Southern Conference Preview

Western Carolina looks to keep momentum rolling after impressive `07


Feb. 20, 2008

By Eric Sorenson

Special to CSTV.com

ERIC SORENSON
Eric Sorenson is a regular contributor to CSTV.com, covering football, basketball & baseball.
E-mail

 

You'd have to say that 2007 was a breakout year for the SoCon, Western Carolina went to the Regional finals and Wofford proved that a last place team could make it to the Big Dance as well. So while this remains a two-bid league, 2008 may call for even bigger and better things. To state the obvious, hitting certainly wasn't the problem, but league-wide improved pitching must be emphasized. That facet alone puts WCU in the catbird seat, but there are plenty of teams ready to make this a white-knuckle finish.

 

Favorite: Western Carolina

Contenders: Appalachian State, College of Charleston

Darkhorse: Georgia Southern

 

Appalachian State (33-26, 14-13)

 

The Good News:

Last year's winning mark was the highest in 21 years. C Andrew Franco (.387-8-63) and OF David Rubenstein (.361, 30 doubles) are on the Wallace Award watch list. Experienced arms like Jason Rook (6-7, 5.33, 81 K) and Garret Sherrill (10-5, 5.09, 6 svs) will only get better.

 

The Bad News:

The 5.95 team ERA must improve (it jumped to 6.47 in conference play), as well as the opponents hitting a staggering .329. ASU isn't exactly used to being the hunted, so this may be a new role

 

The Intangible:

Well-armed mercenaries.

 

With a pitching staff saddled with an ugly ERA, Appy State got welcome news when Young Harris Junior College All-American LHP Nick Terry and East Carolina RHP Josh Dowdy (5-2, 3.62) decided to transfer in for 2008.

 

Schedule Note:

Roadies to North Carolina State, Auburn and Jacksonville State will build a good-sized callous for this team when it enters SoCon play. The back side of conference play eases up quite a bit though.

 

College of Charleston (39-19, 20-7)

 

The Good News:

Last year, CofC got off to a wicked-good 12-1 start (including a win over South Carolina), proving it could play with anyone. Offensively, look for the Michaels: Harrington (.364-13-66, and an All American candidate) and Kohn (.312-9-42), to pick up the O. Jake Goldberg (6-1, 3.72) is a reliable arm and Russ Tomlinson (5-1, 5.29) will step up this year.

 

The Bad News:

Went cold, going 3-7 in their last 10 and that kept the Cougs from getting an at-large bid to the NCAAs. When CofC lost, it lost big, giving up double digit run totals in six of its last nine losses. Five of the top six bats are gone, as is All Everything hurler Nick Chigges. In a word, ouch.

 

The Intangible:

Avoid that unlucky seven again.

 

On May 8th last season, the Cougars gave up seven runs in the bottom of the 9th to lose to Coastal Carolina. It was that loss that kick-started their 3-7 slide to finish the season.

 

Schedule Note:

Charleston will play 18 of its first 20 games at renovated Patriot's Point Field, including national powers Clemson, Coastal Carolina and South Carolina.

 

Davidson (19-34, 8-19)

 

The Good News:

The `Cats hope to emulate last year's 10-3 start. They also hit a hearty .301 last year and return OF Brett Shore (.328), Inf. Zach Kayne (.312-6-42) and UTL Matt Webb (.279-9-44), who was also the most effective slinger on the staff (3-1, 1.80, 8 svs).

 

The Bad News:

Other than Mr. Webb, the pitching was pretty dreadful, with its 8.28 team ERA. Unfortunately, the fielding was a SoCon worst .954 as well. That's a bad combo. They'll lose some punch too as four of the top five hitters are gone.

 

The Intangible:

Soaking in international waters.

 

Longtime skipper Dick Cooke was able to coach alongside luminaries like Davey Johnson, Rick Eckstein and Reggie Smith for Team USA when they won the gold medal at the IBAF World Cup. Any guy that can help coach a team to a win over Cuba, can certainly turn the Wildcats' fortunes around.

