ON OUR TURF

The top 10 teams in the Sun Belt Conference will travel to J.I. Clements Stadium in Statesboro to decide the winner of the 2017 Sun Belt Baseball Championship, May 23-28.

This is the first time the Eagles have hosted the Championship, winning the bid in only their third year of Conference play. Head Coach Rodney Hennon says Athletics Director Tom Kleinlein “went to work from day one” to host the Championship, and says the event will benefit more than the baseball program.

“It’s a great opportunity for our program to be able to host, but not only that, I think it’s a great way to showcase the University and the community,” said Hennon. “And aside from just the baseball part of it, the impact that it will make on the community for that week.

“I mean, you’re talking 10 teams coming in, filling up hotels, people shopping, spending money at restaurants. I think it’ll make a real impact on Statesboro and the surrounding area.”

J.I. Clements Stadium and Jack Stallings Field received a makeover for the tournament — projects that were pushed ahead of schedule due to Hurricane Matthew, which hit Statesboro in October. Tropical storm-force winds snapped the three concrete poles that supported the batter’s eye in center field, which destroyed part of the fencing when the poles collapsed.

“So that got things rolling a little bit quicker,” said Hennon.

Renovations include the replacement of new synthetic turf in the bullpen areas and foul territory, the relocation of the Athletic Training Room to field level, and new carpet and paint in the Champion’s Room.

The most notable renovations, however, include a new SportsEdge Champion outfield wall with a 25-foothigh “Blue Monster” in right field. The wall includes a built-in vintage manual scoreboard, which Hennon says gives the park a unique feature among college venues. Upgrades include a new Daktronics LED video board with high-end graphics, and a new sound system that Hennon says will add to the atmosphere of an already exciting venue.

“We’ve always gotten really good support from our fans,” he said. “We’re regularly top 40 in attendance, which I think is a credit to our fans. I think this is just going to add another gear to what we can do on game days.”

The Championship promises to be an exciting showdown in an increasingly competitive league. This year, Coastal Carolina University, the reigning NCAA baseball national champions, joined the Sun Belt, allowing the Conference to split into six-team east and west divisions, broadening the field in the Championship.

“It’s a really good baseball league,” said Hennon. “There’s some depth to this league. I think we have the opportunity to be a top five or six conference in the country.”

Georgia Southern has qualified for the Sun Belt Championship every year since joining the Conference in 2015. Last year, the Eagles made it to the final round, where they lost to Louisiana-Lafayette in the Championship game.

They’ll be avenging that loss at home this year.

“I think it always helps when you can play at home,” said Hennon. “So just from a competitive standpoint you always like to be able to play at home, on our field, and definitely in front of our fans. That’s a definite plus.” — Doy Cave

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