshing the memory on that game.)

Summing it up, Weaver improved to 8-0, 0.64 with 89 strikeouts, eight walks and 22 hits allowed in 57 innings. And credit Long Beach State coach Mike Weathers for using his stud judiciously. Weaver didn't top 100 pitches Wednesday and hasn't thrown a complete game this season. Part of that has to go to Weathers' confidence in his bullpen, a group led by righthanders Neil Jamison, Brian Anderson and Brent Andrade that has allowed 15 earned runs all season.

Second-ranked Texas plays its first home conference series of the year as Oklahoma State ventures south to Disch-Falk Field. The Longhorns possess one of the country's deepest pitching staffs, one that will surely be tested by lineup with three strong bats in junior third baseman Josh Fields, junior catcher Jason Jaramillo and senior outfielder Rod Allen.

That's probably not the story running in Austin papers, however. Here's to betting those advances detail first-year Cowboys coach Frank Anderson's return to Texas, where he served as the pitching coach for Augie Garrido's Longhorns from 2000-2003. Making things more interesting is the fact that the man Anderson replaced in Stillwater has replaced him in Austin. Tom Holliday is working with Garrido's pitchers after 26 years at Oklahoma State, the last seven as its coach.

Also in the Big 12, No. 10 Texas A&M faces the heavy hitters of Texas Tech and 20th-ranked Nebraska welcomes Kansas to town.

No. 9 Arizona State welcomes Washington to Packard Stadium in what could be an interesting series. Arizona State will likely be without All-American Jeff Larish, who sprained his right wrist last weekend and is listed as day-to-day. But Washington's young rotation still faces a stiff test in its first Pacific-10 Conference series on the road against a potent offense.

The Huskies all-righthanded rotation began the season with just three innings of college experience. Sophomore Keaton Everitt threw those innings but joined freshmen Tim Lincecum and Richie Lentz in never having started a game before 2004. Lincecum entered Washington as the state's high school player of the year and has lived up to the reputation. He's earned the No. 1 starter's role with a 2-0, 2.91 start and struck out 15 Loyola Marymount batters over six innings in his last start.

Everitt and Lentz both have ERAs of more than 5.00, but each has shown flashes. Everitt held San Diego to one run on two hits over five innings in his season debut and allowed only one hit and no runs in seven innings against Gonzaga. Lentz' father Mike was the second overall pick in the 1975 draft, and his brother Ryan was a former starter at third base for the Huskies. Lentz became the first freshman to start on Opening Day under coach Ken Knutson and earned his first college win by striking out eight Sacramento State batters in five innings.

No. 15 Florida State visits No. 24 North Carolina this weekend, but junior shortstop Stephen Drew won't make the trip to Chapel Hill. Drew has missed the team's last seven games with a hip injury. Senior Bryan Zech replaces drew at shortstop, where he hasn't made an error this season, and freshman Ryne Malone takes Zech's spot at second. Malone hit two grand slams last weekend against Maryland. No. 25 Virginia will also be in the Tar Heel State this weekend to take on North Carolina State, which has lost four of its last five games.

Top-ranked Stanford resumed play this week after 15 days off, and sophomore shortstop Jed Lowrie showed he'd been taking some batting practice during the exam break. He hit three homers in two wins at St. Mary's and Santa Clara. Two of those homers came against Santa Clara as the Cardinal scored a season-high 18 runs, including nine in the third inning.

"You can definitely feel something different about this team," Lowrie said. "There is a certain energy and everyone is in it together. Everyone is trying to use their own abilities for the betterment of the team. This team has balance offensively, defensively and pitching."

Stanford returns to Palo Alto this weekend for three games against Cal Poly, which at 22-9-1 is 13 games over .500 for the first time since 1997.

No. 14 Auburn looks to reverse a slide of three losses in its last five as it visits No. 21 Tennessee, which has won 16 of its last 17 contests. Auburn sophomore Josh Bell hails from the state of Tennessee (as does senior righthander Colby Paxton) and will play third base the first two games before starting the series finale on the mound.

Elsewhere in SEC action, Kentucky faces No. 17 Florida. First-year UK coach John Cohen thought it was great to be a Florida Gator the last two years while serving as the team's hitting coach under Pat McMahon. No word if Ashley Judd will be in attendance now that there are no more Wildcats basketball games to go see. Also, No. 4 South Carolina plays its first road series of the year at Arkansas, and Georgia heads to Vanderbilt.

No. 13 Notre Dame begins Big East play this weekend at West Virginia, which got 13 strikeouts from freshman righthander Travis McGrath in a 4-1 win against St. Bonaventure on Tuesday. The Irish won 13-7 against Detroit on Wednesday, but have suffered two puzzling losses in the last week. Notre Dame lost an 8-4 game Saturday at Southern Illinois, which entered the contest with a 2-12 record. Then the Irish lost 4-1 in their home opener Tuesday to a Central Michigan team that came in 6-10. It marked the first time Notre Dame had lost it first home game of the year since 1995, coach Paul Manieri's first year in South Bend.

Down in the Atlantic Sun, No. 23 Central Florida looks armed for a chance to wrest the league title away from No. 22 Florida Atlantic, the defending champion. The Golden Knights top two starters, righthanders Matt Fox and Kyle Bono, are a combined 9-0, 0.85 with 107 strikeouts, 20 walks and 42 hits allowed in 84 innings thus far. Central Florida faces the Stetson this weekend after both teams played Bethune-Cookman earlier in the week. UCF escaped with a 7-6 win in 11 innings Tuesday, while the Hatters got tripped up 4-1. Florida Atlantic is coming off its first conference series loss since 2002 and looks to push its league record back over .500 against Jacksonville.

No. 5 Miami dropped a midweek game to Florida International on Wednesday, so the Hurricanes will have to wait until the weekend series with Penn State to pick up win No. 20.

Sixth-ranked Rice nearly lost a midweek game at Texas A&M after building a 14-2 lead. The Aggies battled back to make it 15-10 before junior righthander Jeff Niemann emerged from the bullpen with one out in the ninth. He got two quick strikeouts and several handshakes as the Owls held on. They face Fresno State this weekend in their third Western Athletic Conference series of the season.

We'll round out the Top 25 action in Conference USA. Charlotte, which has won six games in a row, heads to New Orleans this weekend to face No. 12 Tulane. Another North Carolina league member, No. 18 East Carolina travels to Memphis.

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