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With a nation-leading six teams ranked in the Collegiate Baseball Division II Top 30, the Peach Belt Conference is undoubtedly one of the toughest leagues in the nation.
The PBC boasts two squads ranked in the top 10 – No. 3 Georgia College and No. 7 North Georgia – and No. 28 Armstrong Atlantic State, which took two of three games from defending NCAA champion Southern Indiana to open the season. But it is No. 17 UNC Pembroke that is off to the best start of the highly touted group.
UNCP has reeled off 11 consecutive victories to open the season, marking the best start for the program since joining Division II in 1993. It is also the longest winning streak in school history, propelling the team that was unranked in the preseason polls and picked to finish seventh in the PBC to earn some respect.
The team’s early success has come despite losing three of last year’s top five arms from the pitching staff, including starters Justin Yow and All-America Matt McGovern. This year’s edition entered the week with a 1.73 ERA, while leading the PBC with 121 strikeouts, and has allowed more than three runs just once this season.
“They’re doing outstanding,” head coach Paul O’Neil said. “Going into this season if I had to put a question mark on something I would put it on our pitching because the guys are not experienced. They have a lot of talent, but they haven’t had that success in the past. Right now, they’re pitching with confidence and executing their pitches and doing as good as anyone expect.”
Senior right-hander Brad Isom has compiled a 3-0 record with a league-leading 0.00 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 19.1 innings in three starts – quite an improvement from last year’s 9.26 ERA in eight appearances. A regular starter on last year’s staff, senior Tyler Wood has also improved, going 3-0 with a 1.89 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 19 innings.
“The one thing we do have on our club this year is a lot of competition amongst each other, whether it is competing for innings on the mound or time as a position player,” O’Neil said. “We have a lot of interchangeable parts, and it is making everybody come to the ballpark with the right attitude and right work ethic.”
Following a midweek tilt against St. Andrews’ on Wednesday, the veteran squad will open PBC play with a tough weekend series as UNCP hosts North Georgia beginning Feb. 25.
“I expect us to win, and I think our players expect us to win,” O’Neil said. “We have a feeling that if we play up to our ability level and play well then we have a very good chance of beating most people.”
Need to Know
• Texas junior right-hander Taylor Jungmann began his 2011 campaign with a stellar complete-game shutout as he led the Longhorns to an 8-0 defeat of Maryland on Feb. 18. Jungmann struck out nine batters while allowing five hits and one walk in nine innings of work against the Terrapins. It was the first shutout in a season opener for Texas since 1985, against Texas Lutheran. Jungmann was named Big 12 Pitcher of the Week for his performance. He also improved to 11-0 in 18 starts on the Longhorns’ UFCU Disch-Falk Field.
• It was a scary weekend for Arizona State as freshman Cory Hahn, a native of Corona, Calif., injured his neck in a collision with New Mexico second baseman Kyle Stiner while sliding head first into second base on Sunday. Arizona State issued this statement on Monday, “The family would like Sun Devil fans to know that Cory has sustained a neck injury, that he underwent surgery last night and that he is slowly recovering. The family welcomes all wishes and positive thoughts from everyone at this time.” We’ll update you on Hahn’s progress as information becomes available.
• James Madison University brought “Gorilla Ball” back despite the new “deadened” BBCOR bats, scoring 91 runs on 77 hits, including 23 home runs, in a four-game sweep of Bucknell to open the season last weekend. Shortstop David Herbek belted five home runs with 12 RBI and seven runs scored in the series, earning Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week honors. Herbek batted .538 and walked four times on the weekend. JMU started the season 4-0 for the first time since 2004. Le Moyne’s pitching staff will see if they can fare any better against the Dukes in a four-game series beginning Feb. 25.
• Kentucky junior right-hander Alex Meyer garnered Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week honors after fanning a career-best 13 batters in a 3-1 loss against Miami (Ohio) on Feb. 20. A native of Greensburg, Ind., Meyer struck out eight of the first 12 batters he faced and allowed just three runners to reach scoring position in the seven-inning outing. It was the most strikeouts by any pitcher in the Southeastern Conference last weekend.
• After a sitting out last season with a shoulder injury, UNLV senior Rance Roundy began the 2011 season with a bang, hitting a home run in his first game and following up with three more on the weekend as the Rebels swept Maine in four games. He batted .412 with nine RBI, nine runs scored and two doubles, earning his first Mountain West Conference Player of the Week honor. Roundy also hit a home run in last year’s season opener, only to suffer a season-ending injury later in the game.
• Sonoma State cracked the Collegiate Baseball Division II poll at No. 18 this week after extending the best start in school history to 9-0 with a four-game sweep at Cal State Dominguez Hills. The Seawolves scored 41 runs in the series to open California Collegiate Athletic Association play. Cal State L.A. also opened league action with a CCAA sweep, defeating San Francisco State four times to remain tied with SSU in the standings.
• Shenandoah senior Greg Van Sicker picked up USA South Conference Pitcher of the Week honors for his solid performance in a 2-0 victory against No. 2 Cortland State in Division III action. He pitched eight scoreless innings for the win and batted .533 with two doubles and two triples on the week for the No. 7 Hornets. Van Sickler also became the school’s career leader in triples.
• Texas-Tyler’s David Ring became just the second player in school history to hit for the cycle as he propelled the Patriots to a 14-1 win against Castleton State on Tuesday night. The junior outfielder is the first Texas-Tyler player to accomplish the feat since 2005. He went 4-for-4 with four RBI as the Patriots improved to 8-0.
• UT Arlington sophomore right fielder Preston Beck picked up where he left off, stretching his hitting streak to 23 consecutive games in the season-opening series against Houston. Beck finished the season with a school freshman record 20-game hitting streak and a UTA freshman-record 82 hits last year.
• Oklahoma third baseman Garrett Buechele homered in each of the Sooners’ first three games, and posted multi-hit performances in all four contests as he helped his team to a four-game sweep of William & Mary. For the week, he batted .625 with five RBI and four runs scored, and collected his second career Big 12 Player of the Week award for his efforts.
• The Florida State pitching staff has exhibited outstanding control in the Seminoles’ first four games, not allowing a walk in three of the four contests, including a 5-3 win against Jacksonville on Tuesday night.
• Saint Martin’s senior Casey Mitchell tossed a complete-game five-hit shutout as the Division II Saints defeated Division III’s Linfield 5-0. Mitchell struck out 12 batters and did not allow a walk, and was named Great Northwest Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Week for his outstanding performance.
• Junior Braden Embry provided some offensive spark for struggling Mary Hardin-Baylor, producing six RBI in the Crusaders’ 12-5 win against Concordia Texas on Saturday. Embry contributed a grand slam, RBI-double and bases-loaded walk as the Cru claimed their first victory of the season following an 0-5 start for the Division III program. He was named American Southwest Conference West Division Hitter of the Week.