The University of Central Arkansas Bears carry high hopes into their 2013 season-opener against Murray State on Friday at Bear Stadium.
The Bears, coming off their first Southland Conference tournament berth last spring, are picked fifth in the SLC preseason polls, the highest since joining the league in 2007.
"I don’t know if we’re where we want to be yet. I can’t imagine us being there this early in the year, but we’re definitely, 100 percent ready to see another team," said coach Allen Gum
The Bears will face a Murray State team that won two of three in the series at UCA last year. The Thoroughbreds finished 23-33 last year and 8-10 in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Thoroughbreds won the first game last season 6-5 in 17 innings, then took Game 2 by a score of 5-4. UCA won the finale 16-6 on Sunday.
"The main thing is get all the first series nervousness out, the wrinkles of an actual game,’ said Gum. "Getting into the swing of competing with somebody else. Also, early in the season, there are going to be some things, some situations, that come up and you have to try to iron out all the little things that we can."
UCA returns six fulltime position starters, including three preseason All-SLC selections. Senior right fielder Forrest Allday was a first-team selection after leading the league in on-base percentage (.486) and walks (57). He was also third in runs scored and tied for fourth in triples while hitting .324. Senior left fielder Ethan Harris was a second-team preseason pick after finishing third in the SLC in RBI with 46 and eighth in runs scored with 40.
Junior center fielder Jonathan Davis was a first-team preseason selection after leading the Bears in hitting at .333. He was sixth in the league in on-base percentage and eighth in stolen bases despite missing the final month with a broken wrist.
UCA’s pitching staff has two weekend starters returning in seniors Caleb McClanahan and Jeffery Enloe, and six pitchers back who threw over 20 innings a year ago. The opening series rotation is expected to be righty McClanahan on Friday, lefty Enloe on Saturday and junior right hander Bryce Biggerstaff on Sunday.
"We have a lot of guys coming back," said Gum, "and I think these guys last year gained a lot of respect around the league. That showed in the preseason polls. Now with a lot of guys that are returning, we feel good. We know they know the system and how we do things, so we feel confident, in our starting pitching and our defense, in particular."
Gum also said he expects a lot of help from the young additions to the roster.
"I think a lot of guys will play this year, a lot more than past two years," he said. "Our freshman have done an outstanding job and come a long way since they got here. I think especially on the pitching side, you’ll see a lot of newcomers coming in in different roles.
"Also, we’re going to mix and match some late. We have some guys with some strengths that we think can really help us in the late innings, whether it be speed or pitching or whatever. I think you’re going to see more players contribute, and more young players contribute this year."
UCA plays its first road contest Wednesday at Southeastern Conference member Vanderbilt before returning home for another series next weekend against Jackson State.