MACON, Ga. – In each of its first three years in the Atlantic Sun, Kennesaw State has improved its standing and on the heels of its runner-up finish in 2008, the A-Sun coaches have installed the Owls as the preseason favorite, the conference office announced on Thursday.
Led by the Preseason Pitcher of the Year, Kyle Heckathorn, the Owls received six of the 11 first-place votes outdistancing themselves from a bunched pack of Lipscomb, the 2008 conference champion, FGCU, the 2008 regular-season champion and Stetson. Lipscomb earned three first-place votes, FGCU and Jacksonville, slotted fifth, split the remaining two votes.
Outfielder Jacob Robbins joined Heckathorn on the preseason All-Atlantic Sun team from the Owls. In 2008, Robbins hit .362, good for ninth in conference to go along with a .473 on-base percentage, which placed him fourth. Heckathorn finished last season with a 4-2 record and a 4.98 ERA with 64 strikeouts in 59.2 innings pitched.
Lipscomb’s one-two punch of Rex Brothers and Brandon McClurg landed among the starting pitchers along with FGCU’s Pete Woodworth. Brothers proved to be the A-Sun workhorse of 2008, leading the league with 97.2 innings pitched. He also paced the A-Sun with 96 strikeouts. He earned the win in the Bisons’ upset of No. 8 Georgia in the NCAA Tournament. McClurg, whose 2008 included a no-hitter against Kennesaw State, finished with a 6-6 record and a 3.34 ERA, third-best in the A-Sun.
Woodworth shared conference lead in wins, seven with two of his former teammates, Casey Coleman and Richard Bleier. He finished with a 7-3 record with a 4.27 ERA. His teammate, second baseman Mikel Alvarez made the team as one of three sophomores on the All-Atlantic Sun team. He hit .345 as a freshman.
Stetson, fourth in the poll, placed the most individuals on the preseason team with three led by the Player of the Year, Jeremy Cruz. Cruz earned that honor, as a well as a place among the outfielders, with unanimous support from the coaches after a 2008 campaign that included a .404 average, third in the A-Sun, and a .704 slugging percentage to lead the league. He ranked among the top eight in seven additional categories, on-base percentage, hits, runs, home runs, RBI, doubles and total bases. Cruz earned a spot on the Louisville Slugger Preseason All-America Team and is on the Brooks Wallace Player of the Year Watch List. The left side of the Hatters infield both made the team with 2008 Freshman of the Year, Robert Crews patrolling the hot corner and Casey Frawley earning the nod at shortstop.
Jacksonville edged out its River City rival UNF for the fifth spot. The Dolphins catcher Jeremy Gillan landed on the preseason team by virtue of his 2008 season that included a .377 average and 60 RBI, both ranked fifth in the A-Sun. He gunned down 17 would-be base stealers, tied for second in the league.
Belmont, seventh in the preseason poll returns its slugging first baseman, Derek Wiley. Last year, he established a Bruins single-season record for home runs with 17. He has hit 41 in his career, good enough for the Belmont record and he needs 13 to pass former Stetson star Frank Carr for the Atlantic Sun all-time record. His teammate, Jimmy Stanley, earned the nod as the conference’s top closer. Last year he closed out six wins with a 2.30 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 27.1 innings pitched.
Mercer and All-Atlantic Sun designated hitter Joe Winker took eighth in the poll with Campbell and Ryan Hamme taking ninth. Winker hit .351 with 35 RBI and Hamme hit. 349 with 13 stolen bases. Hamme posted a .450 on-base percentage, seventh in the A-Sun. USC Upstate and ETSU rounded out the poll.
The Atlantic Sun Conference is an 11-member league committed to Building Winners for Life, with a focus on academic and athletic integrity and a balance between the two for the student-athlete, and maintaining a high level of sportsmanship. Headquartered in Macon, Ga., the A-Sun encompasses six of the top eight media markets in the Southeast. The A-Sun consists of some of the most dynamic private and public institutions in the region: Belmont University, Campbell University, East Tennessee State University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Jacksonville University, Kennesaw State University, Lipscomb University, Mercer University, University of North Florida, University of South Carolina Upstate and Stetson University.