 

Schedule Note:

Not that any weekend will be easy for the Wildcats, but to start the SoCon slate with Charleston, Wofford and Western Carolina is a damn tough draw.

 

Elon (32-29, 15-12)

 

The Good News:

This team never stopped fighting last year. Righties Steven Hensley (8-5, 3.93, 107 K) and Will Romanowicz (6-3, 5.36) were the two most-used arms on the staff. Three key bats return in the slugger: C Pat Irvine (.318-10-47), the burner: OF Chris Dove (.333, 31 SB) and the contact hitter: Chase Austin (.337).

 

The Bad News:

Ryan Addison and Jordy Snyder were great table-setters for the offense and will be missed. After a 12-3 start to conference play, the Phoenix wilted down the stretch. The arm staff needs to buckle down more, especially shoring up the 274 issued walks.

 

The Intangible:

Upset kings.

 

The Phoenix burned such national bullies as Miami, Clemson, East Carolina and Wake Forest last season, continuing its tradition of pulling upsets. It also helped give confidence that 2008 will be a better season.

 

Schedule Note:

Elon should pile up the Ws early with weekenders coming against La Salle, Delaware State and North Carolina A&T before conference play kicks in. Will probably get out to a 12-4 start. (If I'm wrong, I'll shave my head.)

 

Furman (19-36, 11-16)

 

The Good News:

Jay Jackson is one of the best athletes in the conference and is a dual threat (.289-6-31 and 1-4, 5.80, 13 starts). OF Bobby Hubbard (.290-6-42) is another decent bat to join him. RHP J.P. Goldsberry (3-1, 4.86) will probably move into a weekend starter role.

 

The Bad News:

Furman went 5-4 on Fridays in the SoCon, but mostly because departed ace Matt Klinker threw so well. Quality pitching depth is job one. The team hit a SoCon worst .270 at the dish, with just 170 walks.

 

The Intangible:

Strength up the middle.

 

If there's one thing the Paladins have going for them, SS Connor Lind (.277), 2B Marcus Rose (.269) and CF Joey Rodgers (.230) were reliable gloves last season, capable of error-free games left and right. That'll help the win column a lot in '08.

 

Schedule Note:

Another thing that'll help the win column is weekend games with NJIT, Albany and High Point. Also, three of the last four SoCon weekends are at home.

 



 
 

Georgia Southern (34-28, 13-14)

 

The Good News:

Rodney Hennon has led GSU to 30-plus wins in each of his eight seasons and things will be no different in '08. Eight starters are back including lumberjacks like 1B Jeremiah Parker (.324-13-46) and OF Chris Shehan (.341-10-50). RHP Drew Murray (4-7, 5.66) and LHP Aaron Eubanks (3-5, 4.32) lead the hurlers.

 

The Bad News:

With a storied past, it's hard to believe it's been since 2002 that the Eagles last flew into the NCAA tournament. Another 3-10 start in conference play must be avoided. Need more consistency, less streaky play in 2008. But that usually comes with experience.

 

The Intangible:

Still young bucks here.

Coach Hannon could have a

 good thing going here in Statesboro. Despite all the experience returning this season, there are still only two senior starters and two senior pitchers of note. Look out for GSU, not just in '08, but '09 as well.

 

Schedule Note:

The Eagles play possibly the toughest schedule in the SoCon. Not just because of pre-conference games with Georgia Tech, Boston College, Michigan and East Carolina, but also their first two weekends of SoCon play will be with WCU and Charleston.

 

North Carolina-Greensboro (30-30, 14-13)

 

The Good News:

Last year's team average of .292 was the highest since 2003 and no team fielded better that the Spartans (.967). Lots of senior leaders, including OF/2B Tim Carrier (.350-6-31, 17 SB), C Adam Deleo (.305) and SS Matt Gaski (.291, 11 SB), one of those coaches-son type players that do everything well.

