In keeping with the groundhog’s recent prediction of an early spring, baseball season is already upon us.
Pitchers and catchers might just be reporting to spring training camps across Florida and Arizona, but here in North Carolina, college teams are about to get started for real with the opening games of the regular season scheduled for Friday.
As is the case every year, several of those teams have realistic hopes of ending the season at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
Here’s a look at how they stack up.
The Tar Heels are going to be young this season after losing the bulk of their 2019 lineup to the MLB draft and graduation. But there’s still plenty of talent left, with its two top hitters — ACC Freshman of the Year Aaron Sabato and Danny Serretti — back from a team that came up one win shy of another trip to Omaha. First baseman Sabato hit .343 with 18 homers last season while shortstop Seretti hit .299 with 45 RBI.
On the mound, the Tar Heels have a deep staff that will be even more impressive if redshirt junior right-hander Gianluca Dalatri can stay healthy and return to the form that earned him freshman All-America honors in 2017. The bullpen is anchored by durable closer Joey Lancelotti.
The Wolfpack shot out of the gate by winning its first 19 games in 2019. But after a 29-3 start, coach Elliott Avent’s team fell upon hard times, eventually getting swept from the NCAA regionals by in-state rivals Campbell and ECU.
This year’s team will again feature a powerful lineup, led by preseason All-American catcher Patrick Bailey and last year’s freshman sensation, infielder Tyler McDonough, who led all ACC rookies with 80 hits while posting a .320 average in his first college season. Although the Wolfpack lost first-round MLB draft pick Will Wilson at shortstop, Avent is counting on freshman Jose Torres to help fill the void.
State’s pitching staff is anchored by junior starters Nick Swiney and Reid Johnston, while the bullpen is deep and talented, with fellow junior Dalton Feeney expected to fill the closer’s role.
The Blue Devils followed the opposite trajectory from the State last season. After falling below .500 on April 3, coach Chris Pollard’s team finished strong to win an NCAA regional for the second straight year and take eventual national champion Vanderbilt to three games in the Super Regionals.
This year’s lineup should be just as deep and even more experienced, with eight returning hitters that had at least 150 plate appearances last season. Shortstop Ethan Murray leads the way after hitting .305 and driving in 40 runs on his way to earning freshman All-American honors in 2019. Bryce Jarvis, the breakout star of Duke’s postseason run, is the ace of a deep pitching staff.
The Deacons return seven hitters from a lineup that led the ACC and ranked 12th in the nation in scoring last season, including 2019 conference Player of the Year Bobby Seymour — a powerful left-handed first baseman who led the nation with 92 RBI. Right fielder Chris Lanzilli (.347, 16 homers, 67 RBI) and DH Shane Muntz (.313, 14 homers) are also back.
As was the case last season, however, Wake will only go as far as its pitching will take it. And that wasn’t very far in 2019. Junior left-hander Jared Shuster showed he has the potential to be a formidable Friday starter with a strong performance in the Cape Cod League last season.
The Pirates finally got over the NCAA regional hump last season before running out of gas in the Super Regionals at Louisville. This year’s team is the preseason favorite in the AAC and has the potential to finally complete the mission and get to Omaha for the first time in school history.
The unquestioned star of the Pirates is junior Alec Burleson, a two-way player who hit .370 with nine homers and 61 RBI as a hitter while compiling a 6-2 record with five saves on the mound. Though the rest of the batting order has some holes to fill, the pitching is dominant, with hard-throwing Gavin Williams moving from the bullpen to join fellow junior Jake Kuchmaner — who threw a perfect game last season — and senior Tyler Williams forming the weekend rotation.
The Camels came within one win of advancing to a Super Regional last year and are the preseason favorite to win the Big South for the third straight season. To do so, however, coach Justin Haire will have to rebuild a pitching staff that lost three key contributors to the MLB draft. The next mound star in the pipeline is projected to be left-hander Ryan Chasse, the 2019 Big South Freshman of the Year.
The young pitching staff should get plenty of support from an offense that returns leading hitter Spencer Packard, along with conference tournament MVP Koby Collins and second-team all-Big South infielder Collin Wolf.
For the first time in 28 years, the Seahawks will be coached by someone other than Mark Scalf. The now-retired coaching legend, however, left a loaded roster for his successor, former assistant Randy Hood. UNCW is the preseason favorite to win the Colonial Athletic Association.
The strength of the team is a pitching staff that returns all three weekend starters — right-handers Luke Gesell and Landon Rouppe, along with lefty Zarion Sharpe. The lineup is also familiar, with third baseman Cole Weiss, center fielder Noah Bridges and DH Kep Brown leading the way.
Best of the rest
Elon won the CAA regular season a year ago before losing to UNCW in the conference tournament final. While the Phoenix have the preseason CAA Pitcher of the Year in Jared Wetherbee and hard-hitting third baseman Joe Satterfield, it has a lot to replace to contend again this season.
Davidson was the darling of the NCAA Tournament in 2017 after knocking off UNC twice and advancing to the Super Regionals, and the Wildcats are looking to recapture some of that magic. This year’s team is led by junior DH Ruben Fontes, who had 14 homers last season, but it needs to rebuild a pitching staff that lost all three weekend starters.
Charlotte is getting a fresh start under new coach Robert Woodard, UNC’s former pitching coach. But the 49ers — who do return .300 hitters Todd Elwood and Carson Johnson — are going to have to be patient as they work their way up the Conference USA standings.
NC A&T is the overwhelming favorite to win the MEAC thanks to a veteran roster highlighted by the return of shortstop Dustin Barber, the preseason conference Player of the Year who hit .328 in 2019, and preseason Pitcher of the Year Ryan Miller.
UNCG has the potential to contend in the Southern Conference under first-year coach Billy Godwin, formerly of ECU. Western Carolina, meanwhile, isn’t expected to do much from a team standpoint, but the Catamounts boast the reigning conference Player of the Year in Jason Bigbee.
UNC Asheville also has an individual star to watch in right-handed pitcher Blake Brown, a top MLB prospect, while at High Point, there are three senior pitchers to keep an eye on — Harrison Smith, Joe Johnson and Muhammad Eid — who could help the Panthers challenge in the Big South with a little bit of offensive help.
And at Appalachian State, the Mountaineers have a new artificial surface on their playing field and feature a roster that has 10 position players with double-digit starts last season. But it’s going to take more than that to compete in a Sun Belt Conference dominated by the likes of 2016 national champion Coastal Carolina.