Play ball! College baseball returns

The uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic led many of the state’s top players to return to school this year rather than turn pro

Wake Forest first baseman Bobby Seymour is one of the players who returned for the 2021 season rather than turn pro. (Chuck Burton / AP Photo)

East Carolina baseball coach Cliff Godwin has reason to be excited when he looks at his team’s roster, fully stocked with returning starters and bolstered by a talented group of incoming recruits.

It’s an excitement, however, that’s tempered by the realization that his Pirates are hardly unique in their good fortune.


Because of an NCAA ruling that gave players an extra year of eligibility to make up for last year’s canceled season and a Major League Draft that was shortened to just five rounds, virtually every team in the country is blessed with an unusual abundance of experience and depth.

“I tell our guys all the time, ‘We’re good, we’re probably deep as we’ve ever been, but we’re not the only team saying that,’” Godwin said during his team’s recent media day. “There’s a lot of teams out there saying that because the draft was shortened. I think college baseball’s product that you will see and the talent level will be the highest you’ve ever seen.”

Expectations are always high when it comes to college baseball in North Carolina, and this year is no different.

No fewer than five state schools — ECU in the AAC, UNC Wilmington in the Colonial, Campbell in the Big South, Davidson in the Atlantic 10 and NC A&T in the MEAC — have been picked as the preseason favorites to win their conference or division.

All four ACC teams, meanwhile, are considered legitimate threats to earn NCAA Tournament bids.

The competition for those bids promises to be more intense than usual because of the large number of returning upperclassmen that would otherwise have graduated or signed professional contracts had the 2020 season not been abruptly halted on March 12 because of COVID-19 concerns.

Among the most prominent of those players are Wake Forest first baseman Bobby Seymour, the 2019 ACC Player of the Year; Duke catcher Michael Rothenberg; North Carolina ace Joey Lancellotti, ECU’s entire weekend pitching rotation; and a trio of NC State sluggers — Tyler McDonough, Austin Murr and Devonte Brown.

“I think no one could have predicted what we’re all going through right now,” said Rothenberg, who has been named to several preseason All-American teams. “But I’m thrilled to be back.

“This is one of the best groups I’ve been a part of. We’re 45 guys right now. I think the level of talent on this team is something we haven’t seen before, and I can’t wait to get to work.”

The Blue Devils were picked to finish fourth in the ACC’s Coastal Division but are ranked No. 17 nationally. NC State was picked to finish second in the Atlantic and is also a consensus top-25 selection nationally, while Wake Forest and ECU have also been listed in various national polls.

As advantageous as the return of stars such as Rothenberg, McDonough, Seymour and ECU’s Jake Kuchmaner might be for those teams, their presence on their respective rosters could also have a downside.

That’s because there won’t be much playing time available for the newcomers that were recruited to replace them.

With most teams carrying more — and in some cases, significantly more — players than usual because of the temporary waiving of NCAA roster limits, coaches will be challenged to keep everyone happy and maintain chemistry.

If push comes to shove, UNC Wilmington’s Randy Hood plans to give precedence to those whose 2020 season was cut short, saying that he owes them “every opportunity to have a great experience.”

But given the uncertainties associated with the coronavirus pandemic, there still figures to be plenty of opportunities to go around for everyone on the roster — both old and new.

“We want our guys to always be prepared,” ECU’s Godwin said. “More so than ever, you’ve got to be more prepared to play your position than you ever have been before because of COVID and the contact tracing.

“Our goal is to play every game possible. I’m not saying we couldn’t ever miss a game because another team has an outbreak, but we want to control everything that we can control. If we can do that, we’re going to put ourselves in pretty good shape.”


Atlantic Coast Conference

NC State Wolfpack

2020 record: 14-3, 1-2 ACC
Coach: Elliott Avent, 25th year
Players to watch: Tyler McDonough, Soph./OF-2B/.354, 3 HR, 16 RBIs; Jose Torres, Fr./SS/.333, 3 HR, 13 RBIs; Luca Tresh, Soph./OF-C/.405, 3 HR, 9 RBIs; Kent Klyman, Sr./RHP/1.42 ERA, 2 saves
Key newcomers: Danny Carnazzo, Jr./C; Eddie Eisert, Fr./3B; John Miralia, Fr./LHP
2021 outlook: Even without first-round draft pick Patrick Bailey, the Wolfpack returns plenty of offensive firepower. While there’s a major void at the top of the rotation with the departure of second-rounder Nick Swiney, the pitching staff is deep enough to keep State near the top of the ACC

