A new-look University of Central Arkansas baseball team will take the field at Bear Stadium Friday when it opens the 2014 season with a home series against the Missouri State Bears.
The Bears lost 10 seniors and one junior draftee from arguably the best team in school history, one that won the Southland Conference Tournament title, advanced to the final of the NCAA Starkville Regional and shattered the school record for victories with 42.
UCA has 22 newcomers on its 35-man roster for the upcoming season. Only five position players — two starters — and five pitchers return from last season. The Bears, who had a school-record three players taken in the Major League Baseball Draft, will try to build on the momentum from last season with a fresh batch of players in coach Allen Gum’s fourth season in Conway. Game times are 3 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.
“We’re excited about what this team can do,” Gum said. “We like our guys, an outstanding group of guys. But we won’t know a lot about them until we see them face some adversity. That’s really when we get to know each other better. With this being such a new team, we haven’t been through that process with these guys.”
The Bears return two starting pitchers who put up impressive numbers a year ago in senior Bryce Biggerstaff and sophomore Connor Gilmore. Biggerstaff threw just the second no-hitter in school history in a 13-0 win over Jackson State, an NCAA regional team. He finished with a 6-5 record and a 3.01 earned-run average as a weekend starter in 2013.
Biggerstaff, a righthander from Sherwood, is expected to be the Friday starter for the Bears. The Bears’ workhorse logged 107.2 innings last season — including a 10-inning outing against Lamar in conference play — and had four complete games and five games of 9-plus innings pitched.
Gilmore, a 6-foot-5, 190-pounder from Little Rock Catholic, was the postseason star for the Bears, tossing a two-hitter against Southeastern Louisiana in the SLC Championship game, then coming back with a four-hit shutout against South Alabama in an elimination game in the Starkville Regional. Gilmore, 5-0 with a 0.73 ERA last season, was named to the SLC All-Tournament team and the Starkville Regional All-Tournament team. He is expected to be the Bears’ Sunday starter in 2014.
Junior righthander Connor McClain of Conway has pitched mostly in relief during his two years at UCA but should move into the weekend rotation this season. He was 1-0 with one save and a 1.54 ERA a year ago in 11 appearances.
Senior shortstop Justin Treece is the only starter returning in the everyday lineup for UCA. Treece was named to the all-tournament team at the Starkville Regional and hit .230 for the season with 47 hits and 27 RBI. Senior Scott Zimmerle was UCA’s starting first baseman last season but will be in the UCA bullpen and used as a designated hitter this season.
Gum must replace the remainder of the position players, including record-setters Forrestt Allday and Jonathan Davis in the outfield and catcher Michael Marietta behind the plate.
Missouri State leads the overall series with UCA 4-3, but the teams have not met since the 2010 season. The visiting Bears finished 31-23 last season, with a 12-9 mark in the Missouri Valley Conference. MSU begins the season with eight-straight road games, while UCA is at home for nine of its first 13 games.