Pitchers and catchers are starting to trickle into major league spring training camps. But for college baseball, the regular season is already here with opening games scheduled throughout the state on Friday.
Seven teams from North Carolina earned spots in the NCAA tournament last year, with North Carolina making it all the way to Omaha for the College World Series.
How will those teams fare this year? Here’s a look at all the state’s most prominent teams line up.
Coach Mike Fox’s Tar Heels return many of the key pieces from that World Series team, especially on the mound where right-handers Gianluca Dalatri (if he can stay healthy) and Austin Bergner are a formidable 1-2 punch in the rotation and preseason Collegiate Baseball All-American Caden O’Brien anchors a solid bullpen.
Offensively, junior first baseman Michael Busch is back, looking to build on a 2018 season in which he led the team with 13 homers and 63 RBI while hitting .317.
The Wolfpack has been picked to finish fourth in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. But despite those low expectations and some key losses, most notably conference Pitcher of the Year Brian Brown, coach Elliott Avent’s team still has the potential to make some noise this season.
State’s lineup is still potent with preseason All-American Will Wilson back at shortstop and rising star Patrick Bailey behind the plate. Six-foot-7 left-hander Kent Klyman is a workhorse who led the team with 31 appearances and eight wins last season out of a bullpen that figures to be called on often thanks to a starting rotation in need of retooling.
The Blue Devils won a school-record 45 games, advanced to a Super Regional for the first time ever and came one win from getting to Omaha last season. Although coach Chris Pollard lost most of his offensive production from that team, including second-round MLB draft pick Griffin Conine, he does return some strong arms around which to rebuild.
The pitching staff is anchored by preseason All-American Graeme Stinson, a projected top-five prospect in this year’s draft, and fellow southpaw Adam Laskey. The good news for Duke is that one of the few remaining bats in the lineup belongs to sophomore first baseman Joey Loperfido, who led the team with a .315 average in 2018.
Tom Walter’s Deacons took a step back last year after losing the bulk of their lineup to graduation and the draft. But with eight of nine starters back, along with two of their three weekend starters, the potential is there for a quick bounce back.
Senior second baseman Jake Mueller was a second-team All-ACC pick in 2018 and is the top returning hitter at .303. Outfielders Chris Lanzilli and DJ Poteet provide power in the middle of the batting order after tying for the team lead with nine homers each as freshmen, while six-game winner Colin Peluse and fellow right-hander Morgan McSweeney are the headliners on a veteran pitching staff.
The Pirates won the American Athletic Conference title and accomplished their goal of hosting an NCAA regional last season. But their hopes of making a first-ever trip to Omaha were dashed with a loss to in-state rival UNC Wilmington.
With this bulk of a potent lineup back, led by 2018 conference Player of the Year Bryant Packard (.406, 14 homers) and power-hitting first baseman Spencer Brickhouse (10 homers), coach Cliff Godwin has a team that could go even deeper into the postseason this year. The big question is whether ECU can finally find some consistency from a pitching staff led by juniors Trey Benton and Jake Agnos, and hard-throwing sophomore Gavin Williams.
When you’ve built a program as successful as the one coach Mark Scalf has with the Seahawks, you don’t rebuild. You reload. And that’s what it appears UNCW has done after earning its fifth Colonial Athletic Association championship and ninth NCAA regional appearance a year ago.
The Seahawks were picked to finish second in the CAA this spring and placed four players on the preseason all-conference team — sophomore shortstop Greg Jones, junior third baseman Cole Weiss, junior outfielder Kep Brown and junior Jackson Meadows, who split time between the outfield and infield in 2018.
The Camels are the favorites to repeat as Big South champions after a season in which they won both the league’s regular season and tournament titles. A big reason for the high hopes is the return of conference batting champion Matthew Barefoot, who enters 2019 as the Big South preseason Player of the Year after hitting .364 with 18 doubles and 33 steals a year ago. Joining him on the roster are 15 returning letter winners, including top starting pitcher Michael Horrell and closer Tyson Messer, both of whom joined Barefoot as preseason all-league selections.
Like Campbell, the Aggies have been picked to repeat as conference champions and to return to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. Among their top returners are first-team preseason All-MEAC pitcher Michael Johnson and A.J. Hunt, along with second-team selection Zach McLean at first base.
Best of the rest
UNC Greensboro stands a strong chance at getting into the NCAA tournament field this season after winning the Southern Conference regular season championship a year ago, then falling just short in the league tournament. The Spartans are led by preseason league Player of the Year Caleb Webster, who hit .380 and scored 51 runs in 2018.
Charlotte returns its top hitter Harris Yett (.323, six home runs, 37 RBI) from a team that went 34-24 last spring, but the 49ers need to improve on a 12-15 mark on the road to make any movement up the Conference USA standings.
High Point also enters the new season with high hopes after winning 34 games and falling to Campbell in the Big South tournament championship game. The Panthers return all but one of their key pitchers and most of the big bats that helped them lead the conference in batting average and homers — including seniors Conner Dunbar, Daniel Millwee and JJ Woodard.
Appalachian State looks to build on a late surge that saw it earn 10 of its 18 wins over the final 19 games of the 2018 season. The Mountaineers are counting on sophomore pitcher Will Sprinkle and the bats of classmates Alex Leshock, Bailey Welch and Kendall McGowan to keep the momentum going.
Finally, Western Carolina returns seven players that started 29 or more games from a team that won just 11 games last season, led by Southern Conference All-Freshman infielder Justice Bigbie, while NC Central looks to ride the bat of 2018 MEAC Player of the Year Corey Joyce, who led the conference in average (.358), hits (64) and walks (32).