North Carolina Tar Heels

2020 record: 12-7, 0-3 ACC
Coach: Scott Forbes, first year
Players to watch: Joey Lancellotti, Jr./RHP-DH/2-1, 2.22 ERA, 2 HF, 10 RBIs; Angel Zarate, Soph./OF/.408, 4 2B, 18 RBIs; Eric Grintz, Fr./C/.321, 4 2B, 10 RBIs; Caden O’Brien, Soph./LHP/0-1, 2.08 ERA
Key newcomers: Brett Centracchio, Gr./1B-OF (Davidson); Mac Horvath, Fr./3B; Max Carlson, Fr./RHP
2021 outlook: The Tar Heels’ first-year coach has 20 years of experience as an assistant to Mike Fox. His roster, which includes 22 freshmen, redshirt freshmen or graduate transfers, isn’t as tested and has lowered expectations — UNC enters the season unranked.

Duke Blue Devils

2020 record: 12-4, 2-1 ACC
Coach: Chris Pollard, ninth year
Players to watch: Michael Rothenberg, Sr./C/.349, 2 HR, 17 RBIs; Cooper Stinson, Jr./RHP/3-0, 0.42 ERA; Joey Loperfido, Sr./CF/.264, 2 3B, 5 SB
Key newcomers: Richard Brereton, Gr./OF-RHP (Emory); Chris Davis, Gr./OF (Princeton); Peter Matt, Gr./OF (Penn); Jay Gamboa, Gr./RHP (Skidmore)
2021 outlook: The Blue Devils return a wealth of talent from a team that has been to the NCAAs in three of the past four full seasons, with back-to-back Super Regional appearances in 2018-19, and was well on its way back to the postseason when last season was halted.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

2020 record: 10-8, 1-2 ACC
Coach: Tom Walter, 12th year
Players to watch: Bobby Seymour, Jr./1B/.284, 1 HR, 11 RBIs; Chris Lanzilli, Jr./OF/.299, 6 HR, 12 RBIs; Michael Turconi, Soph./SS/.351, 5 2B, 12 RBIs; Ryan Cusick, Soph./LHP/0-2, 3.22 ERA
Key newcomers: Brock Wilkin, Fr./3B; Camden Minacci, Fr./RHP; Hunter Furtado, Fr./LHP
2021 outlook: The Deacons return one of the most potent lineups in the country, a veteran group that lived up to the nickname “Rake Forest” by ranking fifth nationally with 24 home runs. Seymour, 2019’s ACC Player of the Year, and lefty Cusick are preseason All-Americans.

American Athletic Conference

East Carolina Pirates

2020 record: 13-4, 0-0 AAC
Coach: Cliff Godwin, seventh year
Players to watch: Bryson Worrell, Jr./OF/.373, 5 HR, 14 RBIs; Connor Norby, Soph./2B/.403, 6 SB, 10 RBIs; Jake Kuchmaner, Jr./LHP/4-0, 0.60 ERA; Gavin Williams, Jr./RHP/1-4, 1 save, 4.56 ERA in 2019
Key newcomers: Josh Moylan, Fr./1B; Cameron Clonch, Fr./LHP-OF-1B; Ryley Johnson, Fr./OF; Josh Grosz, Fr./RHP
2021 outlook: The Pirates advanced to an NCAA Super Regional in 2019, were favored to win the AAC last season and are highly regarded again. ECU features a balanced lineup, a veteran starting rotation and a deep bullpen.

Conference USA

Charlotte 49ersCharlotte logo

2020 record: 9-8, 0-0 CUSA
Coach: Robert Woodward, second year
Players to watch: Andrew Roach, Jr./RHP/2-2, 1.99 ERA; Colby Bruce, Jr./RHP/1-0, 2 saves, 2.55 ERA; Dominic Pilolli, Fr./OF/.403, 2 HR, 14 RBIs
Key newcomers: Austin Knight, Soph./IF (Tennessee); Andrew Lindsey, Soph./RHP (Walters State); Jack Dragum, Soph./IF (Louisburg)
2021 outlook: After having his rookie season with the 49ers cut short, Woodard — the former pitching coach at UNCW — bolstered his team’s roster by adding 14 junior college transfers. Despite the influx of talent, Charlotte was still picked to finish fifth in the six-team CUSA East.

