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UConn baseball preview: Atlanta Challenge

The Huskies are one of three teams heading to Atlanta to face three local squads.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Baseball is back. UConn will open their 2018 season taking a tour of northern Georgia as they will be taking part in the Atlanta Challenge along with Minnesota and Bradley as visitors. The three schools will travel to Kennesaw State, Georgia State and Georgia Tech in turn in the event.

The Huskies missed out on the NCAA Tournament last year and they look to get back to Regionals anchored an experienced roster combined with a reload of a couple high-powered freshmen and junior college transfers.

All-conference and Golden Spikes Award watchlist member Tim Cate (4-3, 3.33 ERA) leads the weekend rotation and shortstop Anthony Prato (.303 AVG/.376 OBP/.388 SLG) combined with right fielder Isaac Feldstein (.264/.346/.457), catcher Zac Susi (.286/.362/.376) and left fielder John Toppa (.267/.303/.330) look to lead the offense to a strong first weekend.

Cate will be reprising his role as Friday night starter and draws Kennesaw State (25-32), who finished fifth in the Atlantic Sun in 2017, losing to eventual champion Florida Gulf Coast in the tournament semifinals.

Taylor Allum (.319/.435/.590) is the Owls’ top returning hitter and he was named to the Atlantic Sun preseason all-conference team along with Grant Williams (.305/.375/.359).

On the mound, the Huskies will be contending with right-hander AJ Moore (5-6, 6.13 ERA), a senior. He started 14 games for Kennesaw State in 2017 and owns 14 of the 20 returning starts.

For Saturday’s game, UConn will head south to Georgia State (22-33) to face the Panthers. After spending last year as the Sunday starter, Mason Feole (7-4, 3.38) will move up a step after Wills Montgomerie was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2017 MLB Draft.

The Panthers finished fifth in the East Division of the Sun Belt conference and were eliminated in the first round of the conference tournament.

They will send transfer Jake Rogers (9-2, 3.38) to the mound. He pitched last season for Cleveland State Community College in Tennessee.

Offensively, Nick Gatewood (.319/.370/.382) was Georgia State’s best hitter in 2017 and is back for another year. The Panthers also rely on the left side of the infield with third baseman Romero Greer (.284/.339/.373) and shortstop Justin Jones (.275/.365/.375) leading the returners in batting average.

The series finishes up on Sunday with Georgia Tech (27-28). The last time these two teams faced off was in an elimination game in the 2016 Gainesville Regional with the right to move on to the regional final against host Florida. The two teams were tied after eight innings and Connor Justus knocked in the game-winning run in the top of the ninth against UConn’s Pat Ruotolo.

The Yellow Jackets finished 0-2 in pool play in the ACC Tournament last season and will send junior right-hander Jake Lee (4-2, 6.10 ERA) to the mound.

Left-hander Chase Gardner, tall at 6-foot-7, will toe the rubber for the Huskies as a transfer after throwing for the College of Marin in 2017.

He will face Wade Bailey (.347/.420/.538), the Yellow Jackets’ top hitter in 2017, as well as Austin Wilhite (.338/.410/.434) and elite power hitter Joey Bart (.296/.370/.575).

The contest with Kennesaw State will begin at 4 p.m. Friday and will be live on Kennesaw State’s Facebook page, while UConn and Georgia State will have a 2 p.m. first pitch the following day. The weekend finale against Georgia Tech will be on ACC Network Extra at 1 p.m. on Sunday and all three games can be heard on WHUS 91.7 FM.