Chattanooga poised to get back to JUCO

Although Chattanooga State (Tenn.) Community College’s first appearance in the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series last year was short, it was valuable.

With six returning players and seven sophomore transfers, the Tigers (35-4) are ranked second in the latest NJCAA/Perfect Game USA Division I baseball poll, released Wednesday. The JUCO World Series is May 28-June 4 at Suplizio Field.

“We have a nice core of position guys back with two or three on the mound that have played well for us,” Chattanooga State coach Greg Dennis said. “You can’t discount the fact to have the experience in the place you shoot for (Grand Junction) has a big impact, not just in recruiting, but playing.

“The kids are confident and determined.”

Salt Lake (Utah) Community College (36-4) remained No. 1 in the poll, winning eight of its past 10 games. Santa Fe (Fla.) College (32-6) moved up two spots to No. 3. Grayson County (Texas) College (32-10) dropped one spot to No. 4 and Northwest Florida State College (33-9) moved up four spots to No. 5.

Central Arizona College (34-10) made the biggest jump, 10 places to No. 6. Howard (Texas) College (27-11), Walters State (Tenn.) Community College (31-8), Blinn (Texas) College (29-11) and Cowley County (Kan.) Community College (30-6) round out the top 10.

Chattanooga State has several returning hitters back to provide plenty of run production, but the Tigers have a couple of new pitchers to shut down opposing teams in their new $1.5-million dollar ballpark as well as on the road, where they played every game last season.

“We are piecing things together,” Dennis said. “The new players have blended in well. The new guys are determined. That’s a big part of getting on the right track.”

Patrick Merkling, a sophomore left-hander, transferred to Chattanooga and has taken over the No. 1 starting pitching job. He is 8-0 with a 1.64 ERA. He leads the team in innings pitched, wins and strikeouts.

“We missed having a true No. 1 last year,” Dennis said. “He is very much that. He’s been consistent in conference games.”

Seth McClure, who mostly pitched in relief last year, has become the Tigers’ No. 2 starter. He is 6-1 with a 1.56 ERA.

“He pitched 10 to 12 innings for us last year and has thrown a one- and two-hitter for us the last two outings,” Dennis said. “He has blossomed. He didn’t pitch much in high school and last year was a transition year for him.”

The Tigers lost their No. 1 pitcher a little more than halfway through last season and their No. 2 starter was lost just before the World Series.

“You can’t hide that (in the World Series),” Dennis said. “You really can’t in your conference tournament, but you know your opponents better and can manipulate some things. We knew we’d be short on firepower.”

Zeth Stone returned home to play after not seeing much time at the University of Tennessee and has solidified a lineup with three veterans in the first three spots in the batting order.

Sophomores Gabe Herman, JD Pullen and Dylan Coleman have provided a bulk of the Tigers’ offense.

Herman is hitting .388 in the leadoff spot and has scored 46 runs and stolen 19 bases. Pullen is hitting .440 with 15 stolen bases in the No. 2 hole.

Coleman has driven in a team-leading 50 runs, hitting .470 in the third spot.

Chattanooga State hosts No. 8 Walters State in a three-game series this weekend.

“Walters State is one of the top programs in the country,” Dennis said. “We’ll have our hands full. It should be a good litmus test for us.”

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