by Lauren Donnelly, SID Student Assistant
It’s 11:30 p.m. The lights from the cages illuminate their silhouettes as they cross the field slowly, each in hand a bat and a bucket of balls. While others have been in bed for hours these players not only started their day at 5 a.m. and had a four-hour practice earlier, their day is still going. This is the dedication needed to be a starter here at FGCU.
These three figures are sophomores Mike Cleghorn, Shawn Griffin, and Graig Smith. Not only are they returning starters from last year, but are projected to be in the starting line-up this year as well.
FGCU has a young team this year, heavy with freshmen and sophomores. The Eagles’ talent-laden team is faced with high expectations and head into the season with six underclassmen as prospective starters.
While the sophomores enter this year with the taste of postseason competition in their mouths, they understand getting the freshmen up to speed will be necessary to this year’s success.
“I believe our freshmen class is strong. They wouldn’t have been brought here if they weren’t,” said sophomore leftfielder Shawn Griffin. “We returning players] know what is expected of us. We know how Coach (Dave Tollett) wants things done.”
Luckily for the freshmen, they have a good group to learn from. Sophomore catcher Craig Smith hit .255 with 25 RBI last season while starting 37 of 55 games. He will play a major role this season as senior catcher Jason Cooper will miss this season with an injury.
Alongside Smith is first baseman Mike Cleghorn. He made an instant impact last year as a starter and lead-off hitter, but was sidelined with a shoulder injury. Prior to that injury he hit .304 with 15 RBI.
“This year I need to stay healthy and have a better average and hit more homeruns,” said Cleghorn. “I want to play all 56 games this year.”
Power and leadership will exist in the outfield as well with leftfielder Shawn Griffin. Griffin, who holds the FGCU freshman home run record, has set high expectations for himself after hitting .309 last season with 8 HR and 39 RBI.
“I want to do better in all aspects of the game,” said Griffin. “Each year builds off the previous one and we need everyone to continue to get better.”
The Eagles will need these three to have great seasons this year to help propel them into the postseason. Barely missing the postseason last year, the Eagles are looking to make a big impact this year in the South Region, one of the toughest regions in the country, according to FGCU Baseball Coach Dave Tollett. Of the four teams that competed in the South Region last year, FGCU will play three of those teams.
“We play 27 teams ranked in the top 40,” said Tollett. “Eight teams in our region are ranked in the top 30 and we only have 6 teams make it to the postseason.”
Not only do they have the task of making it to postseason, but this class of sophomores will be the first senior class competing in Division I.
“We have to set the bar and let everyone know we’re here to play,” said Griffin. “We aren’t some small Division I school just hanging around; we’re here to compete for Omaha.”
If the Eagles keep this group together their first year in Division I, and hopefully their first year in the Atlantic Sun Conference, they will have six starters who will have played together for three years. That will be a very strong core to build from for the Eagles’ first year at the next level.
“It’s good because you know what the other person is going to do and you know what to expect with plays and arm strength,” said Smith.
Regardless of their youth and inexperience, the Eagles have a difficult season in front of them as they compete not only against their regional competition, but also to get ready for their Division I transition. The players recognize this challenge and are prepared to meet in head-on.
“Give 100% when you’re there,” said Cleghorn. “You have to be the first person there, the last person to leave, and work hard and don’t go through the motions.”