The Cumberland baseball team isn’t naïve — losing just nine games over the course of a fourth-month, 67-game schedule doesn’t happen every season.
The Bulldogs know that, so they aren’t necessarily aiming to match last year’s 58-9 record. But they are trying to do what the 2010 squad did — win a NAIA national championship.
“It is hard to lose that few games. I don’t expect our team to match that record. We have the ability to get back to Lewiston [in Idaho, where the NAIA World Series is held] to defend our national championship,” Cumberland coach Woody Hunt said. “Whether we will or not, I don’t know. ... [But] our program is at an all-time high and we’re trying to keep it that way.”
The Bulldogs begin that quest this weekend with four games at home.
They were scheduled to open their season on Friday at home against Missouri Baptist but the possibility of inclement weather later this week has forced the doubleheader back a day. They’ll start at noon on Saturday and then on Sunday, starting at 12:30 p.m., they’ll play two games against visiting University of St. Francis (Ind.).
After edging Lee University 4-3 in the final game of the NAIA World Series for the program’s second national title, they received 16 first-place votes and were ranked No. 1 in the NAIA preseason coaches poll. It marked the fourth time in school history they have received the top ranking and first since March 30, 2005.
“I think we have to deal with the bullseye on our back. Everybody will be shooting for us and we have to be extra strong,” Hunt, who enters his 30th year at the helm, said. “We know that everybody is going to be playing hard to beat us and they are going to give us their best game. We really have to be ready for that. I think that is a key for us and not to put pressure on ourselves to have instant success. We have to build our team as the season goes along. This team wants to win very badly, just like last year’s team. When you are coming off a championship, it is just a tough year and you really have to be strong to play the best you can and not feel the pressure.”
Cumberland returns just three starting position players and one pitcher who tossed in more than 35 innings last year. The schedule will test the young squad with 14 games against eight teams that were ranked in the top 25.
However, ace Aaron Wilkerson is back after a junior campaign in which he went 14-1 with a 2.13 ERA and 125 strikeouts in 101.1 innings. The right-hander pitched 11 complete games and delivered eight solid innings in the championship contest last season.
Also returning is senior catcher David Fanshawe, who batted .342 with 15 doubles, 13 home runs and 49 RBIs in 2010. Along with Fanshawe, seniors Greg Appleton and T.J. Murphy return as everyday starters. Appleton, who will play mainly at third base, hit .361 with 13 doubles, 17 homers and 59 RBIs. He played a big part in a team that hit a school record 141 home runs. Murphy, who played primarily at second base last year, hit .315 with three doubles and 10 RBIs.
Hunt and the Bulldogs hope that base of experience along with some infusion of transfers and younger talent will be the right recipe for success.
“I think we can get back there [to the NAIA World Series]. It is so hard to get there and it is hard to win it,” Hunt said. “So our goal is to get back there and see what we can do when we get there. Our guys want to win very badly but we are not putting pressure on them to do that. ... Hopefully at some point this season, we’ll get back to the top of our game and hopefully get a chance to get back to Lewiston.”
• TSU's first Hall of Famer: Richard Dent, who played defensive end at Tennessee State, was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame over the weekend.
Dent will be the first former Tiger to be inducted. He played at TSU from 1979-82, earning All-American honors his last three seasons. He was named the defensive player of the year by Sheridan Broadcasting Network and finished his college career with 39 sacks, including 14 in 1982.
The Chicago Bears selected him in the eighth round of the 1982 NFL Draft and Dent went on to a 14-year playing career with four teams — the Bears (1983-93), the San Francisco 49ers (1994), the Indianapolis Colts (1996) and the Philadelphia Eagles (1997). He recorded 137.5 sacks during his career, including a then-record 17.5 in 1984. He was named an All-Pro four times and was an All-NFC selection five times. He was named the MVP of Super Bowl XX when the Bears defeated the New England Patriots 46-10.
