The Florida Southern baseball team will open its season tonight at 6 at Henley Field in game one of a three-game home series with the University of West Florida. This is the fourth time in the last five seasons that these two South Region foes have met to start the year.
"It's always a good test right out of the gate for both teams," said Florida Southern Head Coach Lance Niekro who is entering his sixth season at the helm of the Moccasins.
After the UWF series, the Moccasins hit the road for a non-conference game at Eckerd on Feb. 6 and then play a three-game series at North Georgia University on Feb. 9-11 before returning to Henley Field for a three-game set against Lee on Feb. 16-17.
"The early season prepares us for what the conference has to offer," said Niekro. "The SSC is tough and there's not an off-weekend. Anyone can beat anyone on any given day.
Niekro will need to fill holes at first base and left field with the departure of seniors Jason Sierra and Mitch Reeves, respectively, from last season.
The Moccasins return the leading hitter from last year's 37-15 team in shortstop Omar Villaman who hit .384 with a team-best 16 stolen bases. Outfielder Cody Burgess brings back his .327 average along with 14 homers and 52 runs batted in while catcher Austin Mauer slammed 13 round-trippers and drove in 44 runs as last year's squad set a school-record with 81 home runs.
On the mound, Niekro will be tasked with finding a replacement for All-American Jake Walsh who was a 16th round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in last year's Major League Draft. Walsh was 12-1 with a 2.62 ERA and struck out 104 batters in 99.2 innings. Cameron Hanes signed a free agent contract with Milwaukee following the season that saw him record a team-high 11 saves with 36 punchouts in 28.2 innings.
The Moccasins do return senior All-American Logan Browning, who was a 37th-round pick of the San Diego Padres but opted to return for his senior season. Browning mowed down 107 batters in 93.1 innings while posting an 8-2 record and a 3.95 ERA. While not pitching, Browning will play left field or DH. He was second on the 2017 squad with a .380 average with seven home runs and 45 RBI.
"Having Logan return is huge for us," said Niekro. "JT Hintzen is another key pitcher back for us."
Hintzen was tough out of the bullpen with 53 strikeouts in just 31.2 innings over 21 appearances. JJ Niekro, brother of the head coach, will see extended action this season after going 2-1 with a 4.05 ERA last season with four starts and five relief appearances. Trevor Castell appeared in just three games out of the pen in 2017 but is looked upon to move into the starting rotation this season.
Martin posted a 2.30 ERA in 32 innings as a freshman at Lake Sumter State College and is a 2015 graduate of Bartow High where he had a 1.57 career ERA in 116 innings. Crowder pitched last season for former Moccasin Al Corbeil at Polk State College after playing his freshman season at the University of West Florida. Marze is seeking to come back from an injury that forced him to miss last season as a member of the Mississippi State team. He was 6-0 with a 3.57 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 53 innings at Louisiana State Eunice.
Rodriguez transferred to FSC last fall after two seasons at Sante Fe College. He batted .243 in 44 games with a pair of homes and 21 RBI.
Following Friday night's game, the Moccasins will entertain the same West Florida Argonauts in a doubleheader on Saturday at 1 p.m.
The Sunshine State Conference schedule will look a bit different in 2018 as the league officially adds two schools in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Universty (Daytona Beach) and Palm Beach Atlantic (West Palm Beach). The Moccasins have played the two schools as part of their schedule the last two seasons, but the games did not count as league contests as the two clubs served a two-year probationary period before becoming full-fledged members of the SSC.
Another change in the conference is the experimentation with three-day conference series. Instead of the traditional Friday night single game followed by a Saturday doubleheader, the Moccasins will have four SSC series (two home and two away) that will be played as three single games on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Florida Southern will play all four three-day series in April, first playing at Rollins (Apr. 7-9) before hosting Florida Tech (Apr. 13-15). The final two series will be at Palm Beach Atlantic (Apr. 20-22) and at home against Nova Southeastern (Apr. 27-29).