February 19, 2010 10:19:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Picked by league coaches to finish last in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference, the Mississippi State baseball team''s excitement about the 2010 season has an obvious reality in the team''s reconstruction.
Year 2 of John Cohen''s command will see 18 fresh faces open the season at 4 p.m. today against Rhode Island at Dudy Noble Field.
They''ve also gotten their first taste of just how celebrated MSU baseball is by experiencing Dudy Gras.
There''s a reason the roster has turned over -- especially on the mound -- the way it has: Last season was below MSU''s standard.
The Bulldogs went 25-29 in 2009 and missed the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year after making it to the College World Series in 2007.
The team''s elder players want that feeling back, and are confident this year''s team can jell and produce as a contender, despite the range of untested players.
"I think we should. If we don''t it will be a huge disappointment," senior first baseman Connor Powers said of making the postseason. "Mississippi State has the greatest fans in college baseball -- we owe them that kind of year. My expectations are always high, and when you play at MSU expectations are high every year."
MSU''s well-documented pitching struggles last year will see youth fill a large end of the stable, and Cohen isn''t bothered by the idea of early errors while his 10 new arms ride the learning curve.
"There are six freshmen who could pitch 200 innings for us. That is really exciting for me, but a little bit daunting also," Cohen said at the team''s preseason media conference. "I think we have enough arms where kids are playing intrasquads, but kids are really throwing once a week. The weekly program they''re on is helping them.
"Our pitching staff is going to do nothing but improve over the course of the year."
Cohen expects six freshmen to contribute regularly this season, with hard-throwing right-hander Chris Stratton being mentioned as a possible Sunday starter. Alabama right-hander Ben Bracewell also has been pegged as a possible starter this season for a staff that returns just one certain arm in 2009 SEC All-Freshman team selection Nick Routt, who will start today against Rhode Island.
Cohen will set a starting lineup just before game time, though the team''s leading returning hitters in Powers, Russ Sneed, and Jet Butler are expected to start.
The outfield lineup is uncertain with the questionable status of sophomore Brent Brownlee, who started 17 games last season and played all three outfield positions but could see a knee scope close to a month ago keep him out of the opening day lineup. Cohen said
"It''s very difficult to say who''s going to play in our outfield because I feel comfortable with six guys at any point in time," Cohen said.
Despite the flux of new players, Powers likes what he sees from the young crop. Along with Sneed''s return to full fitness following hip surgery and the mix of veterans on the team, Powers isn''t worried about a possible repeat of last season.
"The team really has good makeup individually and as a whole," he said. "The freshmen are really doing well through practice, intrasquads and are a good job buying in. Across the board, the coaches did a good job recruiting."
For the Rams, who begin a 20-game road stretch to open their season, today is the first step to building on last season''s school-record 37-20 mark and appearance in the Atlantic-10 title game. URI picked to finish fourth in the A-10 by league coaches this season.
First pitch Saturday is set for 2 p.m. and at 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
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5. New Hope takes advantage of uninspired Aberdeen HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS