When head coach Ryan Mau first heard his team was selected 10th in the Preseason Big South Conference poll he briefly spoke to the team about it, but knew the squad as a whole would use the ranking as fuel to prove any and all doubters wrong as this season gets off the ground.
“A lot of excitement. A lot of energy. I think the focus has been really good the last couple weeks with some really crisp practices because, as we all know, it will be here before we know it. It’s right around the corner. A lot of excitement in the buildup to opening day,” said Mau.
In this point in preparation, as the season will begin on Valentine’s Day for the first of a four game set with Purdue Fort Wayne, Mau said practice is all about suring up team chemistry and also nailing down the smaller aspects of the game.
“This is, in my opinion, our best collective group as far as how we are gelling. I’m really excited about that” said Mau. “This time of year you’re just touching some of your small game packages, your bunt defenses, your first and third, your communication, your cuts and relays, just ironing out the things on the running game…”
“Everything is in at this point when you are building that closely to the season, it’s just a matter of reviewing them and just ironing out a couple of wrinkles here-and-there,” he added.
This year’s team is looking to make a return trip to the Big South Conference tournament, as the Lancers missed out a season ago, finishing at (11-41 5-22 Big South) and 10th in the conference. Only the top nine seeds clinch a berth into the postseason dance.
Mau said making the tournament is “an absolute” for the program and the team has a “100 percent” belief that it is something they are going to do.
“It’s just a first-check box, if you will, of many that we have,” said Mau. “So, yeah absolutely expect to be in the conference tournament and to do much more than that.”
The players, and especially those returning, echo the same sentiment and feel a chip on their shoulders to make it back. This year’s team returns 20 players, while welcoming 14 newcomers who will all need to make an impact when called upon for the club to be successful.
One of those returning players is senior second baseman Antwaun Tucker. The Chase City, Virginia native, and nephew to Longwood baseball legend Michael Tucker, said the energy and excitement of the tournament is one driving forces to make it back.
“I want to be back. I know the team wants to be back. All of those that were there, they want to be back. And (for) the freshmen, that would be a great experience for them,” said Tucker.
After batting .297 a season ago, the 2019 All-Big South Honorable Mention selection returns as the team’s leading bat, and will shift from shortstop over to second base in the field for this upcoming season, according to Mau.
The head coach also announced other changes to the Lancers’ defensive alignment for the campaign, as junior transfer Ricky Jimenez will take over Tucker’s previous role at shortstop and senior Nate Blakeney will move from second base to third base.
Mau feels these moves will place the players in positions they are more comfortable in, which would then produce more positive benefits for the team.
Alongside the position changes, Mau expressed confidence that this year’s team will be “super aggressive” when running the bases and will also have more offensive firepower than in years past.
“I expect a lot from our offensive club because they are veterans, because they have had success and because we’re young on the pitching side of things,” said Mau. “We’re going to need to put up some runs.
With the youth on the mound, Mau said the team has an “all hands on deck” approach and each pitcher is going to have to play their role correctly to become the staff they want to be as a whole.
Now, also in his senior season like Tucker, pitcher John Gregory said he has taken more of a leadership role in the clubhouse and looked to improve his between-the-ears game in the offseason.
He said, “… last year I didn’t think I was as great a leader as I could be,” and said he has looked to get more of the younger players to feel like they fit in and belong in the program. Gregory said he was highly influenced by former Lancer standout Sammy Miller, who graduated in 2018 while John was only a sophomore.
“He set the standard of the Longwood way. Like he took all of the young guys under his wing and was just like, ‘this is how we do things here’, and he taught us what to do and what not to do in certain situations. He was just an overall great leader and I think that’s where I developed some of my leadership skills today, which was from him,” said Gregory.
In using those lessons learned, Gregory said he and his fellow teammates are looking to create a culture where everyone is a part of what the team does. He also mentioned that this year’s senior class wants to further instill that it is “unacceptable to not make the (Big South) tournament and an overall embarrassment.”
Gregory added the team as a whole is striving to be one that is firmly locked into the tournament, and not one that has to rely on other teams to win or lose to decide their fate.
The schedule will open with 10 of 12 games at Buddy Bolding Stadium, which gives the Lancers a heightened chance for a fast start out of the gates.
Tucker said teams are simply more comfortable on their home field because there is a heightened knowledge of each thing that makes the diamond different from opposing fields, which only sounds like a small thing, but could be the difference in the game.