The South Atlantic Conference baseball championship will be on the line this weekend when eighth-ranked Tusculum College and 16th-ranked Catawba College collide at Pioneer Park in a crucial three-game series.
The series begins Friday night at 6 p.m. with a nine-inning contest, followed by Saturday's 1 p.m. doubleheader (1st game - 9 innings; 2nd game - 7 innings).
The drama has been building all spring as Tusculum and Catawba have steamrolled through the conference season. The Pioneers and Indians have already clinched 30-win campaigns, with each posting impressive 19-2 records in league play. What is amazing about that is prior to this year, only four teams in league history have recorded more than 19 SAC wins in a season, while TC and Catawba have already achieved the feat with six conference games remaining in 2012.
This weekend will also feature the two most successful baseball coaches in conference history in Tusculum's Doug Jones and Catawba skipper Jim Gantt.
Jones and the Pioneers are enjoying one of the best baseball seasons ever at Tusculum, posting a 32-5 overall record and enter this weekend's series riding a 12-game winning streak, while also posting 11 straight SAC victories.
If this weekend's series wasn't important enough, Coach Jones is closing in a personal milestone as well, as he needs one more victory for his 500th career win in his 15 years at the Greeneville school. His 499-284-1 career record is the best in school history, second-best in SAC history and ranked amongst the top 25 in the country for active NCAA Division II coaches.
Gantt has recorded 550 career victories since taking over the Catawba program in 1997 and is the winningest coach in conference history. Gantt has won a SAC-leading 241 league victories, while Jones is second with 177 SAC wins since 2000.
The Tusculum and Catawba baseball programs have proven to be two of most dominant in the SAC of late with either the Pioneers or Indians winning or sharing seven of the last eight league championships.
Both teams have been getting it done by excelling in the three critical areas of the game: hitting, pitching and defense.
Tusculum is batting a .337 as a team, including a sizzling .403 during its recent 12-game winning streak. TC is currently ranked in the top 10 nationally with 222 base on balls (1st), 310 runs scored (3rd), 411 hits (6th), 79 doubles (8th), 37 home runs (4th), and 39 sacrifice bunts (9th). Catawba is ranked in the top 10 with 288 runs scored (8th), 415 hits (5th), 16 triples (6th), 43 home runs (3rd), 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings pitched (3rd) and a .972 fielding percentage (9th).
Individually, Tusculum boasts the No. 1 home run hitter in the country in senior outfielder Alexi Colon, who has belted 14 round-trippers this season. Colon also leads the nation in base on balls with a school single-season record 48 walks. Colon's power numbers and on-base percentage (.512) have been impressive of late, but he got the season off to a sluggish start and batted under .250 for the first month and a half. But he has raised his average to .319, including .465 in his last dozen games that includes four doubles and six home runs during that span.
Tusculum's most consistent hitter this year has been senior Aaron Guinn, who is batting .413 this year, including .458 in his last 12 games. Guinn leads the team with 57 hits (6th in NCAA II), including 12 doubles, a triple, two home runs and 32 RBI.
TC's hottest hitter of late has been senior Cody Coffman, who is second on the team in batting .385, including a team-best .565 during his current 12-game hitting streak. Coffman has posted 55 hits, 12 doubles, four home runs and 37 RBI, to go along with 22 walks.
The Tusculum pitching staff has been solid this year for the Pioneers, posting a 3.66 earned run average, led by the weekend starting rotation of Craig Goodman (7-0, 1.70 ERA), Taylor Rakes (6-1, 3.99 ERA) and Adam Sigmon (5-0, 4.56 ERA). Goodman leads the team with his 52 strikeouts, while limiting the opposition to hit just .222 against him.
The Catawba series begins a nine-game home-stand for the Pioneers to close out the regular season prior to the Food Lion South Atlantic Conference Tournament, later this month in Forest City, N.C. Tusculum will host Barton College in a three-game midweek series, before closing out the home-stand next weekend against Lenoir-Rhyne University.