Colonial Athletic Conference

UNC Wilmington Seahawks

2020 record: 11-5, 0-0 CAA
Coach: Randy Hood, second year
Players to watch: Cole Weiss, S-Sr./3B/.305, 2 HR, 6 RBIs; Noah Bridges, R-Jr./OF/.290, 3 2B, 8 SB; Landon Roupp, R-Jr./RHP/3-1, 2.00 ERA; Luke Gesell, R-Sr./RHP/3-1, 4.71 ERA
Key newcomers: Ethan Chenault, Fr./RHP; Bryce Cota, R-Jr./LHP (Campbell); Cody Benton, R-Fr./RHP (ECU)
2021 outlook: Pitching, defense and speed are the foundation of a Seahawk team that has won three of the past five CAA Tournament championships and is again the preseason favorite in the league’s South Division. Roupp is the preseason conference Player of the Year.

Elon Phoenix

2020 record: 7-10, 0-0 CAA
Coach: Mike Kennedy, 24th year
Players to watch: Jared Wetherbee, R-Jr./LHP/1-1, 3.54; Antony Galason, R-Soph./OF/.292, 4 2B, 13 RBIs; Jack Roberts, Jr./INF-P/.311, 1 HR, 9 RBIs
Key newcomers: Christon Garrelts, Fr./RHP; Vince DiLeonardo, Fr./OF-1B; Alex Duffy, Fr./C; Shea Sprague, Fr./LHP
2021 outlook: The Phoenix were picked to finish third in the CAA’s South Division this season and have a solid pitching staff, anchored by preseason all-conference pick Weatherbee. Elon will have to improve on last year’s .237 team batting average to move higher in the standings.

Sun Belt Conference

Appalachian State Mountaineers

2020 record: 11-6, 0-0 Sun Belt
Coach: Kermit Smith, fifth year
Players to watch: Luke Drumheller, Jr./2B/.311 2 HR, 18 RBIs; Andrew Greckel, Sr./3B/.357, 4 HR, 13 RBIs; Noah Hall, Soph./RHP/2-0, 1 save, 1.80 ERA
Key newcomers: Ben Peterson, Fr./RHP; Austin Raynor, Fr./OF; Eli Ellington R-Jr./LHP (Gulf Coast State CC)
2021 outlook: The Mountaineers were just hitting their stride when the 2020 season was halted, winning their final six games before the premature end to the abbreviated schedule. With most of the key elements from that team back, App State is positioned to make noise in the Sun Belt this season.

Big South Conference

Campbell Fighting Camels

2020 record: 7-9, 0-0 Big South
Coach: Justin Haire, sixth year
Players to watch: Collin Wolf, R-Sr./SS/.270, 1 HR, 13 RBIs; Zach Williams, R-Jr./OF/.300, 5 2B, 13 RBIs; Cam Cowan, R-Jr./RHP/2-2, 3.00
Key newcomers: Cade Boxrucker, Fr./RHP; Cade Kuehler, Fr./RHP; Mason De La Cruz, R-Soph./SS
2021 outlook: The Camels were off to a slow start when the 2020 season was halted, but the return of preseason Big South Player of the Year Wolf and a 2019 run that fell one game short of a Super Regional has established them as the team to beat in the conference. Campbell won the league title in each of the last three completed seasons.

High Point Panthers

2020 record: 7-9, 0-0 Big South
Coach: Craig Cozart, 12th year
Players to watch: Travis Holt, R-Jr./SS/.348, 4 2B, 9 RBIs; Joe Johnson, Gr./OF-RHP//.286, 2 HR, 8 RBIs, 2-1, 4.86 ERA; Sam Zayicek, R-Soph./OF/.344, 2 HR, 12 RBIs
Key newcomers: C.J. Neese, R-Fr./3B-RHP (NC State); Parker Dean, R-Jr./RHP (Gulf Coast State CC); Cameron Irvine, R-Soph./OF-DH (Virginia Tech, GC State CC)
2021 outlook: The Panthers got off to their best start since joining Division I by winning their first four games last season before falling off before the shutdown. They’ll look to put together a more consistent effort in the Big South, where they’ve been picked to finish fifth.

Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs

2020 record: 8-8, 0-0 Big South
Coach: Jim Chester, second year
Players to watch: Mitch McLendon, Sr./OF/.314, 3 2B, 8 RBIs; Cam Pearcey, Sr./OF/.283, 2 HR, 11 RBIs; Langdon Wilson, Sr./RHP/2-0, 1 save, 3.00 ERA
Key newcomers: Mason Miller, Sr./RHP (Waynesburg); Bobby Alcock, Fr./RHP; Lenny Washington, Fr./IF-RHP
2021 outlook: The veteran Bulldogs return seven offensive starters. But to outperform their preseason projection of sixth in the Big South, they’ll have to get contributions from an influx of young arms, along with grad transfer Miller, to lower last year’s 6.26 team ERA.

