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The Andrew Jackson baseball hopes are high as head coach Mike Lucas embarks on his second season leading the Volunteers.
AJ, 17-11 last spring with a region runner-up finish and a Class AA Upper State postseason bid, returns a veteran cast of players.
The Vols have back seven returning starters, including four all-region players.
“We have potential to have an outstanding season, if we improve defensively and our hitting improves,” Lucas said. “Our pitching depth is stronger, but we have to reduce walks and be stellar in the middle infield.”
Sophomore right-hander Tripp Rollings, who produced a strong freshman season, is the AJ ace with a 5-0 mark and 3.30 earned run average last season. In 55 innings, he fanned 91, an average of 11.5 a game.
Freshman Chandler “Cha Cha” Gardner, 5-2 last season with a 5.81 ERA and 24 whiffs in 27 frames, is expected to battle for the Vols number two or three starter.
“”Chandler’s strength has improved and playing football last fall improved his mental toughness,” Lucas said.
Sophomore Tanner Gardner is also back after posting a 3-2 mark with a 3.87 ERA and 41 whiffs in 34 frames, an 8.4 per game average.
Freshman right-hander Dustin Eddins and southpaw D.J. McIlwain, both up from the Junior Vols’ team, will work in spot starts and relief.
“The key for our pitching is to hold leads,” Lucas said. “We have to reduce our walks and work to stay ahead in the count. We’re young on the mound, but that’s not an excuse because we’re talented.”
Junior Ryan Phillips, a returning starter at catcher, will handle the AJ hurlers. Seth Graves, an all-region pick last season with a .324 average and 18 runs batted in, will work at catcher and third base.
Rollings, when he’s not on the mound, will be at third. An all-region pick, Rollings hit .329 with a .570 slugging average, four homers and 30 runs batted in last season.
Sophomore Chandler Neal will be at shortstop where Eddins will also draw playing time.
Garrett Coates, a junior, will be at second after hitting .320 in 18 games last season. Junior Eric Broughton, up from the jayvee team, provides depth at second and third base.
Tyler Rodgers, a senior who has signed to play baseball at the University of South Carolina at Lancaster, is an all-region returnee at first base.
He hit .479 with four homers, 26 RBIs, .845 slugging average and a .519 on-base percentage.
Sidney Watson, a sophomore, and Chandler Gardner will also see action at first base.
The AJ outfield is solid with three veteran returnees, including speedy all-region pick Bobby Delly in center field. Delly, a junior, hit .415 with a .707 slugging average, .534 on base average, 28 RBIs, four homers, 58 total bases and 22 stolen bases.
Delly will be flanked by senior Adam Eubanks in right field and Sidney Watson in left. Watson hit. 250 last season, which Lucas said he hopes will be higher this season. Eubanks, like Watson, is a solid defensive player with good range and a strong arm.
Returnee Tanner Gardner, a .290 hitter last season, and junior D.J. McIlwain will also be in contention for an outfield starting slot.
“We have to hit better against quality pitching,” Lucas said. “We have to meet that challenge.”
Lucas will be assisted by Jimbo Barton and Rick Jackson, who will also handle the AJ statistics. Former AJ baseball star Brenton “Bub” Walters will lead the AJ jayvee team.
Lucas noted the Vols are dedicating the season to Justin Brewer, a member of the AJ squad last season who died in a fall auto accident.
The Vols will honor Brewer’s memory, wearing a black patch which will include his initials – JB and his No. 8 in orange.
“Justin will always be a part of the AJ baseball program,” Lucas said. “We miss him, but he will be with us this season.”
Lucas said the AJ booster club has helped with field improvements.
“I want to thank Lynda Watson who heads our AJ baseball parent support group,” he said. “Our community is there with support for baseball and all Vols athletics.”
As for the Region IV-AA race, Lucas said it will be tough each game.
“Our region is probably as strong as any in the state,” Lucas said. “”Any team is capable of winning the region. Cheraw is the favorite and Central is the defending champion.
“Buford has a strong, veteran team which will be in there battling for first,” Lucas said. “You can’t count out Indian Land, which is vastly improved. Any of those four is a serious contender.”