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This week is prime time for Indians to put it all together

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Southeast Missouri State University's baseball Indians are understandably disappointed that they were not able to repeat as Ohio Valley Conference regular-season champions.

The Indians made quite a late run by winning nine of their last 10 OVC contests and sweeping a three-game series at Murray State over the weekend. But they fell just short, finishing one-half game out of the top spot.

But if the Indians are able to repeat the OVC championship that matters the most -- the tournament title this week in Paducah, Ky. -- then their failure to capture the regular-season crown will be erased in a heartbeat.

When it comes to making the NCAA playoffs, OVC baseball is no different than OVC basketball. A regular-season championship is great. But a tournament title is especially sweet because it means an automatic NCAA berth.

Southeast, which has posted at least 30 victories in each of the last four seasons, appears primed to win its second straight OVC Tournament. The Indians led the league in both hitting and fielding during conference play, and their pitching staff, after a slow overall start, seems to have rounded into form.

Southeast, Tennessee Tech and Austin Peay all finished within one game of each other and were clearly the top three squads in the league this season. All appear to have deep enough pitching staffs to win the tournament without needing anything unusual to happen. And you also can't count out the rest of the six-team field.

With so much on the line, it should be a great four days of baseball in Kentucky Wednesday through Saturday.

And with a relatively short drive from Cape Girardeau to Paducah, Southeast's legion of rabid fans should be able to turn Brooks Stadium into a mini Capaha Field as they support the Indians.

The all-OVC baseball teams -- which are voted on by the league's head coaches and sports information directors -- will be announced Tuesday, and Southeast should be well represented with players like Brian Hopkins, Zach Borowiak, Justin Christian and Tim Alvarez all having monster seasons, just to name a few.

Alvarez, who has a school-record and national-leading 13 wins, appears to be a lock for OVC Pitcher of the Year. If he wins the award, it will mark the third straight season that a Southeast hurler has done so, following Brad Purcell last year and Todd Pennington 2001.

As for Hopkins, it will be interesting to see what happens. He is statistically having one of the best offensive seasons in school history and has the numbers to be the OVC Player of the Year, but since the Indians didn't win the regular-season title -- although they came extremely close -- will they be able to sweep the conference's top two individual awards?

And Christian, a transfer from Auburn, appears to have a strong chance to win OVC Rookie of the Year honors.

Speaking of Pennington, the former Shawnee (Ill.) High School star is still in the low minor leagues, but he has compiled some eye-popping numbers during the early part of this season as the closer for the Lake County (Ohio) Captains of the Class A South Atlantic League.

Through Thursday, Pennington was 1-1 with six saves and a 1.29 earned-run average. In 14 innings, he had allowed just seven hits and seven walks while striking out a whopping 28.

It took almost the entire spring signing period to get it done, but Southeast basketball fans have to be excited about the Indians landing blue-chip recruit Randy Holbrook.

While the ultimate proof will come on the court, the signing of Holbrook, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound center/power forward who signed with top-20 program Xavier both out of high school and junior college, on paper bumps up Southeast's group of newcomers for next season from solid to very good.

Holbrook gives the Indians five new players for next season -- four junior-college transfers and one four-year transfer -- and all will either start or be key members of the rotation. The five will boost Southeast's talent level considerably.

Barring injury, those newcomers -- combined with the many key returning players -- should provide plenty of depth and plenty of competition for playing time. That's a welcome change from the last two struggling seasons, when the Indians were not only short on talent but also short on numbers.

While benefiting the program for next season, the addition of another inside player like Holbrook should also help out for the future by allowing coach Gary Garner to redshirt center Adam Crader and forward Cole Grapperhaus. That has been the goal since both arrived on campus but so far was not possible because of Southeast's numbers shortage.

Even with Crader and Grapperhaus redshirting, that still leaves Southeast no less than 10 solid players. That's probably too many to use in the regular rotation, so you can bet practices will be extra intense with valuable minutes at stake.

And even better, next season's roster will contain just two seniors -- Brandon Griffin and Damarcus Hence -- meaning the Indians appear to be fairly set for two years.

By not using the two scholarships left this year -- which is likely -- that means the Indians will have the NCAA maximum five for next year, which should allow them to bring in younger players to develop and have ready to go for when the bulk of this current group leaves after the 2004-05 season.

Of course, all of the above looks good only on paper right now. But paper doesn't win basketball games. The ultimate evidence of just how well Southeast has been able to bounce back from two down seasons will come on the court.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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Marty Mishow
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