BOILING SPRINGS – Coach Rusty Stroupe and his Diamond ‘Dogs will open play on Friday morning at 11:30 against Creighton University at the 2007 Winthrop Classic.

Gardner-Webb enters the season with 21 freshmen and sophomores set to suit up for the ‘Dogs. Nine of those sophomores saw considerable action in 2006, but Stroupe and his staff will be faced with teaching and molding a young group against a tough schedule.

GWU (24-31 in 2006) will battle No. 2 Clemson, No. 5 North Carolina, No. 21 Georgia (three games), No. 25 Winthrop and ACC powers NC State (three games) and Wake Forest in addition to the always difficult A-Sun slate. Throw in traditional Midwest power Creighton – who the ‘Dogs open up with Friday – and ACC member Maryland, who GWU will battle on Saturday, and the schedule is tougher than any Gardner-Webb has faced so far at the Division I level.

“We have a young group, but they have shown us that they will compete, and that’s encouraging,” said Stroupe. “We were pretty young last year, but had some great senior leadership with Blake Lalli, Jeremy McCann and Matt Maloney, who all are playing professionally now. After losing so much offense, some of these young guys will be in positions to make a difference for us early. Our pitching staff is still inexperienced overall, but some of those freshman arms from last season had good offseason results, so we’re optimistic.”

Jonathon Ban, who was one of the league ERA leaders last summer when pitching in the New England Collegiate Baseball League is coming off an impressive fall season – and will get the ball on Friday to open the season against Creighton. The Blue Jays (Omaha, Neb.) boast a strong tradition and are picked to finish fourth in the traditionally strong Missouri Valley Conference (Wichita State, Evansville).

Ban (6-2, 200, RHP) came on strong late last season – throwing six innings of no-hit baseball in a midweek win over Western Carolina – and has showcased an upper 80s fastball and better control as a sophomore.

He will likely be joined in the weekend rotation by classmate Josh Drewery (6-2, 180, RHP) and either Nate MacDonald (6-1, 200, Sr., RHP), Wes Cogdill (6-0, 185, Jr., LHP) or newcomer Jeremiah Lokken (6-3, 200, Jr., LHP). Lokken, who transferred from FCC-Jacksonville, was drafted by the New York Mets following his prep career two summers ago. Ben Campbell, who led the A-Sun in pickoffs last season, is another crafty southpaw who has experience starting for the Bulldogs.

Senior Tim Thomas (6-3, 210, RHP) could also factor into the rotation, but may be used as the team’s primary relief man. Another senior, Matt Tafazzoli (6-3, 225, RHP), is coming off an offseason surgery, but is expected back at full strength soon and will be a welcome addition to the staff.

One wildcard recently added to the pitching mix is 6-foot-4 sophomore Devin Campbell, who spent the past two seasons concentrating on football. Campbell, who passed for more then 2,000 yards as a sophomore with the I-AA (FCS) Bulldogs in 2006, is slowly getting back into the groove of pitching – and adds an 86-88 mph fastball to the mix. The Greenville, S.C., native adds good depth to the bullpen.

The two most effective pitchers during preseason drills have been Cogdill – who led the Alaskan League in ERA last summer – and Webster Beal (6-0, 185, Jr., LHP), a native of Charlotte, N.C. Stroupe anticipates using both quite a bit out of the bullpen this season, unless one – or both – finds a spot in the starting rotation.

Offensively, GWU must replace the majority of its firepower from last season, with Lalli, Maloney and McCann accounting for 29 of Gardner-Webb’s 45 home runs, 123 of the team’s 298 runs scored and 133 of the team’s 271 RBI. Lalli, who led the A-Sun with a .389 batting average, set the school’s single-season mark for OPS (on base percentage, plus slugging percentage) in 2006 with a final 1.098 average.

The return of catcher/DH Jay McConnell (6-3, 210, RSo.) should help in replacing some of that production, after the Mt. Holly, N.C., native missed all but one inning last season with an injury. A preseason All-Conference choice in each of the last two years, McConnell was a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America choice in 2005 after batting .345 with nine doubles and 34 RBI.

Stroupe anticipates platoon situations early in the season with several spots up for grabs after preseason drills.

Drewery, who started at shortstop as a true freshman and batted .281 with five home runs and 27 RBI last year, will be a regular again in 2007 in the middle infield, as will second baseman/SS Tyler Johnson (39 starts). Two-sport star Daniel Cooke (15 steals in 2006) and senior Joey Testa (.276 BA) return with experience in the outfield, and defensive standout Jon Ahearn covers considerable real estate in center. Brock Miller, Jamaal Kinard and Lokken will also compete for time in the outfield, with junior college transfer Kinard the favorite to man right field heading into the weekend.

In addition to Johnson and Drewery as the Bulldogs’ double play combination, Gardner-Webb will look to Justin Loyd or Chase Bubley at third and McDonald or Lokken at first base this weekend.

Several players, in addition to McConnell, will compete for swings at designated hitter – and behind the plate. Senior Shea Harris and redshirt freshmen O.J. McFarland and Ty Boyles each have the ability to handle the pitching staff, with McFarland also boasting capable power at the plate.

Gardner-Webb posted a 2-1 record in last year’s Winthrop Classic, beating Maryland and Evansville before falling to host Winthrop on the final day.