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Preview: Young Raiders eye conference success

The Raiders open the 2012 season by hosting Northwest Florida State.

Seminole State College of Florida baseball will have a new look this year as the Raiders gear up for the spring season starting on Jan. 27.

After the departure of 15 student-athletes from the 2011 squad to four-year universities or to professional baseball, 2012 will be a year of change and transition. Still, Raider Head Coach Chris Hayes and his team are up for the challenge.

“I’m looking forward to watching the development of these players and seeing how they come together,” says Hayes, who has already spent 10 weeks with the team through fall practices and out-of-league play. “Our strength is our players’ belief in their teammates. Our success will depend on how close they are and how tough they play together.”

Several key players from the 2011 Raiders team have moved on. All told, seven All-Mid-Florida Conference (MFC) athletes are gone, including Martin Kelly and 2011 MFC Player of the Year Todd Hankins, both of whom were named to the Florida College System Activities Association (FCSAA) All-State team.

But the Raiders of 2012 are ready to step up and fill the empty slots. Some have already proven themselves during the fall exhibition season, and Hayes expects them to improve throughout the spring.

Even with the host of inexperienced players taking the field, and with a rough out-of-conference slate preceding the always-competitive conference schedule, expectations are running high for the Raiders. “Our goal is to win the Mid-Florida Conference title and make the state tournament,” Hayes says. “I expect it to happen.”

Seminole State has not broken through to the postseason since 2008, but Hayes sees 2012 as the year.

“This group is prepared. They’ve worked harder than any group I’ve ever had. This group deserves to experience success,” Hayes says. “But it’s not going to be easy.”

The Team

The word around the diamond this season is “green.” More than half of the Raiders’ roster is comprised of first-year athletes who have never played college ball beyond fall’s pressure-free out-of-league play. A few players have some experience at other colleges, but will be playing their first on-the-record game for Seminole State this spring.

“We are very green from a junior college standpoint,” Hayes says. But the team’s younger players have stepped in enthusiastically to fill last season’s vacated roles.

Still, the value of the team’s returning players will be enormous. “Guys who spend two years here have a major influence on our success and direction,” Hayes says. “They truly understand how difficult it is to win in the state of Florida.”

For now, sights are set on making the postseason, and Hayes thinks Seminole State can get that far and beyond.

Batting

Even as the season approaches, the batting order remains in flux, but Hayes expects the lineup to be savvy and intelligent at the plate.

“The group is very prepared and scrappy,” he says. “They will be tough outs; they won’t swing at very many bad pitches; they’ll get on base a lot and run well.”

There are a few positions in the lineup nearly set – sophomore outfielder Tyler Lesch and freshman infielder Angelo Amendolare will likely bat near the top, and sophomores Regan Flaherty and Brett Knief will provide support in the middle. But Hayes plans to use early-season out-of-conference play as a time of experimentation to see what works best and flesh out the batting order.

On the Mound

Last year, pitching was one of the Raiders’ strengths, and Coach Hayes expects it to be a strongpoint going into 2012 as well.

“We won’t be overpowering on the mound,” Hayes says, “but we have strong pitchability. What I mean by ‘pitchability’ is intelligent pitching and the ability to create outs.”

Hayes notes his pitchers’ strong fundamentals distinguish them as true pitchers, not just throwers.

With such an untested team, it is essential to draw from whatever experience is available, so young players will be looking toward the veterans for leadership. To those ends, Coach Hayes expects pitching staff front man Justin Russell to step up as a team leader.

“He’s strong and powerful,” Hayes says of the sophomore transfer from the Citadel. “He can’t be outworked.”

Along with Russell on the starting rotation are sophomore Kurtis Gens and freshman Kyle Andre. Third-year sophomore Brian Johnson, who took a medical redshirt due to an elbow injury, will join the rotation as soon as he is healthy.

Behind the starting pitchers, team leader C.J. Kelly will head the relievers alongside a revolving group of sophomores, and some new faces will get the opportunity to make their marks as late-game closers. Hayes says he is excited to watch the development of power pitcher Jordan Brinson and finesse sidearm pitcher Reily Monkman, who will each offer a unique look on the mound late in games.

Behind the Plate

The majority of catching duties this season will fall on returning sophomore Matt Morningstar, who played significant innings at the position last season and understands the expectations for and importance of the role.

“Matt has a tremendous feel for the pitching staff, and he is very sound defensively,” Hayes says. Morningstar has a strong arm and good defensive instincts for preventing steals across the diamond.

Behind him is freshman Darryl Knight, whom Hayes says has great potential for the future, but who remains relatively untested.

Infield

The Raiders’ defensive infield will be anchored by Amendolare at shortstop and Flaherty at first base. Amendolare has great versatility and the ability to play at a high level in a variety of positions, should the need arise, and Flaherty “could be the best defensive first baseman in the state,” Hayes says.

Backing up that strong core, Hayes expects second and third bases to be covered by a rotating group of infielders, including Thomas Kelly, Austin Moore and Blake Prince. Relief pitcher Reily Monkman could also see playing time in the infield.

Outfield

There are still questions as to who will play right field, but Coach Hayes plans on using the position flexibly and allowing some younger, less-experienced players to cut their teeth on that side of the grass. Making plays in center field will be veteran Brett Knief, and Tyler Lesch will cover the left. Both will bring great speed and athleticism, as well as acute awareness to track down fly balls.

“Those two aren’t going to lose very many races,” Hayes says of the fielders.

Season at a Glance

The Raiders begin FCSAA play Jan. 27 against Northwest Florida State College, last year’s statewide runner-up. And the schedule doesn’t get much easier from there, as the Raiders face six of the eight Florida teams that made it to the 2011 postseason. Seminole State will play more than a third of their regular-season games – 17 out of 48 – against opponents that appeared in the postseason last year.

“We play about as tough a schedule as anyone in the country,” Hayes says.

The out-of-conference schedule also includes two evening games – Feb. 14 and Feb. 21 – held under the lights at Historic Sanford Memorial Stadium about a mile from downtown Sanford.

Hayes says if the Raiders can navigate the tricky out-of-conference schedule with a record north of .500 they will be on the right track heading into conference play.

But the team’s main focus will be MFC play. A competitive out-of-conference record can build momentum and confidence, but conference record is the only thing that matters for making it to the postseason and competing for a championship. To be invited to the FCSAA State Tournament, the Raiders must finish the season either as the MFC champions or the runners-up.

The Raiders’ last conference championship, as well as their last postseason berth, came in 2008, and since then, conference powerhouse Santa Fe College has won three straight MFC titles. Seminole State hosts Santa Fe in what could be pivotal conference matchups March 26 and April 2, and visits the Saints in Gainesville March 24 and April 16.

All Raider home events are free to Seminole State students, faculty and staff with a valid Blue & Gold Card, the new Seminole State ID. Admission is also available to the general public for a small fee. For more information, and to view the Raiders' complete season schedule, please visit the Seminole State baseball home page.

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