Atlantic Sun Conference Preview

Stetson the gold standard as A-Sun welcomes USC-Upstate and FGCU


Feb. 12, 2008

By Eric Sorenson

Special to CSTV.com

ERIC SORENSON
Eric Sorenson is a regular contributor to CSTV.com, covering football, basketball & baseball.
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Nothing about the Atlantic Sun looks the same anymore. USC-Upstate? Florida Gulf Coast? Just when we were getting used to Kennesaw State and North Florida, they spring this on us. With 11-conference weekends, there is very little prep time in the A-Sun as conference play starts in Week 2 of the regular season. One thing that does stay the same is that Stetson is still the gold standard to live up to as the only team capable of pulling an at-large bid to the NCAAs.

 

Favorite: Stetson

Contenders: Belmont, Mercer, Jacksonville

Darkhorse: Lipscomb

 

Belmont (34-26, 16-11)

 

The Good News:

Bruins welcome back Wallace Award candidate Chris Manning (3-0, 2.67, 11svs) who can do it all. Beware of the "DW" Express as 2B Daniel Wagner (.335), 1B/DH Derek Wiley (.314-10-48) get help from SS Packy Elkins (.280).

 

The Bad News:

Four of the top six hitters and two weekend starters on the mound have hit the bricks. Fielders must cut down on the 92 errors. Most of the teams power sticks are gone, may have to play more station-to-station ball in '08.

 

The Intangible:

A finely tuned Testa-rosa.

 

There's no denying the talent of Carlo Testa. When he's not manning the Sunday starter role (3-7, 4.60), he's manning center field (13 assists) and at the dish (.275). If his numbers improve, BU's win-loss will too.

 

Schedule Note:

Three of the last four weekends are against the lower tier teams in the A-Sun, but the last weekend sees the Bruins traveling to Mercer, which could be a big series.



 
 

 

Campbell (11-45, 5-22)

 

The Good News:

For a team that only won 11 games, Ws over North Carolina, East Carolina and Seton Hall show the Camels have some ability. New coach Greg Goff needs to bring a new air to the CU program. UTL Brandon Scott (.297, 19SBs/1-5, 4.50) and Ryan Hamme (.294/3-2, 6.26) are good anchors to build around.

 

The Bad News:

Though the Camels have been competitive in the A-Sun, 2001 was the last time they had a winning mark. Justin Lilly (0-6, 6.19, threw a no-hitter in a CPL game this past summer) and Blake Herring (3-8, 6.24) must improve their poor numbers as opponents hit .325.

 

The Intangible:

The greenhorns.

 

There will be 17 newcomers to this year's squad. Most of them are pretty well-lauded, but as you know, new blood means it could be a roller-coaster season. But again, anything over 11 wins will be good.

 

Schedule Note:

Teams like Florida, North Carolina State, Duke, Elon and UNC-Wilmington make for a challenging non-conference mid-week slate.

 

East Tennessee State (26-29, 11-16)

 

The Good News:

On April 12th of last year, ESTU was 24-12 and on top of the A-Sun at 10-2. Pitchers Brandon Langston (6-7, 3.93) and Todd Caldwell (2-2, 5.29) are returning starters. C Danny Petro (.295) is an emerging star and Jacob Fabry (.318) is a good leadoff man.

 

The Bad News:

From April 13th on, the Bucs had a meltdown, going 2-17 and missing out on the A-Sun tourney. The pitching staff needs re-tooling. Do-it-all Caleb Glafenhein takes his 115 innings of work with him, leaving a huge hole. The power supply of Anthony Russell and Justin Aughey is also gone.

 

The Intangible:

The pros are noticing.

 

ETSU hasn't posted a winning mark in the A-Sun yet, but the Bucs have had seven players drafted in the last three years.

 

Schedule Note:

Unlike last year's bust, games against North Carolina Central and UMES should make for some late season wins.

 

Florida Gulf Coast (40-17 in Division II)

 

The Good News:

Moving up from D-II won't be a huge problem for the Eagles as the last two years FGCU has made it to the NCAA Regionals. Eight of the top nine hitters return in a Jr./Sr.-heavy lineup. Josh Upchurch (.376, 15SBs) and Vinnie Scarduzio (.340-8-47) provide speed and power.

