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Author Topic: How Savannah State baseball team reversed years of losing to rise to top of SIAC  (Read 96 times)

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How Savannah State baseball team reversed years of losing to rise to top of SIAC

Nathan Dominitz
Savannah Morning News

For a baseball team that's playing together so exceptionally well, Savannah State players are allowed to have a difference of opinion.

The Tigers are 33-10, their most wins since 2013, and captured the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular-season title last weekend with a 28-2 (.933) mark.

SSU is the top seed in the SIAC tournament this week in Albany, and opens at noon Thursday against eighth seed Tuskegee.

This is an SSU program that was 14-7 a year ago, 7-8 in the COVID-shortened 2019 season, and before that posted losing records of 27-plus defeats from 2014-18.

So when did the Tigers know 2022 was going to be so special?

When they lost their SIAC opener 17-13 to Kentucky State on Feb. 19, said starting third baseman Phil Woullard Jr. Call it an early wake-up call.

"I think after that it was special because it clicked for all of us as a team," said Woullard, a redshirt senior.

SSU blanked Kentucky State 11-0 in the second game of the doubleheader to start a run of 25 consecutive league wins.

"We just all picked it up and started holding each other more accountable and we started getting after it more, and we started being better all-around," Woullard said. "That's why I think it was the turning point for us."

Right-handed pitcher Enrico Peele, a redshirt junior and one of three starters who are a combined 29-3, pointed to a three-game series March 5-6 at Spring Hill in Mobile, Alabama.

"That was probably our first real test of the season," said Peele (11-2, 3.96 ERA), second in NCAA DII in victories. "It was a lot of hype coming into it. We knew coming into the SIAC, they've always been one of the top SIAC teams. That's when we really came together and did what we had to do to win that weekend."

SSU swept the three games to put some space between it and Spring Hill, which fought SSU down to the last weekend and finished the regular season 34-13, 23-4 (.852).

Left fielder Joe Smith had a different answer: April 22, when host SSU trailed Albany State 5-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Tigers' 7-8-9 batters in the lineup each singled, loading the bases for Smith.

That's a good plan. The leadoff batter, Smith now leads all of NCAA Division II with a .470 batting average. He also is 11th in the nation in slugging percentage (.832) and third in triples (nine).

Smith cleared the bases with a three-run double for a 6-5 victory over one of the Tigers' main threats for the SIAC crown.

"All of those guys got on base," said Smith, a redshirt junior. "We're a team that fights. That's when I knew."

All good choices for season-defining moments, but right-hander Jose Santiago came to a fourth conclusion. The redshirt sophomore is one of the many talented transfers who make up more than half of the Tigers' 38-player roster.

Santiago transferred this school year from Webber International in his native Florida and leads off the starting rotation. He's 9-0 with a team-best 77 strikeouts (tied for 65th nationally) and 3.25 ERA, while another transfer, RHP Jared Showalter from Paul D. Camp Community College in Virginia, is 9-1 as the third starter with a 2.49 ERA. 

"As a transfer, you had to make a little adaptation at the beginning, but that's what the fall's about," Santiago said of the team's fall practice schedule. "We come in here in the fall. We had some new faces, mingle a little bit. As the fall went on, we became a family."

He points to a specific moment during the "fall world series," a three-game intrasquad series for bragging rights to conclude the practice slate. Catcher Omar Almodovar ran down a runner on the third-base line for the series' final out.

But it wasn't only his team celebrating. Both sides leaped on top of him, like the scene at the end of more conventional championship games.

"Omar made a play, and everyone went crazy and dogpiled," Santiago, who was on the losing side. "It showed we're a true family in the fall, so I knew that this spring was going to be a crazy spring."

Crazy good, like team batting .343 (10th in DII) compared to .261 for opponents. Smith, a Brunswick native, is at the top with his .470 batting average, and straight nines on doubles, triples and home runs with 64 runs, 41 RBI, 22 walks and 20 strikeouts in 149 at-bats.

"I started off kind of slow the first 10 games," said Smith, who hit .405 in 14 games in 2021, his first in Savannah after transferring from Palm Beach Community College. "After that, it was kind of like beating me up. I took it upon myself to change my swing. I started looking at old videos when I was hitting. Then I changed that. Ever since then, I've been hot."
Forecast for SSU hitters: Hot

Also various degrees of hot are starters such as second baseman Champion Robbins (.399), shortstop Gabriel Patxot (.379), center fielder Dwayne Franklin (.349), designated hitter Calvin Rucker (.344), first baseman Andrai Wright (.327), right fielder Cameron Diaz (.322), third baseman Woullard (.311) and sometime starting outfielder Jaden Oden (.367).

Head coach Carlton Hardy rotates catchers Derek Rivera and Almodovar and has gone with the same lineup nearly all season. Redshirt-freshman infielder Desmore Joseph II (.326 in 46 at-bats) filled in when Woullard was out with an illness.

"Now we have a guy we believe can play every day in the SIAC that's one of our bench players and he's just waiting for his opportunity to get on the field," Hardy said of Joseph.

Hardy, who favors aggressive baserunning, starts with a game plan and lets the game flow impact changes. If the Tigers are hitting, which has frequently been the case, they won't run as often.
Starting pitching dominates for Tigers

As for the pitchers, the staff has an ERA of 4.28, to 8.88 for opponents. Hardy judges a quality start as six innings, three runs or fewer allowed. That's often been the case for Santiago, Peele and Showalter, leaving the bullpen well-rested.

"I tell the kids, the only thing I can do is dictate who's starting," Hardy said. "The game will dictate what changes will need to be made. Those three guys when they take the rubber, they're closers themselves."

Hardy, the head coach since 2006, calls himself "a process guy." He wants batters to work one pitch at a time, putting a good swing on the right pitch and focus on the process, not whether it was a hit.

Likewise, he's not taking a long view of a long season. The goal is to go 1-0. Then start over and go 1-0. That builds consistency.

"This year's team has come together, they're playing hard, they're happy, they're excited," Hardy said. "They're winning games in all types of ways. So it's a real good vibe here."

It hasn't been this good since 2013, when star right-hander Kyle McGowin (a future MLB pitcher) led then-DI SSU to a 33-23 record, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament crown and a berth in the NCAA regionals.

"This is one of the best groups," Hardy said of the 2022 squad. "All of the guys love each other. They're playing hard. They're receptive to the culture that we create here at Savannah State. We've got a good thing going."

When the going is this good, there's a lot of buying into the system. Players listen and follow through on instruction from Hardy and volunteer assistant coaches Paul Grubesic (pitching) and Robert Kraft (hitting). They're all about the team.

"They make my job easy," Hardy said from the dugout as his players practiced on a typically sunny, hot Savannah afternoon.

"As I look out on the field, I realize I don't have to physically be out there yelling and screaming and doing all these things because the guys understand the culture," he said. "This is the expectation at Savannah State. So they have a practice scheduled, they know what to do. Our assistant coaches do a great job of making sure the guys are held accountable, and the guys have that responsibility. They're following through on everything we're asking them to do."

Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and Email him at Twitter: @NathanDominitz



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