The Union University Bulldogs are coming off a championship season in which they won 44 games and claimed the TranSouth regular season and tournament championships. Head Coach Andy Rushing hopes to have reloaded for another run at the NAIA World Series. However, having to reload a team that lost the TranSouth and Region XI Player of the Year, two Major League draft picks, and 30 wins from the pitching staff will be easier said than done. Rushing, the TranSouth, Region XI, and ABCA Coach of the Year, believes that the Bulldogs have added a talented group of players to join with a quality core that is returning to the 2003 squad.
Union is returning all three outfielders and both catchers which boasted three all-conference selections a year ago. The young, but talented, players will a have a good group to learn from as many new faces will be starting in key positions in the infield. The pitching staff that has been assembled by Rushing and Pitching Coach Brent Fronabarger has great potential to be one of the best, but they will have to prove themselves to match the outstanding pitching from a year ago.
Catching duties this season for the Bulldogs will be split between senior Roger Cook and junior Marc Glass. Cook will also see time at first base, as well as, designated hitter when not behind the plate. Both Cook and Glass are returning all-conference players, with Cook also being selected all-region, and honorable mention All-American. Freshman addition Ricky Lopez will work to improve strength and skills while serving as the team’s third catcher.
Along with the pitching staff, the Bulldog infield of a year ago took a big hit by losing all but the first base position. Union lost the conference and region player of the year at third, a 15th round major league draft pick at shortstop, and the Bulldogs’ best defensive second baseman in recent history. Returning for the Bulldogs at first will be sophomore Josh Allen. Allen will also see time as a designated hitter throughout the season. Brandon Jackson will be one of two freshmen to get a start on the infield as he will take over the role at second base. Fellow freshman, Steven Sweat will be Union’s new third baseman. Junior college transfer David Canary will start at shortstop. Junior speedster Jason Johnson will be Union’s top utility man. Johnson can play first, second, or short on the infield and all three outfield positions. Johnson will also be used in as a pinch runner. Junior transfer Chris Wright will also serve as a utility infielder. Freshmen Garrett Pepper, Jonathan Ross, Chris Fowler, and Ryan Mayhew will serve as backups as they develop their skills. Mayhew, Sweat, and Pepper will also see time on the pitching staff in relief and spot starts.
The outfield for Union remained untouched from last year’s team. From left to right, senior Jed Thomas, junior Joel Hysmith, and senior Chip Briggs makes up an outfield that ranks among the best at Union. Briggs, a all-conference, all-region, and honorable mentioned All-American selection, can also play second base for the Bulldogs. Not only will these three guys hold down a solid outfield, but will make up a deadly punch at the top of the Bulldog lineup. Jason Johnson and freshman Matthew Valentine will also add depth and speed to an already fast outfield.
Only four pitchers return from a staff that lost two all-conference players, a honorable mention All-American, an eight round Major League draft pick, and 30 of the 44 total wins. Junior Nash Powell and sophomore Matt Gibbs are retuning 11 combined wins for Coach Fronabarger’s pitching staff. Powell pitched well as a weekday starter and in weekend relief. Gibbs, as a freshman, pitched well last season by accumulating seven wins against tough conference opponents. Junior relievers Matt Glass and Wesley Plunk will resume roles in the bullpen and weekday starts. Glass will also see time as a backup outfielder and pinch runner for Union. Seven new faces join the Bulldog pitching staff this year. The lone senior of the staff transfers from an NCAA Div. I program. Andy Davidson will use his big game experience to help anchor the weekend rotation this year. Juniors Todd Winchester and Cory Engle, both Juco transfers, will also join the weekend rotation for Union. Freshmen Garrett Pepper, Steven Sweat, and Ryan Mayhew will contribute in relief and spot starts for the Bulldogs.
Coach Rushing believes he has assembled the talent to mesh with his existing team to defend their conference title and advance well into the NAIA postseason. The TranSouth Conference will welcome in Cumberland University, a team that has spent the last several seasons in the MidSouth Conference. Before that, Cumberland was a member, with Union, in the old Tennessee Colligate Athletic Conference (TCAC). The TranSouth is always one of the best in the nation and now has three teams ranked in the NAIA preseason polls; No. 12 Cumberland, No. 20 Union, and No. 27 Lee.
Union has once again assembled one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country. The Bulldogs will play five games against NCAA Div. II opponents from North Alabama, Christian Brothers, and West Florida. In addition, Union plays 11 games against NAIA preseason top 25 opponents. Union begins their season in Montgomery, Alabama in the Capital City Classic in which they will play their first four games against No. 13 St. Thomas, No. 5 Faulkner, No. 14 North Georgia, and No. 16 Auburn-Montgomery.