Not in Awe of Canes

Elon University baseball coach Mike Kennedy didn't want to show any concern for his team when they made their first trip to Coral Gables to face the defending national champion Hurricanes. Just by looking at them during pre-game warm-ups at Mark Light Stadium he knew something wasn't right.

"They were in awe of the place and Hurricanes baseball. I could see it in their body language and the way they were moving around," said Kennedy, in his fifth season with the program. "It was our initial trip down there and the task at hand was a little much too ask from them."

It was 1999 when the Phoenix arrived with a roster filled of inexperienced players to go up against one of the top Division I college baseball programs in the country for the first time.

Almost three years later it seems like an eternity- under a similar situation.

Elon returns to the place where they have lost five of six games to open a three-game series against the 2001 national champions, this coming weekend March 29-31. Only this time the Phoenix returns with four veteran players that have participated in every game since arriving at the school and a different attitude.

"These guys can run, are aggressive on offense and go up there swinging the sticks," said Kennedy, "I don't think they will go down there overwhelmed with having to face the Hurricanes. We're strong up and down our line-up. This team has grown up and is playing real well right now." Said senior staff ace and leading hitter Whit Bryant: "Every weekend we play is huge and we're always going out there trying to get as many W's as we can. You can say all you want to about Miami, but we have a darn good baseball team. I'm not into making predictions, but I really believe we can compete with them. Once you step between the lines anything is possible."

"Definitely, it's huge. Whenever you face the defending national champions you're going to bring a little extra to the table. But we can't caught up in all that because we'll be in serious trouble."

Elon (18-4), coming off a 11-9 victory over Brown University, is only in their third year as a Division I program, but the small school in North Carolina is doing everything possible on the baseball diamond to get noticed for another reason besides being 45 minutes away from Duke University. The Phoenix will take the field with the Hurricanes on a 12-game winning steak, the second longest in school history.

After getting out of the gates slowly, which included losing three of their initial six games, the Phoenix have turned the season in the right direction with 15 victories in their last 16 games- thanks in part to solid hitting and a surprising pitching staff.

Elon currently sports a .341 overall team batting average and has outscored the opposition 186-112. Right at the top of all those offensive fireworks is the left-handed Bryant, the all-time school leader in hits (236), doubles (40) and RBI (160) and second in runs scored (131).

Bryant, who has started in every game in four seasons at Elon, is currently second on the team in home runs (5) and tied for second in RBI (26) with a team-high .475 batting average. Bryant also leads the squad in total hits (39), slugging percentage (.800) and on-base percentage (.511). Lofty credentials for a player that is also called upon to pitch ever four days. Although Bryant hasn't let the double duty effect his performance.

"Honestly, I think they go kind of hand-in-hand because I really don't have time to sit around and think about pitching all the time," said Bryant. "The fact that I'm a position player and have to take the field everyday has really helped me. I have to focus on playing everyday and not just plan ahead to pitch to an opponent once or twice a week."

Kennedy is counting on his No. 3 hitter to bring a hot bat into the ‘Light' against the Hurricanes. Bryant has hit safely in eight straight games, including the series opener against Brown earlier this week. Bryant is also top hitter in the Big South with a .500 batting average.

"He's in a serious groove- you know one of those Michael Jordan deals. I don't think there's been a situation all season that Whit has looked overmatched at the plate. He's seeing the ball real well and is driving everything, Bryant can't disagree.

"Everything they throw up there looks like a watermelon and I'm going to plate really relaxed," Bryant said. "But I understand that all can change because this game can be really humbling. The biggest thing is to trust yourself." Which is exactly what Kennedy has in senior centerfielder and lead-off hitter Jason Tuttle, the all-time school leader in runs scored (164) and second in stolen bases (107). Tuttle's ability to get on base in addition to his speed gives the Phoenix a quality table-setter at the top of the batting order. Tuttle is second on the team with a .404 average, leads the team in runs scored (32), stolen bases (19) and is second in hits (36).

Tuttle, along with Bryant, is one of two players to collect over 200 hits at Elon. Tuttle has 217 hits, while Bryant has 236. Kennedy doesn't know where the team would be without the speedster.

"He's been outstanding and has been a real spark plug for this team the last couple years," said Kennedy. "If he gets going early there a very good chance we're going to be tough to beat that particular day. He is a great athlete who tracks balls down in the outfield and covers a lot of ground. What else is there to say about that kid?"

"This is a real important series for us and that's why we have to concentrate on doing the little things. Part of my job is to get on base and get things going for the rest of the guys. If I don't get on base I feel like I've failed."

Senior first baseman Jim Swenson is also an integral part of the offense with a team-high six home runs and a team-high 27 RBI. Swenson has 28 hits, including nine doubles.

"We can hit it's only a matter of being selective at the plate. Especially against Miami- you cant' swing at bad pitches because they'll eat you alive. Jim Morris will tell you and anybody will tell you that pitching is the No. 1 factor in this game."

"If we pitch well, we'll be in games and have a chance against Miami. That's all you can ask for a chance to win at the end of ballgames."

Bryant, who is tied for the staff lead with four victories and is undefeated, hopes to give his team that chance in the series opener on Friday night. That's if he can move his pitches around the plate, spot his fastball and get ahead of the Hurricanes hitters.

"That's really crucial for me to be successful," said Bryant, who has a 4.05 ERA.

Sophomore right-hander Matt Gardner (2-0, 3.82) is slated to start Saturday night with junior Tyson Blocker (4-1, 3.24) getting the nod on Sunday.

The Hurricanes, coming off a 5-3 victory over Northwestern, have won five in a row after losing seven of 10 games. Senior shortstop Javy Rodriguez leads the Hurricanes with .388 batting average and 18 stolen bases. Rodriguez also has a team-leading 45 hits on the season. Among the rest of the players that make up a .315 overall team batting average are: Jim Burt (.375, 5 HR, 27 RBI), Matt Dryer (.362, 4 HR, 25 RBI), Danny Matienzo (10 HR, 30 RBI) and Kevin Howard (.340, 6 HR, 18 RBI).

The UM pitching staff has started to turn the corner after a slow start. The Hurricanes have given up 13 runs in their last four games to lower their team ERA to 4.95. Sophomore T. J. Prunty leads the staff with a 4-0 mark and 3.23 ERA. Troy Roberson is 1-1 with a 5.12 ERA, while Dan Touchet is 2-1 with a 5.00 ERA.

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