Young Georgia State baseball team faces aggressive schedule

Elian Merejo, a fifth-year senior, hit .407 with five doubles, six homers and 15 RBI. He is a preseason All-Sun Belt Conference selection.
Elian Merejo, a fifth-year senior, hit .407 with five doubles, six homers and 15 RBI. He is a preseason All-Sun Belt Conference selection.

Credit: ben ennis

Credit: ben ennis

It won’t take long for the Georgia State baseball program to assess its progress in coach Brad Stromdahl’s second season. The Panthers have perhaps the most challenging non-conference schedule in the program’s history.

While their record may suffer in the short term, the young team will get the sort of experience – along with the bruises – that comes with playing a steady stream of ranked opponents. The difficulty is expected to help the Panthers once they arrive at the Sun Belt Conference tournament, for which all teams will qualify this season.

“How do you set your team up for a conference tournament where wins and losses don’t necessarily matter?” Stromdahl said. “How do you prepare your team for that? Do you want to see Kumar (Rocker, the potential No. 1 pick in the MLB draft) at Vandy throwing 100 mph? Does that prepare you for the conference tournament? I think it does.”

Georgia State opens the season Friday with a four-game series against West Virginia, a pitching-rich club ranked No. 14 by DI Baseball. Other opponents include No. 1 Florida, No. 4 Vanderbilt (winner of 2019 College World Series), No. 19 Tennessee, No. 25 Clemson and perennial contender Kentucky. There are the annual series against No. 12 Georgia and No. 15 Georgia Tech, as well as Mercer and Kennesaw State.

The Panthers were 9-7 before the pandemic shut down spring sports in Stromdahl’s first season. He and his staff used the ensuing down time to identify which recruits were available, what positions needed to be filled and who they wanted to pinpoint. Then they went out and restocked the roster.

“We were almost able to start fresh and new,” Stromdahl said. “We signed a bunch of kids and were able to use the break as a springboard to where we are today. Every other team kept a lot of players, but we had a void that allowed us to bring in 11-12 kids that are designated for positions we needed to fill.”

That has led to a very young team. There are 16 sophomores and 16 freshmen on the roster.

Stromdahl did it by focusing on local prospects, almost all of them from Georgia and the majority from the Atlanta area. The same philosophy helped Stromdahl take Georgia Gwinnett to the NAIA World Series three times.

“I want local kids,” Stromdahl said. “I want people invested in the program, invested in Atlanta. I want parents, grandparents, to be able to come and see us and be able to travel.”

The offense will be led by Elian Merejo, a fifth-year senior who has spent most of his time in the outfield or as the designated hitter. In 16 games last season, Merejo hit .407 with five doubles, six homers and 15 RBIs. He was named third-team All-American by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and was selected to the preseason All-Sun Belt team.

Also returning is sophomore shortstop Will Mize, who earned a spot on the Freshman All-American team last year. Mize batting .373 with 17 RBIs.

The pitching staff, loaded with good young arms and solid depth, is expected to be a strength.

“The pitching staff is going to be our mainstay,” Stromdahl said. “We tried to put a lot of emphasis on pitching, getting good pitchers here that we could coach up. The foundation of our program is going to be the pitching staff.”

Sophomore Ryan Watson is being penciled in as the Friday starter. The right-hander (6-foot-3, 205 pouns has picked up about 5 mph on his fastball since last season and is now being clocked at 93-94 mph. He was 2-1 with a 5.95 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 19-2/3 innings last season, but led the team with six wins in 2019, the most by a Georgia State freshman.

Sophomore Seth Clark, a big left-hander (6-3, 225) is expected to be the No. 2 arm in the rotation. He was 0-1 with a 5.09 ERA in four starts, but opponents hit only .190 against him and he struck out 21 in 17-2/3 innings.

Chad Treadway, a freshman All-American selection by Collegiate Baseball in 2020, likely will be a weekend starter. He was 0-1 with a 2.20 ERA in 16-1/3 innings, striking out 23.

“We need to get our freshmen and sophomores ready to play in regionals and super-regionals,” Stromdahl said. “It’s a perfect year to have a schedule like this. We’ll see what adjustments we have to make, see what we’re really good at and build on those assets.”

The Panthers open with a single game at 2 p.m. Friday, a doubleheader starting at 1 p.m. Saturday and the finale at noon Sunday. All games are at the GSU Baseball Complex on Panthersville Road.

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