Feb. 15, 2013

CBI SoCon Preview


Phoenix Rising

By Sean Ryan

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder

sean@collegebaseballinsider.com @collbaseball


ELON, N.C. – Thirteen seasons ago, Elon began play as a full-fledged Division I baseball program.


That 2000 team knocked off No. 5 South Carolina and finished fourth in the Big South, going 33-25 overall.


“We had a great recruiting class, but they were all freshmen,” said Mike Kennedy (pictured), a former Elon catcher entering his 17th season as coach of the Phoenix. “And we ended up playing all of those guys, regardless of the outcome.”  


The newly renamed Phoenix began its rise.


Two years later, with many of those same freshmen now juniors, Elon topped No. 1 Clemson, No. 10 Wake Forest and No. 20 East Carolina en route to its first NCAA appearance. Since then, the Phoenix have made the NCAA tourney field four other times – including three straight from 2008-10 – and proven a model of consistency, winning an average of 37 games over the past 10 years.


“When you have a little bit of success, it helps you in recruiting,” Kennedy said of the early days of D-I play. “We were able to get off to a good start and we’ve kind of built from there.”


Kennedy, with the help of longtime assistants Greg Starbuck (15 years) and Robbie Huffstetler (10), has built Elon into an annual contender in the tough Southern Conference, capturing four regular-season titles since 2006.


The recipe for success?


A lot of energy. A lot of hard work. And a lot of fun. To boot, Elon regularly plays an aggressive schedule filled with opportunities to knock off some of the nation’s best teams.  


“Our philosophy has been real simple; we don’t want to wait and rely on one weekend in late May to determine our fate,” Kennedy said. “We went from Division II to Division I for a reason and that was to play the best people. We’ve tried to do that.


“We want to play as good a schedule as we can so that at the end of the season the full body of work is what’s taken into account.”


This year’s slate includes home-and-homes with Top 10 teams North Carolina and NC State in addition to nonconference games against in-state rivals East Carolina (2), Wake Forest and UNC Wilmington. For good measure, Elon will play Kentucky, Kansas State and Coastal Carolina in an early-season tourney and will travel to Louisville, ranked as high as No. 4, for a three-game set in April.


The Phoenix, picked by SoCon coaches as the team to beat, returns the bulk of its pitching, led by senior lefty Dylan Clark, who went 9-4 with a 3.76 ERA last year. Starters Kyle Webb, Spencer Medick and David Whitehead also are back, as is senior closer Nate Young, who had a 3-1 record with 11 saves and a 2.13 ERA.


“Our rotation is strong, there’s no doubt about that and our bullpen is in pretty good shape,” Kennedy said. “It’s probably as deep as a pitching staff as we’ve had.”


Catcher Alex Swim, an all-conference catcher who was selected by St. Louis in the 36th round of the Major League Draft last year, leads the offense. Elon’s team MVP hit .357 with 45 RBI and held a 25-game hitting streak during the season. Also back is junior first baseman Ryan Kinsella, who hit .316 with eight homers and 54 RBI.


According to Kennedy, Elon will need to improve its team defense. And he’s hoping the Phoenix can return to their upsetting ways and upend a few ranked opponents.


“Without trying to put yourself on a pedestal or anything like that, we have the same expectations every year,” Kennedy said. “We expect to compete for a championship in this league. And from there, we want to get into Regional play. Those are our goals.


“We talk about Omaha just like everybody else. In order to get there, you have to do those two things.”


(photo courtesy of Elon Media Relations)