 

The Bad News:

Not a lot of bad news, unless you consider the huge move up in division to be bad. Weekend starters Luis Pardo (also had a lot of pen work) and Jason Kiley will be missed. And if you're nit-picking, FGCU batters struck out 327 times.

 

The Intangible:

Ready for your close up?

 

Despite being a D-II power, the only Division I teams that the Eagles have played in the last five years were last year's wins over Notre Dame and NYIT. Ya' gotta wonder how they'll react to this jump in opposing talent.

 

Schedule Note:

One thing that won't change this season is that Florida Gulf Coast will still play most of its games in-state. Only three times will the Eagles have to fly out of state in '08.

 

Gardner-Webb (26-32, 12-15)

 

The Good News:

Talk about wicked table-setters, GW has Daniel Cooke (.338-4-38, 22SBs) and Jamall Kinard (.302, 26SBs) to apply pressure. Ace Ben Campbell (7-6, 4.44) has a deep bullpen to back him, as seven different pitchers picked up saves last year.

 

The Bad News:

Campbell is the only pitcher returning with an ERA below 5.00. Players like Matt Tafazzoli, Joey Testa and Nate MacDonald were good team leaders that must be replaced. The 2007 team batting average of just .275 was, well... average.

 

The Intangible:

Pressure Drop.

 

As mentioned above, this team loves to live on the edge. In total, Bulldog basemen stole 119 bases last season to lead the conference, making this a fun team to watch.

 

Schedule Note:

Tough stretch out of the gate. The Dogs face St. John's, Evansville, Winthrop, Jacksonville and South Carolina in their first nine games.

 

Jacksonville (34-28, 15-12)

 

The Good News:

The Dolphins are quietly going for their third straight NCAA tournament bid. Most of last year's pitching returns, including a three-headed Matt: Friday starter Gardner (7-6, 3.95), part-time starter Dobbins (3-2, 3.66) and reliever Davis (4-2, 3.41, 6svs, 30th round pick of the Angels). Six field starters are also back.

 

The Bad News:

Twelve seniors, including A-Sun P.O.Y. Pete Clifford and three of the top four hitters, have graduated. J-Ville didn't really play with purpose most of the season, but put their game face on in the A-Sun tourney.

 

The Intangible:

The great recruiter.

 

Tim Montez took over recruiting duties in 2006 and has put together back-to-back solid classes. This year's haul was ranked No. 40 in the country by Collegiate Baseball.

 

Schedule Note:

Once again, it's the mid-week games that will give this team a good callous. UCF, FIU, Florida, Florida State and Georgia Southern are on their docket.

 

Kennesaw State (32-23, 13-14)

 

The Good News:

Lots. Like having eight starters back and RHPs Kyle Heckathorn (4-2, 3.31), Bubba Blalock (2-6, 3.60) and relievers Justin Freeman (1-2, 3.48, 8svs) and Kyle Muschara (5-0, 3.86, 2svs). Jacob Robbins (.383, 24SBs) and Martin Baker (.344, 20SBs) are flyers.

 

The Bad News:

Despite all the positives above, the Owls still aren't eligible for post-season play since this is only their second season in Division I (which I think is stupid, by the way.).

 

The Intangible:

Beating up the big brothers.

 

KSU went 4-1 vs. nearby bullies Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern last season. The only loss? An 11-inning affair in the season opener at Georgia Tech. Nice job Owls

 

Schedule Note:

Maybe this is done to make up for not allowing them to play in the A-Sun tourney, but the Owls were awarded seven home A-Sun series and just four roadies.

 

Lipscomb (28-30, 12-15)

 

The Good News:

You knew the Bison were for real after winning a series at LSU and getting wins over Vanderbilt, Auburn and Evansville. 3B Caleb Joseph (.335-8-48, 11SBs) is a national player of the year candidate. Two other .300-plua hitters are back: Ryan Wilkins .322 and Allen Bolden .306.

 

The Bad News:

For all the good they accomplished, the Bison still went horns-down in the A-Sun tourney in two games last year. That was part of a 2-10 downward spiral in the month of May.

 

The Intangible:

Playing beyond their years.

 

LHP Rex Brothers (7-4, 3.51) and Taylor Merry (4-2, 4.53) both pitched outstanding in their first year of college. That will pay big dividends this year.

