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A win at home would be ‘something special’ for GSU

May 05, 2017

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When driving around Statesboro it’s nearly impossible to avoid Fair Road. Anyone craving Popeyes, Panda Express or Arby’s has to take Fair Road to get there, and for fans of Georgia Southern athletics it funnels them into Hanner Fieldhouse and JI Clements Stadium.


Whether you’re coming from downtown Statesboro or the Kiwanis Fairgrounds, off to the side of Fair Road is the pleasant sight of Georgia Southern’s athletic park. From the bridge over Beautiful Eagle Creek to Hanner’s newly renovated entrance, it’s hard not to take your eyes off the road just to catch a glance of what GS has invested in their facilities.


Along with Hanner’s renovations came another new sight for the people of Bulloch County – a towering gray wall enveloping a grandstand that can be seen from Fair Road once you get past the trees which surround the softball fields. That wall and jumbotron belong to the new JI Clements Stadium, renovated just in time for Georgia Southern to host the 2017 Sun Belt Baseball Tournament.


Considering the conference doesn’t have a championship football game and the basketball tournament is permanently held in New Orleans, the baseball tournament is considered the biggest get for any of the Sun Belt’s member schools. It’s has the biggest opportunity for exposure and consistently draws the most fans of any Sun Belt Championship tournament.


“This was a joint effort by all parts of Georgia Southern University,” said Associate Athletics Director for Internal Operations Tracy Ham. “This an opportunity to not only show off our athletic facilities but to show off the university as an academic institution.”


Having the stadium upgrades was merely a bonus for Georgia Southern. Athletic Director Tom Kleinlein had bid on the tournament right as the Eagles became a part of the conference and it was announced in 2016 that Statesboro would officially host the 10 teams that qualify from around the conference.


JI Clements went under renovations after booster Ed Nelson was inspired by the atmosphere created by Fenway Park in Boston. The Green Monster – Fenway’s famous left field wall that extends 37 feet in the air – was Nelson’s favorite feature. He’d return from Boston and decide his alma mater needed something similar for their baseball team, from the atmosphere to a giant outfield wall.


“To have people like Ed Nelson affiliated with this university makes things much easier,” Ham said.


The new stadium can hold 3,500 people and boasts a “Blue Monster” in right field facing Fair Road. A giant, white “GS” logo is imprinted on a contrasting Georgia Southern blue wall that stands 30 feet over the warning track. It immediately catches your eye as you walk in from either gate, but that was only the start of what’s new at JI Clements.


Turf lines the foul areas down the first and third base sides with a another giant GS imprinted behind home plate and a jumbotron in left field. It’s the kind of baseball experience normally reserved for the bluebloods like LSU or South Carolina, but the people of Statesboro get to be spoiled with power five ambiance in a mid-major town.


“The fan experience is something we’re always trying to enhance,” Ham said. “The renovations are going to make Georgia Southern game day a unique experience.”  


And what better year to host the Sun Belt Tournament than the year Coastal Carolina are the defending national champions? As a member of the Big South Conference in 2016, Coastal Carolina led one of the most improbable championship runs not just in the history of college baseball but in the history of college sports period.


In the NCAA tournament the Chanticleers mowed through a bounty of blueblood programs like NC State, LSU, Florida, TCU and eventually Arizona to win the College World Series. Now the defending champs are part of the Sun Belt and will be carrying the crown to Statesboro this month.


But CCU isn’t the only team with some national pedigree who will be in attendance. Louisiana-Lafayette has been a top-25 program going on five years now and has won the tournament three years in row. Additionally, South Alabama has made the NCAA tournament as an at-large team twice since 2013 and Georgia Southern has been in the tournament as the SoCon champs three times since 2009.


“Having Coastal show up has made this tournament even more desirable to host,” Ham said. “The timing was great for all of this.”


With four NCAA tournament caliber teams on hand, the Sun Belt Tournament will be a legit showcase of quality college baseball. As Hennon puts it, anyone who is a fan of baseball period should make their way out because they’d be missing out on an opportunity to see future pros in college uniforms.


“If you come out here you’re going to see great baseball,” said head coach Rodney Hennon. “This is college baseball at one of the highest levels. Our league runs pretty deep.”


Every game will be broadcast on ESPN3, meaning there will be plenty of wide angle shots of that giant GS in right field. It shouldn’t be forgotten there was an economic incentive in bringing the Sun Belt Tournament to Statesboro. Not only will the hospitality community get to serve nine Sun Belt teams and their fans, but GS gets a kind of exposure you don’t get by hosting the soccer or volleyball tournament – something GS has done before.


Anyone watching from any other fan base or college baseball fan will see GS in right field or behind home plate. The logo essentially serves as a free ad every time someone sees it and possibly becomes more interested in Georgia Southern as a school. With higher viewing numbers, ads for the university run on the broadcast will get the most exposure you can ask for.


“One of the primary goals you have when you host one of these tournaments it projecting a good image for the university,” Ham said. “This broadcast can be seen from anywhere in the world, so we treat this like the whole world will be watching us on those days.”


The appropriate consummation for all of this would be Georgia Southern winning their first Sun Belt championship in their home stadium. It certainly wouldn’t be out of the question, as it’ll come down to the Eagles, Coastal, South Alabama and Lafayette for the title most likely. Hennon agrees, saying it’d be the perfect cap to this year.


“That would be something special,” Hennon said. “If we could win it here on our field it would just add on to how special it would be.”  


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