Dent, who was inducted into the TSU Sports Hall of Fame in 1993, currently lives in Chicago where he runs the Make a Dent Foundation. The goal is to improve the lives of children as the foundation has donated to organizations such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Kentucky, the United Negro College Fund and Colin Powell’s America’s Promise.
• Lipscomb softball picked to repeat: The Lipscomb softball team was chosen as the team to beat in the Atlantic Sun Conference once again when the coaches’ preseason poll was released last week.
The Bisons, who last year won the league title and reached the finals of a NCAA Regional, received eight first-place votes and placed three players on the preseason all-conference team.
Junior Whitney Kiinhl, last year’s A-Sun pitcher and player of the year, was named the preseason pitcher of the year. The 5-foot-8 right-hander from Batesville, Miss., was also one of 50 players to be named to the “Watch List” for the USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year Award.
Sophomore catcher Mollie Mitchell (a Mount Juliet native) and junior infielder Courtney Billington were also selected to the all-conference team.
Lipscomb, which received votes in two national preseason polls, opens its season this weekend at the Georgia Tournament in Athens. The Bisons begin play with an early 8 a.m. contest against East Carolina on Friday.
Belmont was picked to finish 11th.
• Trevecca coaches’ choice to win league crown: The Trevecca Nazarene softball team was also selected to win its conference title, the TranSouth Athletic Conference announced last week.
The Lady Trojans, who won the conference tournament a year ago, also received eight first-place votes and are ranked ninth in the NAIA preseason poll. They return five players who were All-TranSouth last year — seniors Monica West (catcher/third base), Kelsey Lantrip (shortstop), Karli Rush (catcher) and Melinda Patterson (first base) and junior Lauren Baker (pitcher).
Cumberland was picked to finish fourth.
• MTSU sophomore earns weekly honor: Middle Tennessee State guard Icelyn Elie was named the Sun Belt Conference player of the week, the league announced Monday.
Elie, a 6-foot-1 sophomore from Lebanon, averaged 24.5 and 8.5 rebounds in two home wins against Louisiana-Monroe and South Alabama last week.
She was 12-of-14 (85.7 percent) from the field for a career-high 28 points against Louisiana-Monroe on Wednesday. She also was 4-of-6 from the free-throw line and added eight rebounds and a career-best tying three blocked shots in a career-high 37 minutes.
For an encore, she grabbed nine rebounds and scored 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting against South Alabama. It was the first time in her career that she has scored at least 20 points in consecutive games.
Elie is averaging 11.1 points and 5.4 rebounds a game for the Blue Raiders (19-5, 10-1). Middle Tennessee, which leads the Sun Belt’s East Division by three games, plays at Western Kentucky at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
• TSU’s Foster named freshman of the week in OVC: Tennessee State forward Tayla Foster was named the Ohio Valley Conference’s co-freshman of the week, the league announced on Monday. She shared the honor with Murray State’s Jessica Winfrey.
Foster, a 5-10 post player out of Madisonville, Ky., scored 21 points and hit a key shot with 21 seconds left to lift the Lady Tigers to a 73-70 victory over Murray State last Thursday. In a loss to Tennessee-Martin on Saturday, she scored a career-high 25 points to go along with eight rebounds.
Foster is leading the team in scoring with 11.5 points a game. Prior to Tuesday’s home game against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, she had scored at least 10 points in seven straight games for TSU (6-17, 3-10).
• BracketBusters time set for TSU: The Tennessee State men’s basketball team will play Delaware State at 3 p.m. on Feb. 19, the school announced last week.
The non-conference battle, which will take place at the Gentry Center on TSU’s campus and will be televised on OVCSports.TV, is part of ESPN’s ninth annual BracketBusters event. From Feb. 18-20, teams with NCAA Tournament potential will battle against similar teams from other conferences across the country (Delaware State is out of the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference).
TSU (11-13, 8-6 Ohio Valley Conference) plays at Austin Peay at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. The Tigers, who fell to Jacksonville State 76-73 in overtime on Monday, need just one more conference win to qualify for the league tournament in March.