When Elon University head baseball coach Mike Kennedy was asked about the 17 new players on his 2014 team, he refused to say that they were part of a rebuilding year.
Instead, Kennedy said that his team went out to “reload” for a run at a fifth Southern Conference regular season or third Southern Conference tournament championship. There were plenty of skeptics. Perfect Game USA, a notable baseball website, picked the Phoenix to finish sixth out of the 10 Southern Conference teams. Both the coaches and media of the Southern Conference selected Elon fourth in the preseason polls. Only one Elon player — senior second baseman Sebastian Gomez — was tabbed to the preseason all-Southern Conference team.
All Elon has done is come out and show why it is once again a force to be reckoned with. Through seven games, the Phoenix is 6-1, riding dominant pitching and a balanced offense.
Four of Elon’s main starters from a year ago — Dylan Clark, Kyle Webb, David Whitehead and Spencer Medick — are gone due to graduation and/or a professional career. Since starting pitching carried the Phoenix a season ago, it was obvious to have questions regarding the new starting rotation. Four new faces — junior transfers Lucas Bakker and Jake Stalzer, along with redshirt sophomore Michael Elefante and freshman Matt Harris — have been dazzling on the hill for the Phoenix.
Stalzer, from Albia, Iowa, went 14 innings with no earned runs allowed in his first two starts, earning himself SoCon pitcher of the week honors for the week of Feb. 24. Bakker was similarly impressive, logging 13 innings in his first two starts, surrendering nine hits and only two earned runs with 16 strikeouts. Elefante, a former Elon catcher, scattered four hits over six innings of one-run baseball against Wagner College Feb. 21, an outing in which he showed off an impressive changeup. Not to be outdone, Harris struck out eight University of North Carolina at Wilmington Seahawks in five innings Feb. 25, a game that Elon would go on to win 3-2.
The hitting stats have been impressive as well. Elon only has three home runs so far, but five qualifying players have averages at .300 or higher. Leadoff hitter and junior right fielder Quinn Bower led the way with a .407 average as of Feb. 26. Bower also carried an impressive .500 on-base percentage coming into the game, and his ability to get on base has carried the Phoenix thus far.
Junior infielder Casey Jones, primarily a role player for the Phoenix in the first two years of his career, has emerged as a solid, productive hitter at the top of the Elon lineup. The Phoenix banged out 32 runs over the course of a weekend sweep of Wagner, primarily due to timely hitting and the ability to find gaps. This trait was absent from last year’s Elon squad, which relied heavily on first baseman Ryan Kinsella and 22 home runs which ranked second in the nation. In that regard, Elon is a better offensive team now than in 2013.
The scariest part of the whole situation? This team has only three seniors. Elon baseball didn’t rebuild, it reloaded. The results are impressive so far.