Feb. 13, 2009

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Phoenix Rises Behind Harrilchak, Davis

By Duncan Phillips



Elon head coach Mike Kennedy is hoping that it will be pick your poison for opposing pitchers this season as the Phoenix boast two of the top returning hitters in the Southern Conference.


Senior co-captains Cory Harrilchak (left) and Bennett Davis (right) put up gaudy numbers last year as part of an Elon squad that went 44-18, won the conference tournament and played in an NCAA Regional.


Harrilchak finished with a stunning .410 batting average – which ranked 27th nationally – to go along with a team-leading 84 hits and 71 runs.


Kennedy said the key to beating his team will be to keep Harrilchak off the base paths and in the dugout, but that is no easy task against a guy who recorded a .492 on-base percentage last year. Plus, dealing with Harrilchak is only one part of the equation.


“You can’t pitch around Cory because we’ve got some guys behind him that can get a man in, and Bennett is one of those guys,” Kennedy said.


And with runners in scoring position, there is no scarier sight than seeing Davis at the plate. Last year he belted a team-leading 18 home runs and set a school record by knocking in 82 runs – good enough for seventh in the country.


Both players were in their first season at Elon last year, and Kennedy credits associate head coach Greg Starbuck with bringing in the two sluggers from junior college programs.


Kennedy said that much of the team’s success was a product of Harrilchak and Davis knowing their roles in the lineup. Harrilchak could have gone to the plate and tried to slug home runs, but he knew that it was his job to get on base. Bennett was there to drive in runs and Kennedy considered his .350 batting average an added bonus.


Harrilchak’s contributions are not limited to the offensive part of the game though, as he also is one of the team’s top returning pitchers. Last year he put up a record of 7-3 with a 5.13 ERA in 15 appearances.


The versatility he brings to the team is something Kennedy thinks is rare in today’s game.


“It’s a great benefit, especially with scholarship limits the way they are now and roster sizes, those types of things,” Kennedy said. “It puts a premium on two-way players. And he’s obviously one of the best we’ve had here.”


The obvious question then becomes: What is it like when these two stars face off in practice?


“I think it’s about 50-50,” Harrilchak said. “It’s kind of a game of cat and mouse when Bennett’s up at the plate and I’m on the mound.”


But one thing is certain: Both players use their battles to help each other become better in their respective parts of the game.


“I have an absolute ball facing Cory every time because he throws something different at me every day,” Davis said. “I like to pick his brain every now and then on pitches, pitch counts and what to expect her and there. And he’s always good for that.”


In addition to being named the squad’s “Mr. Clutch” last season, Davis might also have been a contender for toughest guy on the team.


He was hit by a pitch 22 times last season, the ninth-most in the country.


The curious streak became a point of pride for the team, and Kennedy made sure Davis wore his bruises like badges of honor.


“He’s not afraid of the baseball,” Kennedy said. “It’s something that we preach here. We don’t like guys who jump out of the way, afraid to get hit.


“A lot of guys that hit 18 home runs and drive in 82 runs, they’re going to get out of the way so they can get the next pitch and try to hit it out of the park. He understands about getting on base, and he certainly helps our team.”


And has Davis ever been on the receiving end of a Harrilchak fastball?


“I don’t know for a fact that Cory’s hit me with a pitch,” Davis said. “Now I know he likes to back me off the plate, and I know he has no problem going up and in on me.”


The culture of toughness in the dugout extends beyond merely wearing an inside pitch to get on base. Whether it’s trying to pick up signs or take an extra base on a ball in the dirt, Kennedy wants his guys to be as hard-nosed as possible.


But according to his players, even as Kennedy preaches a rough-and-tumble attitude, he fosters a loose and fun-loving environment in the clubhouse.


“We are probably one of the loosest teams when it comes to joking around and having fun,” Davis said. “And it’s good because baseball is a game, and sometimes we forget that. We don’t like to be tense because we play better loose.”


Kennedy (left) has a reputation as a player’s coach; the kind of guy who can be both a mentor and a friend. His contributions go far beyond that of a figurehead. And he knows how to make an instant connection with the average college-aged athlete.


“Everybody in college likes gear, and he loves gear,” Harrilchak said. “So it’s kind of a connection we have. We like to look good.”


Added Davis: “He loves gear, and so do we. We take pride in how we look. It’s really fun to play for somebody like that.”


Elon is hoping to add more championship gear to its wardrobe as the team looks to repeat in the competitive Southern Conference. Georgia Southern, The Citadel, Western Carolina and perennial contender College of Charleston all figure to be in the mix to try to knock off the defending champs.


Davis tries to think of this team in relation to his school’s unique mascot.           


“I had no clue what a phoenix was when I first got here,” he said. “And it took about three months for me to learn.


“It’s a bird that rises from the ashes, and I like to think of our program as of right now as somebody who is rising. It’s kind of a fitting mascot for Elon.”


(photos courtesy of Elon Media Relations Office)