Big South Conference Preview

Coastal Carolina on top of league once again


Feb. 22, 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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This is a conference that just keeps on setting the bar higher and higher, including getting a home regional in June. We also saw BSC teams go on the road and lay waste to bullies like Florida, Nebraska, UCLA, Virginia and East Carolina. But in the end, it was still a one-bid league for the NCAA tournament. Well big changes are coming with the influx of a few highly regarded coaches. And the rest of the country is taking notice.

 

Favorite: Coastal Carolina

Contenders: VMI, Winthrop

Darkhorse: Liberty

 

Charleston Southern (22-34, 7-14)

 

The Good News:

The arms corps is deep and experienced with headliners LHP Payton Tweddale (3-2, 2.96, 8svs, school record 13 career saves), RHP Brandon Roberts (4-5, 3.56) and RHP Cody Higgins (6-2, 4.37) leading the way. INFs Mark Perry (.279) and Will Rodriguez (.275) pace the offense.

 

The Bad News:

The bullpenners need to buckle down, since CSU was outscored 100-60 in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings last season. Other than Perry and Rodriguez, nobody... and I mean nobody, returns in the field. The newbies will need time to adjust.

 

The Intangible:

6-3. 10- 28. 6-3.

 

Last year got off to a good start and ended with a good finish, both of the 6-3 variety. It was in between where the Bucs rain aground, going 10-28. In fact, the 1-13 start to Big South play killed CSU's season.

 

Schedule Note:

I don't know how the Buccaneers were able to swing this one but they will play only 13 road games all season long. In fact, 21 of their first 23 games are at home. Eat your heart out SEC boys.

 

Coastal Carolina (50-13, 17-4)

 

The Good News:

After 50 wins and earning a home regional, 2007 was a breakthrough year for the Chanticleers and the Big South. And this ride isn't over yet either with three All American candidates in OFs Tommy Baldridge (.383-13-58) and David Sappelt (Big South P.O.Y., school record 99 hits) and RHP Bobby Gagg (12-2, 2.57, 84Ks). Lots of solid gloves around, including CF Dock Doyle (.310, just 1 error) and 3B Derek Martin (.304). RHP David Anderson (5-4, 3.36, 10svs) and Nick McCully (7-3, 3.48, 3svs) are versatile arms as starters and out of the pen.

 

The Bad News:

Despite all the breakthrough success, those two regional losses to Clemson still burn. Dom Duggan and Chris Raber provided a lot of power and speed to the lineup, Andy DeLaGarza and John Mariotti were both experienced weekend starters and Matt Rademacher was an anchor at Catcher. All will be missed.

 

The Intangible:

Even the bottom stepped up big.

 

Just to show you the quality of team CCU had last year, only two batters in the starting nine hit below .300, Adam Vrable at .296 and Tyler Bortnick at .269, and only one pitcher with more than 20 innings of work finished with an ERA above 5.00. Similar top-to-bottom production will mean another huge season in '08.

 

Schedule Note:

Talk about tournament tested, Coastal will host four pre-conference tournaments by the middle of March. The most intriguing nationally will be the Centex Homes Invitational which will have Michigan facing off with the Chants twice.

 

High Point (10-11, 27-30)

 

The Good News:

The Panthers seem at the cusp of breaking through, as shown by wins over Charlotte, Wake Forest and Coastal Carolina. Team hit .300 and pitched under 5.00 for the first time in Coach Bando's eight years. 2B Jeff Cowan (.339), CF Bill Manion (.337) and OF Robby Kuzdale (.330, 18SBs) will keep the O potent.

 

The Bad News:

Most of the pitching staff flew the coop and will have to be re-worked as Bubba O'Donnell (3-7, 5.15) and Zach Scott (4-1, 5.02) are the only hurlers of note back.

 

The Intangible:

27. 27. 28?

 

2007 marked the second year in a row that Sal Bando Jr. led the Panthers to the school record 27 wins since it became a Division I school. And really, it's Sal Bando's son that's the head coach. The son of a College World Series MVP will succeed, I'm tellin' ya'.

 

Schedule Note:

It's just not fair. The Panthers got stuck taking the road in series against Big South contenders Liberty, Winthrop and Coastal Carolina.

 

Liberty (36-25, 14-7)

 

The Good News:

Not sure if the Liberty management could've made a better choice for a new coach than Jim Toman, the longtime assistant to Ray Tanner at South Carolina. Red Sox draftee Garrett Young (.389-8-46) is a one-man wrecking crew. 2B Kenneth Negron (.364, 15SBs) and OF P.K. Keller (.328) back him well. Righties David Stokes (8-6, 4.82) and Dustin Umberger (5-4, 4.83) head a good stable of arms.

 

The Bad News:

Change in regime always needs an adjustment period. Look for some bumps in the road early on. Must improve on the 10-15 road mark to make the post-season a reality.