 

The Bad News:

Prior to the last two years, the last time UNCG went back-to-back without winning seasons was 1991-92. Three .300-plus bats are needing to be replaced, along with staff ace Ryan Falcon and the versatile arms of Clinton McKinney and Nick Starnes.

 

The Intangible:

The California connection.

 

In addition to the fleet-footed Carrier (from Irvine), other native Golden starters to watch are No. 2 starter Matt Gibbs (4-4, 5.42, from Modesto), who should take over the ace spot and 1B Ricky Orton (.330-6-42, from Bakersfield) who provides much-needed power.

 

Schedule Note:

UNCG Stadium is still one of the best small-scale stadiums to watch a game in the country. The Spartans will play 39 home games (with only 18 roadies) this season.

 

The Citadel (34-27, 12-15)

 

The Good News:

The top two starters, juniors Matt Crim (7-3, 5.18) and Wes Wrenn (6-6,4.64) both need to revert to Frosh form. Seven starters are back in the field, led by OF Sonny Meade (.379-5-44) and the power sticks of OF Chris Swauger (.316) and C Richard Jones (.335), who both hit 15 HRs. 

 

The Bad News:

The Citadel had to be kicking themselves after losing twice to the last place team and missing the NCAA tournament. Ps Link Saunders (7 svs) and Justin Smith (7 wins) will need to be replaced, as will 1B Zach Brown, who's now in the Padres system.

 

The Intangible:

Home cooking, part 19.

 

For the 19th straight season, The Citadel will be the host school for the SoCon tournament played at Riley Park.

 

Schedule Note:

Not only will the 'Dogs get host the SoCon tourney, they'll also play 25 of their first 28 games of the season at home.

 

Western Carolina (42-20, 20-7)

 

The Good News:

It's no secret that pitching and defense win championships and WCU was solid in both last year. Starters Drew Saberhagen (9-1, 2.87) and Tyler Sexton (8-3) are wicked lefties and two of the three weekend starters returning. C Blake Murphy (.367-16-66) is a Bench Award candidate and CF Barrett Shaft (.376) is also an All-SoCon star.

 

The Bad News:

Look for a power outage as four key bats that combined for 59 HRs are now in pro ball. Ace closer Greg Holland was a 10th round pick of the Royals. Better Sunday pitching must step up.

 

The Intangible:

Transfers of influence.

 

Saberhagen (Pepperdine) and Sexton (Campbell) were huge finds last season. For 2008, watch for instant impacts from OF J.C. Lyons (from Young Harris JC) and a pair of pitchers, Garrett Ozar (El Camino, Calif.) and Mike Tavernier (Hillsborough CC), who was a Freshman All-American at Florida A&M in '06.

 

Schedule Note:

Pre-conference games with Vanderbilt, Coastal Carolina, Georgia and Rice will prepare the `Cats for anything. The season-ending series with College of Charleston should be for the conference title.

 

Wofford (30-33, 8-19)

 

The Good News:

The Terriers brutalized baseballs in 2007, smashing 107 HR. Returning dish-bashers include Shane Kirkely (.323-16-55) and Mike Gilmartin (.322-14-50), who also pitched (1-3, 4.11). RHP Ben Austin (11-6, 4.35, 8 svs) was a rubber-armed machine and RHP Tom Dolinak was the top pitcher in the Southern Collegiate League last summer.

 

The Bad News:

Lost a lot of production, especially heart and soul slugger Brandon Waring who is in the pros now. There's got to be some more quality pitching to step up behind Austin. The weak non-conference foes could lead to another misleading 16-5 start.

 

The Intangible:

Keep the 'Mo going.

 

Wofford looked dead in the water, finishing in a tie for last. But that magical run through the SoCon tourney and NCAA bid could be a program-turner. We'll see if momentum is still with them.

 

Schedule Note:

Everything crescendos at the end of the season as a relatively easy slate finishes with Georgia Southern, Western Carolina and College of Charleston on consecutive weekends.

Related Stories