The UNA Lions baseball team is heading into year two of Division-I play with a 16-38 record under its belt. UNA ended last season with four straight losses, three against Lipscomb and one from SEC powerhouse Auburn.
The Lions are in the midst of fall schedule of alumni, scrimmage, UAB and Kansas Community College games.
“We are banged up quite a bit,” head coach Mike Keehn said. “We got several guys we will be looking at in the spring. What we have had is getting some guys in different positions, that we might not have. I wasn’t anticipating the fall to look like this, we are trying to get some new guys involved. We have had a lot of injuries this fall, so we have been limited in what we can do.”
The Lions completed their first season of Division-I baseball with an 8-7 home record, a 7-29 away record and a 1-2 neutral site record. They finished seventh in the conference with a 7-16 conference record, one slot above NJIT who finished last with a 7-17 record.
“The strides they need to make is the strides we make in the second half of the year,” Keehn said. “Make the adjustments as quick as possible, play clean, and don’t make mistakes. When we do keep the games close, execute and close the game. There are no breaks when playing in Division-I, our schedule will be more of a challenge this year, we aren’t playing any slouches.”
North Alabama had 15 games at home last year, and will play 24 at home this year. 12 of the 24 will be non-conference opponents, whereas the Lions faced only four non-conference opponents at home last year.
“We were much better at home last year, obviously,” Keehn said. “We were on the road quite a bit last year, it’s just something about being in your own facility and not having to sleep in a motel all the time. With more games at home, hopefully will come will more wins.”
The Lions played against three SEC schools a year ago in Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss. UNA lost twice to Alabama on the road and once to Auburn; however, they went on the road to Oxford and beat Ole Miss 10-6.
In the game in Oxford saw UNA total a season-high 14 hits as the Lions upset the 18th-ranked team in the country at the time. This marked the first time UNA beat a SEC opponent since 1992, when they defeated Mississippi State 3-2.
“For the program and for where we are, it was really big,” Keehn said. “It’s not just beating Ole Miss, it’s beating a ranked team, it was good for us to get on the map. We played really well and the conditions were perfect to do what we had to do. We saw our confidence come in and we didn’t panic towards the end of the game, we just kept plugging away.”
After competing with only six seniors on the team last year, this year eight seniors return and outfielder Tate Mathis returns as a graduate student. One of the graduating seniors from last year’s team, shortstop Peyton Sockwell, said just being a part of the transition to Division I meant a lot to the upperclassmen.
“It meant a great, great deal to me to have been able to give something back to the university and athletic program that gave me so much,” Sockwell said. “As for the foundation of the first Division-I team, being able to do it with the other seniors – Davis Elliott, Kaleb Barnes, Brett Baker, Adam Mancour and Josh Stillman – made it all that more enjoyable. UNA is a special place and we are very blessed to have been able to contribute towards UNA’s success as a whole.”
In 189 bats last season, Sockwell was seventh on the team with a .222 batting average. He ran in 24 runs off of 42 hits, he also had 8 doubles and a home run. Keehn said Sockwell made an ever larger impact than his numbers indicate.
“[Sockwell’s] leadership kept everyone’s head above water,” Keehn said. “When we were sinking and not winning games, his attitude stayed high. That is where his leadership came in, and helped us. The seniors this year have to do the exact same thing.”
Only two players started and played all 54 games a season ago, graduating senior second baseman Davis Elliott and returning third baseman Reid Homan. Homan was third on the team with a .252 batting average and contributed 39 runs, 11 doubles, one triple and two home runs.
“[Homan] will be at the top of the lineup and is about as good defensively as you can be at the Division-I level,” Sockwell said. “Expect him to have a big year for the Lions. Another name is Drew Hudson, he is a leader on and off the field, he also got a lot of playing time as a true freshman. He is stepping into a starting role which will only benefit him.”
The Lions open up year two with a four-game stretch at home against Ohio University beginning Feb. 14. They then turn to the road for the next five games until coming back home against Belmont. Conference play starts March 27 against Jacksonville at home and the ASUN tournament starts May 20.
“We got Mississippi State this year, we got Alabama and Ole Miss again, then we also have three games will Louisville,” Keehn said. “Those are premiere games and those are set with two teams that have been in the College World Series. This will just be good games to play for the program. Our goal is to get Fort Meyers, Florida for the ASUN tournament.”
The Lions team missed out on the ASUN tournament last year by one seed and four wins. 12 of their 24 conference games are at home this year, they also finish the season against Kennesaw State at Mike D. Lane Field.