2022 Fall Report: Georgia SouthernFall Report
STATESBORO, Ga. — The 2022 Georgia Southern Eagles raised the bar for the program, winning 41 games and hosting a regional for the first time ever. The opportunity to showcase the excellent facilities and festive gameday atmosphere of J.I. Clements Stadium in front of a national audience in the postseason was a boon for Georgia Southern, but ultimately a 1-2 showing in the regional left the Eagles wanting more.
“I think it was a big step for our program, no question the exposure is always helpful,” said longtime Georgia Southern coach Rodney Hennon. “I think from a confidence standpoint, it helps our kids, but we’ve got a good group of leaders. We had great leadership last year and I think we’ve got a great core of leaders back this year. One of the strengths of that group last year was the leadership and the fact they held each other accountable, and these guys understand the importance of that. They also understand we have to continue to grow and get better. As good as last year was, ultimately that’s not where we want to go, we want to go farther than that. It was a big step in the right direction, but these guys are well aware of how hard you have to work just to put yourself in that position.”
Last year’s Eagles were a classic “lunch-pail” group whose work ethic and dedication to fundamentals carried them to new heights. Georgia Southern did not post sexy statistics, ranking in the 70s nationally in both scoring and ERA, and ranking outside the national top 120 in home runs and doubles per game. But it was a very well coached, disciplined club that executed the inside game (ranking second in the nation in sacrifice bunts) and took care of the baseball exceptionally well (eighth in fielding percentage).
“We’ve got a group of kids here right now in the program that I think really buy into the team part of it, and take a lot of pride in those things,” Hennon said. “We work on those things, we try to hammer home the defense, we take a lot of pride in the baserunning, the importance of just team offense. I think our kids buy into that, so we’ve just got to stay with it. To me that’s a big part of the college game, that’s what’s fun about the college game.”
And Georgia Southern returns enough key veterans from last year’s club to make another run in the Sun Belt and in the postseason. This should be another heady, hard-nosed team whose sum is better than its parts.
Which isn’t to say the Eagles lack quality parts. It might not be a big home-run hitting team, but there is some thump in the middle of the lineup, led by burly slugger Noah Ledford, who hit .348/.444/.665 with 17 homers, 19 doubles and 70 RBIs last year. The 6-foot-1, 252-pound switch-hitter returns as the centerpiece of the lineup, and he figures to see considerably more time at first base this year after spending most of last season in the DH spot. Fellow oversized slugger Corey Dowdell has taken a step forward and should join him in the first base/DH mix, along with juco transfer Luke Hatcher, who can also play a corner outfield spot. The 6-foot-3, 306-pound Dowdell hit a walk-off double to propel his team to victory at the fall world series finale I caught in Statesboro recently. The 6-1, 218-pound Hatcher uses a very low hand setup and a a pronounced leg lift but has the bat speed to get on time and make hard contact. He and Dowdell bring some good righthanded thump to the heart of the order.
Two key infielders are back along with Ledford: second baseman Jesse Sherrill and third baseman Jarrett Brown. Sherrill is the top returning hitter from a year ago (.361/.480/.452), a doubles hitter with excellent control of the strike zone (33 BB/27K) and good baserunning instincts (13-for-15 in steals). He’s also a very reliable defender at the keystone. Brown hit .305/.387/.433 with four homers and nine doubles in 210 at-bats last year, but he should boost his power production a bit as a junior. He showed off that pop with a no-doubter grand slam in the fall world series game I attended, and also drew two walks and stole a base. Like Sherrill, Brown is a quality athlete who defends well, just a winning all-around player.
The Eagles should also be strong again behind the plate, where rock-solid veterans JP Tighe and Kyler Hultgren are back after splitting time a year ago, along with promising 6-foot-4 freshman Bobby Stang and sophomore JD Kaiser, who should also factor in the mix. Tighe has seen some playing time in the outfield this fall to increase the lineup flexibility.
Georgia Southern has a hole to fill at shortstop after the departure of mainstay Austin Thompson, but Hennon feels good about senior Blake Evans assuming the job. Evans played sparingly a year ago and hit just .148, but he has taken a nice step forward offensively this fall and I liked what I saw from him in Statesboro, as the lefthanded hitter pulled a single through the right side and then lined a three-run triple to center. He’ll likely hit in the bottom third and help turn the lineup over. Evans played third base when I was in town, with Jarrett Jenkins manning short and showing smooth actions and a strong, accurate arm. He gives Georgia Southern some insurance at that key shortstop position.
“Austin Thompson was very reliable for really five years, counting the COVID year that he played there. But Blake Evans has been a good defender for us and really has done whatever we’ve needed him to do during his career, he’s played all three positions at times,” Hennon said. “Jarrett Jenkins is a guy that’s been in our program going on his third year now, that can defend and play all three.”
That should be a good group on the infield, with two-way talent Jaylen Paden also providing some depth and athleticism, though he spent the fall focusing on his pitching — more on that later. The Eagles have plenty of options in the outfield, where Sam Blancato is the most accomplished returnee. Blancato can play all three outfield spots and provides some punch (7 HR last year), and his strong arm would play well in right field if the Eagles elect to go with speedster J.C. Peacher in center. Peacher is a wiry athlete with a slasher approach from the left side and proficiency with the short game.
