College baseball season couldn’t have come at a better time for sports enthusiasts like myself. In the wake of the Super Bowl and the realization that we won’t get to watch a meaningful football game for the next 7 months, baseball should help keep folks like me occupied.
Union baseball fans have been largely disappointed the last several years, as the team hasn’t finished with a winning record since they moved to the NCAA in 2013. Don’t let that discourage you, though. This could be the year the Bulldogs finally achieve a winning mark.
Head coach Lee Driggers, who is in his third year at Union, made major improvements a season ago. Driggers’ first year was a rough one, only managing 7 wins in what was ultimately a rebuilding year. The 2016 season was a different story. The sophomore head coach led his team to a 20-28 record, good for the club’s best mark since they moved to Division II. Driggers expects even more improvement in 2017.
“I think in my three years [at Union] this is the best team we’ve put on the field,” coach Driggers said. “We would really like to make the conference tournament.”
A trip to the Gulf South Conference Tournament would be a club-first, and that scenario is undoubtedly possible for a veteran Bulldog team. Union almost cracked the conference playoff last season; eight teams get in, and the Bulldogs finished ninth.
There is no reason to believe this team won’t take another step forward in 2017 to make it to the tournament. Only one guy on the roster graduated last season and the team has both added and developed a ton of talent in the offseason. According to junior and three-year starter Austin Orr, this is the most athletic team Union has had in recent years.
“I’m very encouraged to see younger guys stepping up this year already,” Orr said. “I look forward to seeing (sophomores) Nolen Milton and Hayden Lewis continue to rip the cover off the ball.”
Orr was right about his second year teammates. Lewis started 37 of Union’s 48 games in 2016 and was second on the team with a .446 slugging percentage, and Milton already has two home runs to add to his four RBI’s and has helped contribute to the Bulldogs’ hot 4-0 start in 2017.
In addition to what will likely be an improved lineup, the Bulldogs injected some major talent into their pitching rotation. Projected starter JR Miller is a transfer from Northwest Mississippi Community College, where he posted a 1.25 ERA from the bullpen. Miller was perhaps even more impressive in high school, winning state titles in both baseball and football with Harding Academy and being named MVP of the 2013 baseball tournament.
The atmosphere is sure to be electric all year at Fesmire Baseball Field. The Bulldogs are on the rise and I can’t think of anything more fun than watching winning baseball to usher in the Spring.