 

The Intangible:

The California connection.

 

In a strange twist, there are only three native Virginians on the 2008 roster. But six players hail from the Golden State, including Garrett Young and team captains Aaron Grijalva and Errol Hollinger.

 

Schedule Note:

A good mix to the pre-conference slate, but things get serious in Big South play, right away. Coastal Carolina comes calling in week one.

 



 
 

North Carolina-Asheville (22-38, 7-14)

 

The Good News:

Despite the won-loss mark, they were competitive, with wins over Winthrop, Coastal Carolina and a pair in the Big South tourney. Most of the important arms should be back, including the two biggest studs, Alan DeRatt (5-4, 4.54) and Graham Baughn (7-5, 4.74). Key pen-man Ben Buchanan (4-8, 5.02, 7svs) is a valued arm.

 

The Bad News:

The 2007 team was very senior-oriented as six of the top nine in the lineup have moved on, that includes everyone who hit above .275. This team was hoping for more in '07, after going to the NCAAs for the first time ever in '06 and returning an experienced team.

 

The Intangible:

The firestarter.

 

OF Kevin Mattison had a decent season in '07 (.274-6-28) but he's an infectious ball of energy, hitting more triples (eight) than dingers (six) and did have a great summer season as a Coastal Plains League All-Star.

 

Schedule Note:

Other than a three-game stretch with South Carolina and Florida State, the schedule looks good to help youthful coach Willie Stewart build confidence and gel for the Big South games.

 

Radford (10-36, 2-19)

 

The Good News:

Joe Raccuia, who had a successful stint at Marist (led them to the NCAA tournament in 2005) takes over as head coach. He's got a pair of Wallace Award candidates to work with in 1B Alex Gregory (6th in NCAA with .430 average) and C Nate Toth (.277, 17 2Bs).

 

The Bad News:

Well to say the least, Coach Raccuia has his work cut out for him. Last season was disastrous for the Highlanders. Team fielding percentage of .935 is job one. Team ERA of 6.84 is job two, though the staff was very young last season.

 

The Intangible:

New energy.

 

Coach Raccuia brings a good pedigree with him. He was Alabama's hitting coach last year and led the Tide to a .291 average - 11 points better than the previous season. As mentioned above, he's been a winner in tough places before, so he'll make an immediate impact here.

 

Schedule Note:

Oof! May wasn't meant to be a confidence-builder for the Highlanders. They'll face Winthrop and Coastal Carolina in their last two Big South weekends.

 

VMI (34-21, 10-11)

 

The Good News:

The Keydets made huge waves with a series win at Florida to open the '07 season and winning a school record 34 games. Two players were named to the Wallace Award watch list, RHPs Michael Bowman (6-3, 2.73) and Kevin Crum (14svs). A.J. Yoder (.296) and 5th-year man Thane Smith (.289) will pace the offense.

 

The Bad News:

On March 22nd of 2007, VMI was 17-4 with wins over Florida (2) and Auburn. Then the 'Dets were swept at Winthrop and went 17-17 the rest of the way. The only two .300+ hitters are gone off an offense that hit a soft .274 to begin with. Robert Crumpler and Chad Rice were good hitters and infield anchors.

 

The Intangible:

Pitching and defense.

 

This team should still be hot contender for the Big South, especially with the returning arms from a staff that had a 3.94 ERA and a defense that fielded at a .970 pace. Nice.

 

Schedule Note:

Auburn... you're on notice again. VMI visits March 6-9 for a four-game series, ready to knock off another biggie.

 

Winthrop (33-27, 15-6)

 

The Good News:

Coach Joe Hudak has forged such a good reputation for his team that 33 wins seemed like a let-down. Three of the top four hitters return in solid backstop John Murrian (.336, .984% fielding), 1B Eddie Tisdale (.328) and the compact power of Billy Froehlich (.307-6-36). Josh McDonald (5-3, 5.85) became a good third starter.

 

The Bad News:

The Eagles just couldn't get over CCU, losing three of four including a big one in the Big South tourney. Most of the big names have moved on, including ace Alex Wilson, 2B Phil Carey and No. 2 starter Jason Franzblau all transferred out. Meanwhile, team leader Tommy Lentz and reliever John Honce are in pro ball. The pitching staff has thinned out.

 

The Intangible:

Is it just perception?

 

As stated above, Hudak has built an impressive mid-major program, as the Eagles have averaged 37 wins over the last 11 years. But it's weird to think that Winthrop has only been to the NCAA tournament twice in that time span. Just seems like a lot more.

 

Schedule Note:

The Eagles play one of the best non-conference schedules in the country, facing the likes of St. John's, North Carolina, Wake Forest, USC, College of Charleston and Rice. That will pay dividends in Big South and post-season play.

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