 

Schedule Note:

After opening last season with 10 of their first 13 games at home, the Bison curiously, will play their first 12 games on the road.

 

Mercer (33-25, 17-10)

The Good News:

If you notice a big smile on the face of coach Craig Gibson, it's because he's got a large stable of seniors. Four of the seven returning starters are four-year guys, led by Billy Shaughnessy (.333), Mike Armstrong (.316-5-39) and Matt Crawford (.310). Boone Webster (7-5, 4.15) and Josh Lowey (5-3, 3.82) do the same on the mound.

 

The Bad News:

The departed Brantley New and Cory Gearrin were huge hubs in the arm corps. The 200 walks the staff allowed wasn't great, but the 72 plunkings they tossed was absurd. Eric Renfroe and Josh Thompson were the two biggest power sources in the lineup.

 

The Intangible:

Sending early tremors through the college baseball world.

 

Last year, unheralded Mercer went down to Top 10 Miami and went 2-0. Could national power Clemson face the same fate when the Bears travel there for Week 1?

 

Schedule Note:

The Bears have the luxury of facing off with A-Sun contenders Stetson, Belmont and Gardner-Webb at home. They will have to travel to play at Jacksonville though.

 

North Florida (24-32, 13-14)

 

The Good News:

The Ospreys have a lot returning, including seven starters. 2B Chad Knight (.243) and SS Mike Smith (.354) will make a good senior infield combo. LHP John Atteo (6-4, 4.25) was A-Sun All-Frosh and RHPs Antonio Franzese and Tyler Stohr combined for eight saves.

 

The Bad News:

Like KSU above, still nothing to play for until 2010 as UNF is in its third year of transitioning to D-I play. The comfort of senior pitchers Derek Bell and Brad Johnson is gone. As are three of the four .300-plus hitters.

 

The Intangible:

The Frosh.

 

Four UNF players made the A-Sun All-Freshman team, Atteo, Preston Hale, Mycal Jones and T.J. Thompson. Remember these names, they could be the group that leads the Osprey to their first Division I NCAA bid.

 

Schedule Note:

Lots of places to prove themselves here as the Ospreys host Mississippi State and have trips to Florida, Florida State and North Carolina.

 

Stetson (42-21, 21-6)

 

The Good News:

The A-Sun has been owned by the Hatters, for the most part. Six of nine starters come back led by leading hitter OF Justin Bass (.362-5-54), 1B Casey Frawley (.303) and 2B Jeremy Cruz (.328). Robbie Elsemiller (3-1, 2.36, 12svs), a second-team All-American by Collegiate Baseball, seems like he's been around forever.

 

The Bad News:

Jake Hitchcock (5-2, 3.89) and Justin Dechert (6-3, 4.65) will have to step up their roles because Corey Kluber and Chris Ingoglia took their 225 innings with them. The leadership of Shane Jordan and Braedyn Pruitt will also be missed.

 

The Intangible:

Home cooking.

 

Once again the Hatters, with the best facilities in the A-Sun, will host the postseason tournament, giving them a huge boost toward getting an NCAA bid.

 

Schedule Note:

From April 26th on, the Hatters will play 11 of their final 14 regular season games at Melching Field. As if that's not enough, the aforementioned A-Sun tournament will be played there as well.

 

USC-Upstate (34-25 in Division II)

 

The Good News:

For their big jump to D-I, the Spartans have seven returning starters and seven top pitchers back from '07. 1B Andrew Runion (.341) and SS Eric Guillen (.326) are the top bats and LHP Scott Eckard (6-4, 3.01) and Kyle Bowley (4-2, 6.06) are senior mound stars.

 

The Bad News:

Again, like any team transitioning to Division I, it's the incentive thing. Will the Spartans be motivated all season? Especially since there's no carrot of an NCAA or A-Sun tourney bid to play for.

 

The Intangible:

Winning trend.

 

USC-Upstate won't be afraid going up in competition, as they've won 30-plus games in each of the last three years at D-II. May take a bump or two, but 30 wins is still possible.

 

Schedule Note:

Upstate gets the luxury of playing 26 home games, but the slate won't be a cakewalk. Only two of their opponents finished with an RPI over 200.

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