Some newcomers could push for playing time in the outfield corners, along with Hatcher. Hennon liked what he saw this fall from juco transfers Zane Faulk and Cameron Crosby as well as freshman AJ Wenrich. Out of that group, Wenrich stood out the most in my look, showing righthanded pop with a homer down the left-field line.
“AJ Wenrich is a freshman that I think has a bright future,” Hennon said. “He’s learning to play the outfield, was more of a corner infielder coming into the program.”
Pitchability Lefties & Power Righties
On the mound, Georgia Southern stands out mostly for its deep assortment of crafty pitchability lefties, headlined by returning ace Ty Fisher (6-2, 2.58) and closer Jay Thompson (7-4, 3.91, 6 SV). Hennon said Fisher attacks the zone at 87-88 and can reach back to bump 90 when he needs to, but he doesn’t try to be someone he’s not. He keeps hitters off balance by mixing his fastball, curveball and changeup in any count, and he’s a fierce competitor. Thompson is another battle-tested warrior who shouldered a big load last year, logging 76 innings over 37 relief appearances.
“We’re hoping that we’ve got a few more options. We’ll still use him a lot, but hopefully we can match him up a little more and have some other different looks that we can throw out there,” Hennon said. “It’s a different slot, down here, everything moves, the slider is really good. When he’s on, he’s getting a lot of groundballs, lot of sink and run. He’ll be 84-85, right in there with some movement.”
Redshirt sophomore Anthony DiMola has a similar style, a three-quarters southpaw with deception and solid arm-side run on a fastball that sat 83-86 in my look, along with a sweeping breaker at 72-73 and a go-to changeup with good action at 75-79. Lanky, funky lefty Andrew Arnold can rock hitters to sleep at 80-81 with a big bender at 70-71, and Will Robbins sat at 87 with good spin on his mid-70s curve. Juco transfer Mitchell Gross gives Georgia Southern another useful pitchability lefty with an 86-88 fastball and feel for a changeup and breaking ball.
But the two best arms on the staff are righthanders who should factor into the weekend rotation behind Fisher. Jaylen Paden (6-2, 5.30) made 14 starts a year ago and had plenty of good moments despite a high walk rate (51 BB in 71.1 IP). Hennon said he’s been more consistent with his strike throwing this fall, and the quality of his stuff was obvious in my visit, as he worked at 90-94 with good run from a three-quarters slot, showing good feel for a swing-and-miss slider at 80-83 with big tilt and adding an occasional changeup. Paden struck out three over the first two innings and then got into some trouble with back-to-back walks in the third, but on the whole he looks ready to take another big step forward.
Paden went head-to-head in that fall world series finale with exciting freshman righty Zachary Harris, who cruised through three perfect innings with four strikeouts, three of them coming thanks to his short, late power slider at 84-88 mph. Lean, loose and athletic at 6-foot-1, 193 pounds, Harris has a fast arm and sat 93-95 mph in the first inning, then settled in at 91-94 for the next two. He also showed advanced feel for an 81-82 mph changeup that he was comfortable throwing right-on-right for strikes. Harris was perhaps the most impressive true freshman pitcher I saw all fall.
“Zach Harris was impressive today. He’s got a good feel for a young guy, what he’s doing, has shown a good presence out there in the fall,” Hennon said. “He was a high school quarterback, so we feel good about the makeup, and he’s a competitor.”
Junior righty Ben Johnson could also factor into the rotation mix after making six starts among his 21 appearances last year. He started throwing a split-finger late last spring and carried it over into a successful Cape Cod League run, giving him a third weapon along with his 91-92 fastball and quality slider.
Sophomore Thomas Higgins gives the staff another power arm from the right side. Athletic and strong with a clean delivery and a high three-quarters slot, Higgins worked at 90-93 during his scoreless 2.2-inning stint on my visit, complementing the heater with a decent 11-to-5 curveball at 75-79. Hennon said he had been shut down earlier in the fall so that appearance was actually his fall debut, and it was encouraging.
Freshman Benjamin Stuart, like Higgins, should be a nice bullpen weapon from the right side, with a 91-92 mph fastball and a promising slider and changeup. Fellow freshman Brady Pendley can really spin a breaking ball and developed a useful cutter this fall, making him a nice matchup righty, at least. And East Georgia State transfer Cameron Oliu is a bit of a wild card with the stuff to be an impact reliever if he can be more consistent with his command. And uptempo three-quarters righty with some funk and deception, Oliu has elite spin on his 88-92 mph fastball (in the 2600-2700 rpm range) which should make the pitch play well up in the zone, and his low-80s slider showed tight spin at 2800 rpm.
“So I feel like we’ve got a chance to have a few more options there,” Hennon said of his bullpen. “But the good thing is there’s a lot of competition heading into spring practice. I feel good about where we’re at, but the question is what we do moving forward between now and February? Feels like we still have a lot of work to do.”
The same is true for every program — nobody is a finished product in November. But this Georgia Southern club looks built to compete at a high level once again.