GREENVILLE, S.C -- Furman's baseball team opens preseason practice this afternoon at 3:00 p.m. in preparation for its Feb. 17 season inaugural against Dayton at Latham Stadium on campus.
Under the direction of new head coach Brett Harker, Furman returns 22 lettermen off last year's squad that posted a 28-29 record and fourth place Southern Conference regular season finish.
The Paladins welcome back two starting pitchers from last year's three-man weekend rotation and count a stable of 16 arms on the squad with collegiate experience. In addition, eleven veteran position players, including seven starters, and nine freshmen dot the preseason roster.
Among the key losses to graduation were shortstop Matt Towarnicky (.272, 1 HR, 17 RBI) and designated hitter Jordan Simpson (.311, 5 HR, 34 RBI). The Paladins also lost the services of first baseman Deon Sanders (.239, 6 HR, 19 RBI), a dual sport performer who sustained torn knee ligaments prior to the start of football practice last fall.
Furman graduated four pitchers, the most notable of whom was left-hander Harry Norman (1-2, 5.88 ER, 59.2 IP), who spent time in the weekend rotation last year.
The Paladins' top returnee is junior right-hander Will Gaddis (10-3, 3.45 ERA), the consensus 2016 Southern Conference Pitcher of the Year. Recently ranked by Baseball America as the No. 39 draft-eligible prospect for 2017, Gaddis owns outstanding command, evidenced by his 20 walks and 95 strikeouts in 101 2/3 innings of work that saw him go 7-1 versus SoCon competition last year. He capped his sophomore season with a complete game, four-hit shutout of East Tennessee State in SoCon Tournament first round action and pitched for the eventual Cap Cod League champion Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox.
A strong candidate to again pitch of the weekend is senior right-hander Matthew Quarles (7-7, 5.32 ERA), whose seven-inning, three-hit, 10-strikeout performance in a 4-0 shutout of Mercer, ignited Furman's 14-6 season finish.
Others expected to contend for a slot on the weekend include right-hander Nik Verbeke, a transfer from Spartanburg Methodist (S.C.) College who went 6-2 with 50 strikeouts in 58 1/3 innings for the Pioneers in 2016, and redshirt sophomore left-hander Grant Schuermann, who has shown great promise after sitting out the 2016 campaign following shoulder surgery. Senior right-hander Katon Harwood, who had a short stint at Appalachian State before transferring to Furman, could also figure into the mix.
Furman's bullpen features a number of experienced arms, led by a pair of seniors in right-hander Nolan Mullen (0-2, 2.56 ERA, 5 saves), who worked 31 2/3 innings last year, mostly in the closer's role, and left-hander Billy Greenfield (4-1, 6.68 ERA, 1 save), who registered noteworthy improvement in 2016 in both relief and spot starting duty. Another senior right-hander, Will Dvorak (0-1, 5.54 ERA), owns quality experience.
Two sophomores, right-handers Heath Hawkins (3-0, 6.27 ERA) and Jake Crawford (0-5, 5.77 ERA, 5 Saves), should figure prominently in the team's plans this spring. Hawkins fashioned an impressive mid-season turnaround by going 2-0 with an 0.51 ERA and a save over his final eight relief appearances last year. Crawford, meanwhile, began his collegiate career as a starting pitcher and at shortstop before making the switch to third base and to the bullpen, where he flourished in both roles. He posted a 1.47 ERA with five saves over his last 10 appearances.
Other pitchers who should contribute include junior right-handed additions Tyler Kimbrell and Hunter Baker, and sophomore right-handers Eric Taylor (0-1, 7.43 ERA), Chase Belk (0-0, 9.00 ERA), and Rutty Jones (0-2, 14.09 ERA). Senior right-hander Paul Barnhill (0-0, 4.50 ERA) is also available.
Furman sports a solid cast of position players, led by senior outfielders Carter Grote (.318, 6 HR, 28 RBI) and Sky Overton (.273, 1 HR, 14 RBI), and senior catcher Cameron Whitehead (.340, 4 HR, 20 RBI). Grote, the Paladins' left-fielder, has fully recovered from a late season ankle fracture that sidelined him for the final nine games, and in center field Overton will look to continue his streak that saw him hit .323 over the final 36 games last spring. The return of Whitehead may be one of program's biggest bonuses after being sidelined at mid-season with a back injury. His powerful bat and impressive defensive skills will be major pluses for the Paladins.
Two juniors, second baseman Sims Griffith (.274, 3 HR, 22 RBI) and first baseman Brandon Elmy (.328, 1 HR, 21 RBI), are back. Griffith sports quality glovework, evidenced by his .981 fielding percentage a year ago, and Elmy, who suffered a season ending wrist fracture last April, boasts a productive bat.
The Paladins boast a pair of impressive sophomore position starters in right fielder Jabari Richards (.343, 10 RH, 25 RBI), who hit leadoff and captured 2016 SoCon Freshman of the Year honors despite missing a full month of action, and third baseman/pitcher Jake Crawford (.308, 1 HR, 31 RBI), a SoCon All-Freshman and SoCon All-Tournament selection who swatted .354 over the final 30 games.
Returnees likely to see action and compete for the starting job at shortstop include sophomrores Brett Huebner (.227, 0 HR, 3 RBI) and Chadwick Word (.143, 0 HR, 1 RBI).
Junior Landon Kay (.212, 3 HR, 12 RBI) will provide experienced depth in the outfield and at designated hitter.
Freshmen who impressed in fall practice and likely to push for playing time include utility performers Trent Alley and Logan Taplett, outfielder David Webel, middle infielder Dillon Love, and pitchers Austin Wood and Andrew Holweger.
Junior college product Jason Costa is expected to provide much-needed depth at catcher.
Hunter Reid, Furman Sports Information