Oct. 24, 2013
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - Senior Auburn catcher Blake Austin was smiling, but he felt a little sad, too. Wednesday marked the final day of the first fall baseball practice under head coach Sunny Golloway, and Austin wasn't ready for it to end.
"It's been a wild ride with a new coach demanding a lot of you," Austin said. "Every day when you wake up you are ready to play some baseball. Before, it was a drag. You're ready to come to the yard now. It's been fun."
Golloway moved to Auburn from Oklahoma in June and said there would be one overriding goal: Getting to Omaha and the College World Series. Austin said it's more than mere talk for a team with 11 seniors, a remarkable number, and the nation's 13th-ranked recruiting class.
"It's the most talent I've ever seen on a baseball team, hands down," Austin said. "... It's going to be a good mix of old guys and new guys that can get it done."
After 28 fall practices, Golloway said the lineup and pitching rotation for next season are almost decided.
The top four starting pitchers are senior left-hander Mike O'Neal, freshman right-hander Keegan Thompson, sophomore right-hander Justin Camp and junior left-hander Daniel Koger. Junior right-hander Trey Cochran-Gill has nailed down the setup role and junior right-hander Terrance Dedrick returns for his second season as the closer.
O'Neal was in the starting rotation throughout last season. Koger was in the rotation early before falling out of favor with previous head coach John Pawlowski
Cochran-Gill, Golloway said, was one of the highlights of fall practice.
"You have to have a guy to bridge the gap," Golloway said. "He's as good as I've had in college baseball setting it up."
Golloway asked pitching coach Scott Foxhall told him that Cochran-Gill had difficulty getting strikeouts.
"I said we have to be able to punch somebody out when we need to," Golloway said. "He's identified a way to do that. I don't want to give it away to our opponents. If we can get six innings from our starters and get to Dedrick in the ninth, we're going to be good."
A mixture of veterans and freshmen lead for starting positions in the field:
3B: Damek Tomscha (Sr., returning starter); SS Dan Glevenyak (Sr., returning starter); 2B: Damon Haecker (Fr., Altamonte Springs, Fla.); 1B: Thompson (Fr., Cullman) or Daniel Robert (Fr., Briarwood Christian); C Austin (Sr., returning starter); LF Jordan Ebert (So., started at 2B last season); CF Ryan Tella (Sr., returning starter); RF Anfernee Greer (Fr., Phenix City).
Senior Hunter Kelley, a starter for much of last season, will be the fourth outfielder and a defensive ace, Golloway said. Freshman catcher Blake Logan from Muscle Shoals will spell Austin, including on weekends. Thompson will likely play first base on the days he doesn't pitch.
As head coach at Oklahoma, Golloway recruited Austin hard out of Landmark Christian High School in Douglasville, Ga. Austin admits he frequently questioned his decision over the past three years. Golloway, Austin said, has been everything he expected "and more."
"I dreamed of this day," Austin said. "It's been fun. It was a blessing in disguise."
Golloway said he is surprised that Austin is still at Auburn, that he wasn't drafted after his junior season. He has already appointed him a team captain.
"I've had five or six top 10 (rounds in the draft) catchers, and I've never had a senior that good," Golloway said. "Why he's back, I'm not sure, but I'm glad he is back. Blake has done the best job of anybody stepping up and being a captain. I don't know who the other captains will be, but Blake is going to be a captain. The way he's handled himself, the way he's handled his teammates, the way he's demanded excellence, he's been pretty special."
Austin said he has seen dramatic progress in the pitching staff since Golloway arrived.
"I think having Coach G around is a mentality of being willing to pitch inside, not being afraid to do it," Austin said. "That's what we missed last year. I think the young guys are really, really talented."
Golloway said much work remains to be done, and he said evaluations of players will continue.
"I tell the kids the game of baseball is a better coach than I'll ever pretend to be," Golloway said.
Golloway inherited a team scarred by three straight sub-par seasons that resulted in Pawlowski's departure. He said players have worked hard to improve.
"I wish we had more time," Golloway said. "We have a lot of stuff we have to learn. One thing I did identify is we didn't have a good baseball IQ. We have to learn the game. We've improved, but we still have work to do."
Auburn opens its season in the Snowbird Classic on Feb. 14-16 in Port Charlotte, Fla.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: