State schools look for another big year on the diamond

With college baseball season about to start, here’s a look at what to expect from N.C.’s teams

NC State coach Elliott Avent has found a way to make the Wolfpack competitive year after year. (Christine T. Nguyen / North State Journal)

North Carolina has carved out a reputation for being one of the nation’s foremost hotbeds for college basketball. But when it comes to rabid fans, intense competition and teams with NCAA tournament aspirations, there’s even more quality and depth on baseball diamonds around the state than on its college hardwoods.

With the season officially scheduled to begin this weekend, here’s a look at what to expect from some of North Carolina’s best and highest-profile Division I programs.

UNC

The Tar Heels’ 2017 season came to a disappointing end with a stunning NCAA regional upset at the hands of Davidson. But even with the loss of ACC Pitcher of the Year J.B. Bukauskas and several key bats, coach Mike Fox’s team shouldn’t stay down for long.

UNC has been picked as the preseason favorite to win the ACC’s Coastal Division and is ranked among the top six in the nation in most of the early polls thanks to the return of talented sophomore Gianluca Dalatri on the mound and last year’s ACC Rookie of the Year Ashton McGee at the plate. Other returning veteran bats include outfielder Brandon Riley and first baseman Michael Busch and others.

NC State

Projections are mixed for a Wolfpack team that has been ranked as high as 13th in some preseason polls and not at all in others while being picked by the ACC’s coaches to finish fourth in the Atlantic Division.

There are some questions — particularly on the mound and the left side of the infield, where shortstop Joe Dunand and third baseman Evan Mendoza were both high round MLB draft picks — but coach Elliott Avent always seems to find ways to piece together a winner.

The success of this year’s team will hinge on the health and consistency of starting pitchers Johnny Piedmonte and Brian Brown. The lineup should still be formidable with the return of center fielder Josh McClain, second baseman Will Wilson, DH Brad Debo and left fielder Brett Kinneman.

Duke

The Blue Devils took a step back last year after making the NCAA tournament in 2016, but have high hopes this season thanks to the return of virtually every key player in their lineup and on the mound — including projected first-round draft pick Griffin Conine. The son of former major leaguer Jeff Conine, the junior right fielder hit 13 homers and drove in 56 runs last season and is protected in the batting order by .300 hitters Jimmy Herron, Kenie Taylor and Michael Smicklas.

Though the pitching staff has some questions at the front end, closer Jack Labosky is as solid as they come in the late innings if the starters can consistently get games to him. Labosky is also Duke’s everyday third baseman and has shown some power at the plate.

Wake Forest

The Deacons came one win away from eliminating eventual national champion Florida and earning their own trip to Omaha last spring, but lost the bulk of that team to graduation and the draft.

Though some retooling will be necessary to replace sluggers Gavin Sheets, Stuart Fairchild and Ben Breazeale in a lineup that led the nation in homers, along with Friday starter Parker Dunshee, the cupboard is hardly bare. Hard-throwing right-hander Griffin Roberts passed up the draft to return to school, where he will move from the closer’s role into the starting rotation. Offensively, the top returner is third baseman Johnny Aiello, a preseason All-American who pounded out 20 of Wake’s 106 homers in 2017.

ECU

Injuries, bad luck and a 10-game losing streak to start the AAC schedule derailed the Pirates postseason hopes last spring, but the healthy return of outfielder Dwanya Williams-Sutton and the further development of first baseman Spencer Brickhouse — a freshman All-American last year — provide hope for a quick bounce back.

The pitching staff is loaded with live young arms, led by the lefty-righty starting combo of Jake Agnos and Trey Benton.

Charlotte

The 49ers are picked to finish sixth in Conference USA this season, but that shouldn’t discourage them. They were also picked to finish sixth last year and they went on to win 34 games, placing third during the regular season. Charlotte returns 16 players from last season, including third baseman Jackson Mims, who hit .319 and led the team with 20 doubles as a freshman.

Best of the rest

• Despite having to replace seven position players, perennial power UNC Wilmington was again picked as the team to beat in the CAA, thanks to a talented pitching staff led by reigning CAA Pitcher of the Year Alex Royalty and hard-throwing sophomore Zarion Sharpe.

• UNC Greensboro is the preseason pick to win the Southern Conference for the second straight season on the strength of five first-team preseason all-league picks — led by last year’s conference Rookie of the Year Caleb Webster. Western Carolina placed fourth in the coaches poll.

• Davidson will have a hard time topping the best season in school history, in which it won its first-ever conference title while advancing to an NCAA Super Regional. The Wildcats were picked to finish fifth in this season’s Atlantic 10 preseason poll.

• Appalachian State’s hopes for a successful season are bolstered by the addition of eight junior college transfers, nine freshmen and one Division I transfer.

• In the Big South, High Point is picked to finish third, with Campbell placing fifth, Gardner-Webb seventh and UNC Asheville ninth in the preseason poll.