College baseball preview: NC State baseball looks for redemption

COVID-19 derailed the Wolfpack in last year’s College World Series; they’ll look to return, while Duke and East Carolina try and reach Omaha

NC State pitcher Sam Highfill will be a key component in the Wolfpack's efforts to return to the College World Series and finish what they started last season. (Michael Woods / AP Photo)

The sting from NC State’s controversial exit from the College World Series last summer won’t soon go away for coach Elliott Avent. But if there’s anything that can at least partially salve the still-open wound, it’s the fresh start the beginning of a new season brings.

“I never put anything behind me, so that’s a long way from being behind me. Trust me,” Avent said as he approaches his 26th season in charge of the Wolfpack. “But I always love opening up. I always love getting started, love practice, love starting with new guys. We’re just excited to get started.”

Avent and his players, along with every other Division I team in the country, are scheduled to get the new season underway this weekend.

Although the team State puts on the field for its opening series against Evansville will return only five regulars from the one that came within one win of the NCAA’s championship series last year, it will begin its quest to get back to Omaha ranked in the top 10 of multiple preseason polls.

The Wolfpack had its 2021 title hopes dashed after a rash of positive COVID tests prompted NCAA officials to send the team home. A bad situation was made even worse when the NCAA chose to inform State of its ouster by way of a text sent at 2 a.m. local time.

As much frustration as the unprecedented episode caused, and continues to cause, Avent insists that “one year doesn’t really factor into the other.” So he doesn’t plan to use last season’s disappointment as a source of motivation for his current team.

His returning players are buying into that approach, although senior outfielder Devonte Brown did admit that “of course everybody wants to go back to Omaha. … Eventually, that will be the end goal.”

With Brown (.252, 13 HR, 40 RBIs) and second baseman J.T. Jarrett (.251, 11 2B, 23 RBIs) as the only veteran bats in the lineup, the Wolfpack will have to rely heavily on a pitching staff anchored by hard-throwing right-hander Sam Highfill.

The star of last year’s postseason run, Highfill (9-2, 3.66 ERA) projects to be joined in the weekend rotation by a pair of fellow sophomores — left-hander Chris Villaman (5-2, 4.35) and righty Matt Willadsen (5-3, 4.73).

Among the newcomers most likely to make immediate contributions are transfers Josh Hood (Penn) and Gino Groover (Charlotte), along with incoming freshman catcher Jacob Cozart and highly regarded shortstop Payton Green.

Like the Wolfpack, Duke and East Carolina also enter the season with legitimate College World Series aspirations.

The Blue Devils are coming off their first ACC championship since 1961, a title they won with a 1-0 victory against State in the conference tournament final.

Senior right-hander Cooper Stinson, who pitched the first six innings of that game, is back, as is power-hitting senior outfielder RJ Schreck, who hit .337 with 18 homers in 54 games last season.

In addition to a solid core of returners, including closer Marcus Johnson — who is scheduled to move into a starting role — coach Chris Pollard has added a recruiting class ranked No. 10 nationally by The cream of that crop includes shortstop Alex Mooney, catcher Andrew Yu, outfielder Devin Obee and two-way player Jonathan Santucci.

They are additions Pollard hopes will help his program take the next step after falling just short of the College World Series in each of the past two NCAA Tournaments.

“We’ve gotten close, but we haven’t been able to push through that door to get to Omaha,” said Pollard, who was recently elected the Division I chairman of the American Baseball Coaches Association. “There are guys on this team that have been to two championship games of two super regionals, one win away from going to the College World Series.

“We live with that sting of getting close but not getting over the hump, and I think there’s a hunger there to push through.”

At ECU, the Pirates are also looking for a breakthrough after making it to two straight super regionals.

Coach Cliff Godwin’s team is the preseason favorite to win its third consecutive American Athletic Conference regular season championship and is ranked among the top 15 nationally on the strength of sophomore All-American arms Carson Whisenhunt and C.J. Mayhue.

Whisenhunt went 6-2 with a 3.77 ERA in a starting role while Mayhue led the AAC with eight saves. They’re backed by a veteran lineup poised to make another serious postseason run behind the bats of senior outfielder Bryson Worrell (.262, 9 HR, 38 RBIs), sophomore third baseman Zach Agnos (.268, 6. 43) and sophomore utility man Alec Makarewicz (.295, 6, 33).

“You have to go to Omaha through the front door,” Godwin said. “You can’t go in the backdoor. Everybody has to know that you’re coming. I don’t know when it’s going to be, but I know we are doing things the right way, and if we continue to do that, we’re not just going to go to the World Series, we’re going to win a national championship as well.”

Among the other state teams entering the new season with high hopes, second-year North Carolina coach Scott Forbes has moved to improve an offense that ranked 11th in the ACC last season by signing Alberto Osuna, the 2021 National Junior College Player of the Year. Fellow JUCO transfer, left-hander Brandon Schaeffer, and graduate righty Shaddon Peavyhouse from Coastal Carolina are solid additions to the pitching staff.

Wake Forest should have no problem scoring runs with the return of third baseman Brock Wilken, who tied a freshman school record with 17 homers last season, and shortstop Michael Turconi (.292, 8, 30). But to make a jump up the ACC standings and contend for an NCAA Tournament berth, the Deacons will have to improve on a pitching staff that had the highest ERA in the league against conference competition.

Charlotte, coming off its NCAA regional appearance since 2011, looks to preseason Conference USA Player of the Year Austin Knight to lead it to another postseason berth. Knight, a junior third baseman, led the nation with 29 doubles while hitting .342 with 63 RBIs.

Campbell is the favorite in the Big South Conference for the fourth straight year with infielder Zach Neto (.405, 12, 58) and right-hander Thomas Harrington (6-3, 3.45) named as the preseason player and pitcher of the year. Gardner-Webb was picked to finish fifth in the league, followed by High Point eighth, UNC Asheville ninth and NC A&T 10th.

UNC Wilmington was picked to finish second in the Colonial Athletic Association with second baseman Brooks Baldwin (,325, 15m 45) sharing preseason Player of the Year recognition while Western Carolina was picked to finish third in the Southern Conference with shortstop Pascanel Ferreras (.329, 15, 56) chosen as the league’s top player, while UNC Greensboro was picked to finish fifth.

Finally, Appalachian State ranked 10th in the preseason Sun Belt Conference poll.