UNC Asheville Bulldogs

2020 record: 5-11, 0-0 Big South
Coach: Scott Friedholm, seventh year
Players to watch: Brandon Lankford, Sr./3B/.283 3 HR, 16 RBIs; Ryan Douglas, Soph./RHP/1-2, 2.74 ERA; Jacob Edwards, Jr./LHP/1-2, 5.48 ERA
Key newcomers: Michael Groves, Fr./C; Justin Honeycutt, Fr./LHP-OF
2021 outlook: The Bulldogs, who were picked to finish ninth in the Big South, will rely on an offense led by Lankford — a preseason all-conference selection who needs just eight home runs to become his school’s all-time leader — in search of the first winning season in the 36-year history of their program.

Southern Conference

UNC Greensboro Spartans

2020 record: 12-5, 0-0 Southern
Coach: Billy Godwin, second year
Players to watch: Austin Koehn, R-Soph./RHP/1-0, 1.04 ERA; Zack Budzik, R-Soph./3B/.263, 12 SB, 8 RBIs; Greg Hardison, R-Jr./OF/.338, 8 2B, 7 RBIs; Hogan Windish, Sr./2B/.217, 2 HR, 11 RBIs
Key newcomers: Matt Kemp, Fr./IF; Marlowe Iorio, Fr./RHP
2021 outlook: Godwin picked up right where his predecessor, Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett, left off with a strong showing during the shortened 2019 season. This year’s team has been picked to finish third in the Southern Conference, gaining one first-place vote along the way.

Western Carolina Catamounts

2020 record: 8-8, 0-0 Southern
Coach: Bobby Moranda, 14th year
Players to watch: Justice Bigbie, Jr./OF/.290, 5 2B, 8 RBIs; Zach Franklin, R-Soph./RHP/1-1, 3 saves, 0.79 ERA; Luke Robinson, Sr./C/.333, 2 2B, 2 RBIs
Key newcomers: Pascanel Ferreras, Fr./IF; Drew Needham, Fr./IF; Jackson Kirkpatrick, Fr./RHP
2021 outlook: The Catamounts won the Southern Conference Tournament and played in an NCAA regional in 2016. Although they were picked to finish fifth in the league this year, they could be a dark horse candidate for the title this year after tying league favorite Samford with three players on the preseason all-conference team.

Atlantic 10 Conference

Davidson Wildcats

2020 record: 13-3, 0-0 A-10
Coach: Rucker Taylor, third year
Players to watch: Gabe Levy, Jr./RHP/3-1, 0.91 ERA; Bennett Flynn, Soph./RHP/4 saves, 0.90 ERA; Ruben Fontes, Sr./OF/.250, 3 HR, 10 RBIs
Key newcomers: Ryan Wilson, Fr./OF-IF; Joe Haney Fr./IF
2021 outlook: The A-10 has been split into two divisions this year to limit travel in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, and the Wildcats have the misfortune of being placed in the same South Division as the league’s other power program, VCU. Still, Davidson is well-stocked, especially on the mound, to win the conference and make another NCAA Tournament appearance.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

North Carolina A&T Aggies

2020 record: 7-10, 0-0 MEAC
Coach: Ben Hall, seventh year
Players to watch: Michael Johnson, Sr./RHP/1-3, 2.77 ERA; Camden Williamson, Sr./OF/.313, 2 HR, 8 RBIs; Leon Davidson, Sr./RHP/1-0, 1.93 ERA
Key newcomers: Xavier Meachem, Fr./RHP; Cameran Brantley, Soph./OF (Florida Southwestern State CC); Xavier Bussey, R-Fr./OF (Pensacola State CC)
2021 outlook: The Aggies are the preseason favorites in the MEAC in their final year before moving to the Big South. They put seven players on the preseason all-league team — a group led by Johnson, the preseason MEAC Pitcher of the Year for the second straight year.

North Carolina Central Eagles

2020 record: 6-11, 0-0 MEAC
Coach: Jim Koerner, 10th year
Players to watch: Luis DeLeon, Jr./OF/.393, 6 HR, 24 RBIs; Ryan Miller, Soph./RHP/1-2, 4.24; Austin Vernon, R-Jr./RHP/3-4, 4.09 in 2019
Key newcomers: Matthias Carter, Gr./SS (Methodist); Kokko Figueiredo, Gr./C (Cal State-Monterey Bay)
2021 outlook: NCCU announced recently that it will discontinue the program at the end of the season, so the Eagles will have plenty of incentive as it approaches this lame-duck year. They will also have plenty of firepower in the middle of their batting order in the person of DeLeon, whose 24 RBIs ranked eighth nationally in 2020.