A new coaching staff and a new playing surface will both make their debut Friday fternoon when the University of Central Arkansas Bears open the 2011 baseball season against Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.
"We’re very excited about getting ready to play a real game,’ said head coach Allen Gum, who comes to UCA from a stellar career at Southern Arkansas, where he put together a 226-68 record. "We’re tired of working out in the Pepsi Center and facing each other. We’re definitely ready to see another color uniform and see where we’re at."
Gum and his new staff will send out a young UCA squad that returns six position starters and seven pitchers. The returnees, along with a solid group of newcomers, will be playing on a new synthetic turf infield and a Bear Stadium with several other offseason changes. New brick walls down both foul lines and a new scoreboard highlight the improvements at the three-year-old facility.
"The facility upgrades are really nice,’ said Gum. "We feel like we’ve created a better atmosphere for baseball by pulling the walls in and getting the field closer to the fans. We feel like it’s helped us in recruiting tremendously. I think the players enjoy getting out there on that field everyday."
The key, as it always is in college baseball, will be pitching. UCA returns only four pitching victories from last year’s team after losing several key starters and relievers. Expected to start the three games of the opening series this weekend are senior righthander Evan Cox, sophomore right hander Clint Green and junior lefty Dustin Ward.
"Evan Cox has made a big jump this spring,’ said Gum. "He’s been more consistent in the strike zone and he’s throwing two or three pitches for a strike. He’s been real consistent and is been the leader of our pitching staff so far."
Gum said he feels confident enough in the pitching staff’s depth to send a lot of different pitchers to the mound.
"One thing with our pitching staff this year is, you’re going to see a lot of arms," he said. "We have a lot of different pitchers who do different things. We’re going to try to put them in the best situations we can. You can look forward to seeing a lot of guys throwing."
The top offensive returnees for the Bears include junior first baseman Blake Roberts, who hit .341 and had a team-high six home runs last year, and senior infielder Zack Dickson, who hit .320 with 57 hits. Senior catcher Michael Pair also topped the .300 mark last year, hitting .304 in 51 games, with a team-high 18 doubles. Senior outfielder Matt Bauer hit .417 in limited action a year ago.
"I think our lineup is pretty balanced,’ said Gum. "We have some power, speed is solid. We don’t have great speed, but it’s solid. And we have a really good balance of right-handed and left-handed hitters up and down the lineup."
The Bears will play 11 of their first 13 games at Bear Stadium, includinghome stands on the first three weekends against SIU Edwardsville, Eastern Illinois and Indiana State. Game times this weekend against SIUE are 3 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
UCA baseball tickets can be obtained by calling 852-2234 or going online at www.ucasports.com.