When the umpire yells “Play Ball” on the afternoon of Feb. 6, a new era in the history of the Francis Marion University baseball program will begin. After 28 seasons under the only coach the program ever knew – Gerald Griffin – a different figure will patrol the third-base coaching box.
First-year head coach Art Inabinet welcomes back 17 lettermen from last season’s 23-20 Patriot squad that surpassed all preseason expectations. Inabinet, an FMU assistant coach the past two years, took over the head coaching reigns when Griffin announced his retirement this past summer.
Among the returnees are six starting position players and nearly the entire pitching staff. Last season, after being picked in the preseason to finish tied for eighth, the Patriots posted a 15-13 Peach Belt Conference mark and finished fifth in the final regular-season standings.
Francis Marion opens its 2001 schedule on Feb. 6 with a 2 p.m. contest at Newberry College. After a Feb. 8 road game at nationally ranked Mount Olive College, the Patriots will host UNC Pembroke in a three-game PBC series, Feb. 10-11.
“In my 12 years of coaching, this is the hardest working group of young men I have ever been around,” Inabinet said of his 2001 squad. “The team had a really good fall, both on the practice field and in the classroom, and now they have placed high expectations on themselves. They know what it will take to win in possibly the nation’s toughest Division II conference, and then qualify for the regionals.” Five PBC members are ranked in the Collegiate Baseball preseason Top 30 poll, including three teams in the top 10.
Befitting the team’s fifth-place showing in 2000, FMU finished fifth in the PBC in team pitching and scoring and sixth in hitting.
“With a little added pitching depth, pitching and defense should be our strengths,” Inabinet commented. “Our offensive attack will consist of moving runners along, stealing bases, and using the hit-and-run. We want to constantly put pressure on the defense.”
Leading the returnees is senior Nolan Graham, who will move from second to first base. He led the team and ranked ninth in the PBC in 2000 with a .357 average. He hit four home runs and also led FMU with 33 runs batted in and 35 runs scored.
Other returning starters are junior shortstop Mark Ford (.338, 20 RBIs), sophomore third baseman Jerry Honeycutt (.336, 3 HRs, 17 RBIs), and outfielders Josh Allen (.324, 21 RBIs), Todd Hewitt (.298, 18 RBIs), and Ryan Reynolds (.247, 2 HRs, 17 RBIs).
Returning pitchers include junior righty Fletcher Kemp, who posted a 6-4 record with a 4.04 earned run average and set a school record with 94 strikeouts in only 89 innings pitched. Also returning are senior lefty Nat Stoner (4-2, 3.47 ERA), sophomore righty Jerry Love (5-4, 4.05), junior right-hander Kyle Lucas (4-2, 5.47), and senior righty Marty Watson (1-3, 5.24). Kemp, Stoner, and Love all ranked in the top 10 in the conference in strikeouts per nine innings.
“Several newcomers have a chance to make an immediate impact,” Inabinet added. “Left-handed hitting freshman Horace Reeves (Irmo, S.C.) can run, hit, and throw and will see action in the outfield. Freshman catcher Jordan Berry (Columbia, S.C.) is in a three-way battle for playing time behind the plate, and freshman Kyle Pope, a product of West Florence High School, swung the bat well during the fall and will get some at bats as designated hitter and at third base. Sophomore right-handed pitcher Bubba Strickland, a South Florence High School graduate who transferred from Gardner-Webb University, will see action on the mound as both a starter and reliever.”
Inabinet concluded by saying, “Overall, we have good speed and arm strength in the outfield and our defense up the middle is as good as any in the conference. Our pitchers are throwing harder, and have worked to get stronger and thus avoid injuries. Last year, we were close. Are we ready to step up and challenge the top squads in the Peach Belt? We will have to wait and see.”
Twenty-nine of the team’s 38 roster members are from South Carolina, including 13 from the Pee Dee. Included on the team’s 52-game schedule are 30 home contests and the always-tough 30-game PBC slate. FMU will also meet local-rival Coker College for the first time on the baseball diamond, April 3 in Florence.