In 2016, Claflin University made a Cinderella run taking it into the postseason and all the way to the NCAA Division II playoffs. For those on the outside, it may have seemed that Claflin came out of nowhere to make that run, but among those who follow the conference closely, it was no surprise. The team was loaded with talent and it returns just about everyone from a team that has upped its strength of schedule over the last few years.
In the last two seasons, no regular season first place finisher have represented the conference in the postseason. Despite not winning the regular season title in 2016. Claflin has the makeup for regular and conference crowns.
The Panthers, ranked No.6 in Black College Nines’ HBCU baseball pre-season poll, begins its push to return to the NCAA Division II playoffs opening the season against Francis Marion University. It faces a very tough non-conference schedule playing North Greenville University, Coker College, six games between two DII powerhouses, Lander University and Florida Southern while competing within the furious SIAC conference.
Claflin returns seven starters from last year’s SIAC championship team. The top returnees to the starting lineup from last season’s squad include, Lyndale Morley (P/OF), Reginald Rogers (SS), Johnny Stevenson (C), Christopher Gilliam (OF), Elliot Milton (OF), Damien “Rashad” Bivens (3B) and Jeturi Brown (INF). Bivens, Rogers and Brown provide a dependable fielding core, something SIAC baseball teams will have to deal with. Anchoring the outfield is Christopher Gilliam, defensive specialist.
Claflin eyes a return back to the national stage. Here are some things to watch for as the team enters the 2017 season…
Some top teams rely on one fantastic player. Claflin, however, is virtually the Morley, Rogers, Stevenson, Gilliam, Milton, Bivens, Brown show. Claflin have a balanced attack, with all seven of its hitters combining for a batting average of .321 and 130 stolen bases last season. The Panthers won’t play long ball, because they are a singles and gap hitting team with men in scoring position.
Being defensively sound, head coach James Randall is building the infield around minimizing mistakes. Eighty-five errors were committed last season. That is an area Randall has addressed during fall ball.
Claflin should also be deeper on the mound, as it will bring back enough stable arms for the bullpen to log deep innings. Its rotation should be led by returnees, Keamond Eison, Torriun Towers, Aaron Perry, Jamal Devine and Christian Buford and will also add a couple of promising freshmen to the mix.
Look for experience to be a key to success. All seven starters from last season know what the road has in store if they want to make that return trip to the SIAC conference tournament and NCAA playoff.
Another significant aspect to a successful season will include winning key games against non-conference and conference opponents. Paine College, Benedict College, Morehouse, Lane, Clark Atlanta and Albany State won’t be pushovers. Each will be gunning for the defending conference champs.
All indications read that the Clafflin Panthers of head coach James “Sap” Randall should be formidable this spring.