GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Furman's baseball team will open preseason practice on Friday at 3:00 p.m. in preparation for the season opener on Feb. 16 versus Marist at Latham Stadium.
Head coach Brett Harker, who is entering his second season at the helm of Furman's baseball program, welcomes the return of 20 lettermen and six position starters off last year's squad, which posted a 33-28 overall record, 14-10 Southern Conference mark, and SoCon Tournament runner-up finish.
The Paladins face a challenge in replacing several outstanding performers — chief among them being two-time All-SoCon right-handed starting pitcher Will Gaddis (9-3, 1.89 ERA in '17), a third round draft selection of the Colorado Rockies last summer. Also gone is spark-plug All-SoCon left-fielder Carter Grote (.332, 8 HR, 56 RBI in '17), All-SoCon Tournament center fielder Sky Overton (.336, 6 HR, 39 RBI in '17), and experienced catcher Cameron Whitehead (.312, 13 HR, 39 RBI in '17), another All-SoCon Tournament performer from a year ago. In addition, Furman graduated Sunday starting pitcher Matthew Quarles (6-5, 5.99 ERA in '17) and solid left-handed reliever Billy Greenfield (2-1, 4.98 ERA, 3 SV in '17).
While the losses are notable, the Paladins return a host of veteran players, including starters at first, second, and third base, as well as shortstop. Behind the plate Furman boasts a senior with solid game management experience and a proven bat, and two key corner outfielders are back.
Furman will build its infield around All-SoCon first baseman Brandon Elmy (.341, 11 HR, 49 RBI), who is coming off an outstanding 2017 campaign that was cut short due to a hamstring injury two games prior to SoCon Tournament play. A three-year starter, he will supply power in the middle of the lineup as his 18 career home runs and 93 RBI attest.
At second base senior Sims Griffith (.265, 3 HR, 24 RBI), another three-year regular, returns with 144 starts under his belt and a proven glove (.967 career fielding percentage).
Bret Huebner (.289, 1 HR, 17 RBI) will look to retain his starting job at shortstop after taking over the position a month into the 2017 campaign. His consistent work in the field and timely hitting helped fuel Furman's impressive 22-8 finish a year ago that included a 13-2 run over the Paladins' final 15 SoCon contests.
The return of junior Jake Crawford (.309, 2 HR, 32 RBI) at third base is a major plus. Sporting professional-quality arm strength and impressive range, the Honea Path, S.C., product overcame a slow start to hit .383 and field a solid .935 over the final 31 games.
The Elmy-Griffith-Huebner-Crawford infield combination, which collectively features 410 collegiate starts, bodes well for the Paladins the spring, as does a supporting cast set to provide quality depth and lineup flexibility.
At first base the return of Deon Sanders (.239, 7 HR, 29 RBI in 2016) following an injury that sidelined him last year is a significant plus. Two years ago Sanders, who attends Furman on a football scholarship and who will miss most of February's diamond schedule due to gridiron practice, took over the starting job at first base following a season ending injury to Brandon Elmy and in 22 starts there hit .250 with six home runs while fielding .994 with just one error in 178 chances.
The middle infield is supported by sophomore Dillon Love (.333, 0 HR, 5 RBI), a 2017 SoCon All-Freshman Team selection who earned 12 starts last year, and freshman Nick Tiano.
When Crawford toes the rubber for the Paladins this spring, his likely replacement at third base will be sophomore Logan Taplett (.308, 0 HR, 2 RBI), another strong-armed performer and perhaps Furman's most versatile performer.
Senior Jason Costa (.318, 5 HR, 21 RBI) is set to take over starting catching duties this spring after fashioning a notable junior campaign that saw him log 33 starts, including 17 at catcher and six at first base following Elmy's season ending injury. Taplett is likely get Costa's relief behind the dish.
Furman's outfield will boast corner performers Landon Kay (.332, 11 HR, RBI) in right field and Jabari Richards (.304, 6 HR, 30 RBI) in left, as well as two highly regarded candidates in center field.
Kay, who logged 40 of his 52 starts in right field in 2017, was one of the main reasons behind the squad's second half surge a year ago. In addition to his considerable run producing ability, the Paladin senior also sports a quality arm, range, and consistent glove, evidenced by his successfully handling all 113 defensive chances in 2017.
Richards made 32 of his 48 starts as a freshman in 2016 in right field, so he is no stranger to a glove on his hand. The heir-apparent to Grote in left, he will join Kay, Elmy, and Costa in comprising the power core of Furman's lineup.
Based on results from fall practice Harker appears very confident with the prospect of redshirt freshman David Webel (.333, 0 HR, 1 RB, .538 OB%) or true freshman Ben Anderson starting in center field. Webel won a starting job in the outfield out of preseason camp last year before an injury ended his inaugural campaign. Anderson, meanwhile, is a product of one of Georgia's top travel teams, the 643 DP Cougars.
Multiple options exist at designated hitter, including either Webel or Anderson (whoever doesn't get the starting nod in center field), Sanders, junior John Michael Boswell (.174, 1 HR, 4 RBI), sophomore Trent Alley (.194, 0 HR, 5 RBI), or redshirt freshman Max Mehlbaum.
Furman's pitching staff will be anchored by redshirt junior left-hander Grant Schuermann (7-4, 4.19 ERA), one of the SoCon's premier starters. Schuermann completed a successful return to action a year ago after missing the 2016 campaign following Tommy John surgery, displaying impeccable control (11 walks in 96 2/3 innings) and unmatched level of dominance in May that saw him go 4-0 with an 0.71 ERA in his final five starts, finished off by a 6-1 win (8.0 IP, 9 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 5 K) over regular season champion Mercer in SoCon Tournament action.
Expected to join Schuermann in the weekend rotation are right-handers Jake Crawford (1-4, 6.33 ERA), the owner of 11 starts among his 35 career appearances, and either junior Heath Hawkins (4-3, 4.07 ERA) or senior Tyler Kimbrell (1-1, 5.30 ERA). Hawkins has shown stretches of brilliance in two seasons of work out of the bullpen, where he has registered 47 of his 48 career appearances. The same goes for Kimbrell, whose 14 appearances a year ago in his first season as a Paladin included 13 in relief.
A host of other arms are in the mix with roles yet to be defined. They include a pair of senior right-handers, Hunter Baker (1-2, 8.28 ERA) and Nik Verbeke (0-2, 3.12 ERA), who was limited last year due to injuries, redshirt freshman left-hander John Michael Bertrand, and three true freshmen — Matt Lazzaro, a southpaw, and right-handers Seth Chestnut and Jordan Beatson.
In addition, the Paladins sport junior right-handers Rutty Jones (0-1, 10.50 ERA) and Eric Taylor (0-0, 7.43 ERA in 2016), sophomore righties Trent Alley (1-0, 6.00 ERA) and Austin Wood (0-0, 10.50 ERA), and sophomore left-hander Andrew Holweger (0-1, 11.57 ERA).
Redshirt sophomore Jonathan Mouw, a righty, has yet to see collegiate action due to injury.
Hunter Reid, Furman Sports Information