March 18, 2011 at 7:57 PM CDT - Updated June 23 at 3:46 PM
Normal operating procedure in most college sports is for rival teams, especially in-state rivals, to play at the end of any given season.
That tradition will hold for the 2011 Sun Belt Conference Baseball season, but the league's natural rivals will also meet at the start of the year. That means Troy and South Alabama will face each other six times this year, and they'll open league play against each other on Friday night at Riddle-Pace Field.
All three games in the series, which continues on Saturday at 6 p.m. and concludes on Sunday at 1 p.m., will be broadcast by the Troy Sports Network, heard locally on WTBF-FM 94.7, with Barry McKnight and Jerry Miller calling the action. The games will also be available online through Trojans All-Access video streaming.
With the departure of New Orleans from the Sun Belt, league coaches wanted to keep the 10-week, 30-game league schedule. Trojans coach Bobby Pierce made he suggestion that each team should play its natural rival and the beginning and end of the league season. The other league coaches agreed.
So, instead of playing the Jaguars in May, after school is out and students have gone their separate ways, the Trojans will host South Alabama in March.
Pierce said that regardless of who the Trojans open against, opening league play at home will give his team a chance to continue the momentum built during a 14-3 start to the season.
"All series to me are just as important as the next," Pierce said. "It is the first conference series out of the gate, and you always want to get started well. It is at home and you like to win series at home. We do have to go to their place for the final series of the year."
The Trojans have gotten off to such a good start this year on the strength on their pitching and defense. Troy has a 2.78 team ERA, which is the best in the Sun Belt, and a .985 fielding percentage, also best in the league.
Offensively, the Trojans are hitting .290, which is tied for fifth entering league play.
"Obviously, we have pitched very well and defended very well," Pierce said. "I think the bats are warming up now, so we are in a good place. But, being in a good place doesn't mean anything other than you feel pretty good about starting your first conference series. Yes, we are playing well and we are at home, so I think it is important that you take advantage of those things to win a conference series to start off the season."
In addition to starting the season with the best record since the 1990 club opened 19-1, the Trojans have had a chance to see a lot of players get playing time.
"We've been able to learn a lot about our team in the non-league action to this point," Pierce said. "We've had an opportunity to get a lot of guys action on the mound, all of our position players have had opportunities to get multiple at bats and we feel real good about it."
South Alabama comes into the series with a 9-6 record that includes wins over Alabama, Minnesota and Washington State. The Jaguars, however, dropped their last two games in a four-game series against Columbia last weekend.
Senior third baseman Jake Overstreet, a returning All-Sun Belt performer, is one of the leaders offensively for the Jaguars. Overstreet is hitting .311 on the season and has two homers and leads the Jaguars with 19 RBI.
"We know that South Alabama has a pretty good team and we know they are going to play hard. I think we need to continue doing what we have done as the intensity goes up entering conference play. Their top three pitchers are pretty good. They are in the strike zone and they command more than one pitch, and that makes them competitive."
Those top three hurlers – senior right-handers Garrett Harris (3-0, 1.86) and Dustin Crenshaw (2-0, 3.68) as well as junior left-hander Brad Hook (0-1, 2.93) – will be matched against the Trojans top trio this weekend.
Junior right-hander Tyler Ray (4-0, 1.84), sophomore left-hander Ryan Sorce (2-1, 3.52) and senior right-hander Drew Hull (3-0, 1.80) have given the Trojans consistent work on the mound all season.
"We have plenty of experience on the mound and we've gotten some quality work out of those guys," Pierce said. "Drew has had a tender lower back, so we are going to give him an extra day. The bull pen is in good shape. We just have to go play and see if we can win a series."
The constant record book watch for Troy senior Adam Bryant will be in full affect this weekend. The Pensacola native enters the series needing four runs scored to move past Jorge Soto into fifth on the school list and needing six hits to move past Wade Miller into second.
Mother nature is expected to provide the Trojans with clear skies and temperatures in the low 80s for the weekend, giving those students who have never had a chance to cheer for the Trojans against South Alabama an opportunity to do so. The weather, however, will not be nearly as hot as the action expected on the diamond.
"We have been so fortunate with the weather we've had," Pierce said. "Today is a beautiful day and the weekend is supposed to be even better. We are looking forward to it."