After a 2017 season that saw them post their ninth 30-win season in the past 11 years, the Samford Baseball team looks to build on that success as they look to begin their highly anticipated 2018 season on Friday, Feb. 16 at the UCF Tournament in Orlando, Florida. The Bulldogs, led by Head coach Casey Dunn, were picked to finish third in the SoCon this year in the SoCon preseason standings, which were voted on by the league’s coaches and media. Even after a season that saw the Bulldogs lose eight players, including three Bulldogs being drafted to the MLB, Samford returns much of its firepower from last year’s team. In an interview with coach Dunn, he said that two words he would use to describe his feelings about his team were young and excited.
“I’m excited to see them compete,” said Dunn. He added, “This is a great group of guys that I think are really going to develop as a team.”
The Bulldogs return many key players from last year’s team, including preseason First Team All-SoCon pitcher Cody Shelton, and Second Team All-SoCon selections Wyatt Burns, Troy Dixon, and Ayrton Schafer. Shelton, a junior pitcher for the Bulldogs, appeared in 15 games for the Bulldogs, including 11 starts. The hard throwing right-hander went 5-3 with 59 strikeouts and a 2.69 ERA. He will look to build on his 2017 success as he will be depended on to as the ace of the Bulldog’s staff this season. Burns, a senior pitcher from nearby Pinson, Alabama, was impressive out of the bullpen for Samford last season, making 28 appearances and securing 12 saves for the Bulldogs. Burns has posted a 2.68 ERA in his career at Samford and looks to build upon his Second Team All-SoCon selection last season.
Sophomore second baseman Troy Dixon will continue to be a key component of the Bulldog’s infield this season, as he started 57 games for the team last season. Dixon batted an impressive .313, with 62 hits (11 extra-base hits) and 31 RBIs. Sophomore outfielder Ayrton Schafer had an impressive season last year, leading the team in home runs with 11, and finishing second on the team with a .331 batting average. Schafer will be a key piece of the Bulldog’s outfield this season. Senior first baseman Austin Edens looks to continue on the success he has had throughout his career at Samford, as he is currently the SoCon’s active leader in home runs with 44. Edens’ accolades include being named the SoCon Freshman of the Year in 2015, being named to the Freshman All-American Team in 2015 by Baseball America, and being selected to compete in the 2016 TD Ameritrade College Home Run Derby. Last season, Edens hit nine home runs and had a .286 batting average. The team will look to him as an anchor at first base, as well as a senior leader on the team.
Samford also added two new additions to its coaching staff during the offseason, bringing in Hunter Morris as a volunteer assistant coach, and Blake Matthews as the team’s director of operations/video. Coach Dunn believes the addition of these two men will be great for the overall success of the program.
“Hunter has a great background as a player in our state from his high school days to being player of the year in the SEC at Auburn, and Minor League Player of the year as well,” said Dunn. “His success on the field gives him instant credibility with our players. Watching him interact with our team to this point I believe Hunter will be a great asset to our program and an outstanding coach.”
When referring to Matthews, he added, “Blake is an energetic young man that is working his way up the coaching ranks. His time at the JUCO level has provided him with a good base of knowledge. He has taken over our video process and is doing a tremendous job.”
When asked to name a player that he hopes to not only produce on the field, but to step up and take a leadership role as well, Dunn mentioned his sophomore catcher from Davie, Florida, Anthony Mulrine.
“Anthony Mulrine is the one that really needs to establish himself as a leader on and off the field,” said Dunn. “Being at the catcher position he has a great platform to help lead our team.”
Mulrine started 47 games behind the plate for the Bulldogs last season, hitting .255 with four home runs and 27 RBIs.
The team also includes the addition of nine freshmen this season. Coach Dunn believes that some of his young players may be able to step up and contribute early.
“Position player-wise, Blaine Smith and Max Pinto should see considerable time as freshman and we expect them to contribute early,” he said.
Smith, an infielder/pitcher from Oak Grove, Alabama, brings a dynamic skill set to the Bulldogs with his ability to both play in the field as well as on the mound. Pinto, an outfielder from Miami, Florida, brings both defensive speed in the outfield and an offensive presence to the plate. Strickland, a 6’2’’ left-hander from right here in Birmingham, looks to be a big arm on the mound for the Bulldogs.
“On the mound Sam Strickland looks to be an early favorite to potentially be a weekend starter for us,” said Dunn, referring to the freshman pitcher.
Samford’s schedule looks to be tough as always this season, as the Bulldogs will play home-and-home series with in-state rivals Alabama, Auburn, Troy, UAB, and Alabama State. Other key non-conference series include games against Harvard, Kennesaw State, Georgia State, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and Jacksonville State. Samford will also open the season playing in the UCF Tournament, where they will play UCF, Rice, and Virginia. In conference play, the Bulldogs will be tasked with yet another tough batch of games, including home series against ETSU, Mercer, Wofford, and VMI.
Samford opens up play at home on Feb. 20 at 4pm (CST) p.m. against Jacksonville State. Be sure to come out and support the Bulldogs in their games this season on the diamond.
Collin Reese, Staff Writer
[photo courtesy of Samford Athletics]