The three-time defending national champions at Toccoa Falls College have been preparing for the 2014 season since August. In the upcoming season, the Eagles will seek to continue their unprecedented run of national championships. NCCAA Division II World Series winners in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2013, the Eagles will begin their national title defense at Bryan College on January 31 – February 1. The 2014 Eagles return the majority of their statistical leaders from the last season, and expectations remain high for the Eagles and Coach Justin Pollock despite several new challenges the team will face.
TFC will field one of the deepest teams in NCCAA as they lose just two starters from the 2013 team. “It is very possible that we could field an entire lineup with guys who have started multiple games for us. Even with the loses of Corey Warner and Adam Reynolds, we could be replacing them with guys like Tyler Sellers and Russ Pritchett, both of whom have starting experience. It’s been big for team chemistry to return so many guys with strong leadership ability,” said Coach Pollock.
In all, 16 players are back from the 2013 squad, including most of the team’s top offensive threats and several starting pitchers. Highlighting the group of returners are seniors Josh Ward (2B), Jordan Couillard (SS), Russ Pritchett (C), Dylan Charles (SP), and Justin Key (OF/SP).
The Eagles will return five players in the outfield who saw regular innings last season. Led by Key, sophomores Will Patrick and AJ Mussler (OF/P) will spend time in the outfield along with juniors Josh Hill (OF/P) and Matt Alligood. In 2013, Hill and Key the Eagles with three home runs apiece. Additionally, Hill hit .356 with a .467 on base percentage. Key finished third in the nation with 35 runs scored to go with his .544 slugging percentage and .440 OBP. Freshmen Tray Hill and Eric Lusk will also compete for time in the outfield. Matt Beyatt will redshirt in the 2014 season.
In the infield, Tyler Sellers was the Eagles starting shortstop in 2011 and will slide over to third base this season to replace All-American Corey Warner. Sellers, Ward, and Couillard will be joined by first baseman Ronnie Stewart. Stewart led the south region with a .390 average in 2013, his first season as an Eagle. “Returning our starting shortstop, second basemen, and first basemen and plugging Sellers back in at third base has been great. It’s nice not to have to worry about alignments and coverages. In a way, it’s like having four coaches on the field at all times,” said Coach Pollock.
Power hitter Zack Warner (#15, pictured left) will split his time in the lineup between first base and designated hitter. Warner hit .369 with a .544 slugging percentage in 2013. Warner led the nation with 21 doubles and was fourth nationally with 36 RBI’s. Clayton Oliver and freshman Jimmy Walker will provide support behind the returning infielders.
Behind the plate, Russ Pritchett will lead the competition to replace the departed Adam Reynolds. Pritchett will be joined by transfers Michael Sneed and Ben Wilson. Freshman Zach Murdock will split his time behind the plate and on the mound.
In addition to being the everyday centerfielder and one of the Eagles’ top offensive threats, Justin Key (#11, pictured above) is the reigning National Pitcher of the Year. From the mound, Key allowed just 10 earned runs in 612/3 innings (1.46 ERA), averaged 5.84 strikeouts per 9 innings, and led the country with 8 wins.
Also recording 8 wins in 2013 was TFC’s career wins leader Dylan Charles (pictured right). Charles struck out 7.43 hitters per 9 innings and tallied a 2.60 earned run average during his junior campaign. World Series hero Zach Breeden returns for his junior year after earning a win and a save at the 2013 World Series. Sophomores Brady McMichael and Jackson Warnock return for their second year in the program, though Warnock will redshirt in 2014.
Colton Roberts transferred to TFC after spending time in the baseball program at Bryan College and will serve as the staff’s closer. Also new to the pitching staff are freshmen Mitchell Donahue, Dylan Dalton Clay Ogle, and redshirt candidates Trevor Brown, Christian Carter, and Alex Hammond.
Coach Pollock appreciates the challenges that await the freshmen and transfers when it comes to potential playing time. “The guys who are entering the program for the first time are really fortunate to be training under quality players who are great guys. I expect the newcomers to do whatever is needed to help us win,” said Pollock. “If a player’s role on the team is to cheer from the dugout, pinch run, or start in centerfield, he should be grateful for that opportunity and perform his role to the best of his ability, no matter how small that role may seem.”
The Eagles will face a unique opportunity in the hunt for a fourth consecutive trophy. The NCCAA has re-aligned its two baseball divisions to create a single division for all of its participating baseball teams. The 2014 schedule will continue to feature a strong blend of NCAA, NAIA, and NCCAA teams in the regular season. The main difference from years past will be seen at the south region tournament (May 5-8 at Point University). Toccoa Falls will continue to face old rivals Clearwater Christian College and Johnson University (FL), but will now have to defeat teams such as Shorter College, Southeastern University, Emmanuel College, North Greenville University, Point University, Southern Wesleyan University, and Palm Beach Atlantic at the conference tournament to earn a return trip to the World Series. In 2013, Emmanuel and Southeastern represented the south region at the NCCAA D1 World Series, an event that saw an impressive 11 major league draft picks and several additional players who signed with major league teams as undrafted free agents.
Coach Pollock said of the new conference alignment, “The guys are very excited about facing new challenges at a higher level. We won’t play each conference opponent in the regular season, so it will be interesting to see how we stack up against some great teams throughout the season. We are going to have to adjust to the value that each regular season game will carry, but it is a challenge that I think we are ready to take on.”
With new challenges on the horizon for TFC baseball, one can take comfort in the fact that the ups and downs of 2014 will be faced head-on by one of the deepest and most talented teams to ever take the field for Toccoa Falls College.