As he begins his sixth season as the head baseball coach at Charleston Southern, Stuart Lake says this team is his most talented group yet. The coach, himself a former Buccaneers baseball player, is hoping that talent means more victories this spring.
COLLEGE BASEBALL PREVIEWS
Monday: Charleston Southern
Tuesday: The Citadel
Wednesday: College of Charleston
Friday: South Carolina
Charleston Southern finished last season with a 22-34 record, but nearly broke even in Big South Conference play at 11-13. Lake's first two seasons produced 33 total victories, while the last three have yielded 71 wins. More importantly, the Buccaneers are only a game under .500 in conference play over the last three seasons.
CSU By The Numbers
25 - Number of times Bobby Ison has struck out in 475 career plate appearances
15 - Number of night games hosted by CSU this season
2 - sets of brothers on this year's roster
13 - number of wins returning from last year's pitching staff
Charleston Southern Baseball 2014
2013 RECORD: 22-34 (11-13 Big South Conference)
COACH: Stuart Lake, 104-175 in 6th season
TOP PLAYERS: OF Bobby Ison (.367, 3 HR, 27 RBI); OF Zack Hagaman (.326, 6 HR, 28 RBI); 3B Alex Tomasovich (.343, 2 HR, 20 RBI); OF Brian Welch (.283, 1 HR, 16 RBI); SS Kevin Hickey (.217, 12 RBI); OF Chase Shelton (.318, 2 HR, 32 RBI); P Tory Schroff (6-5, 3.52 ERA)
TOP NEWCOMERS: RHP Tyler Weekley (James Island HS); C Sam Remick (Lenior CC, N.C.); C Andrew Widell (Manatee JC, Fla.); RHP Evan Nations (Cardinal Gibbons HS, N.C.)
OUTLOOK: Lake's early focus was on improving the facilities and getting a lighted ballpark. Those goals have been accomplished in his first five seasons at the helm. CSU Ballpark is now a great place to watch a game, and night games should add to the setting and comfort level. Now, Lake has to put a more consistent product on the field. The Bucs were 22-34 last season but nearly broke even in Big South play, finishing 11-13. CSU lost eight one-run games and lost another six games by two runs. CSU is picked third in the South Division of the Big South preseason poll. Lake feels the talent level at CSU has never been better. This year's team should be quite capable offensively with the return of proven hitters like Bobby Ison, Chase Shelton, Zack Hagaman and Alex Tomasovich. The big question is the pitching. After ace Tory Schroff, the Bucs are hoping that some young arms can provide quality innings.
CSU Baseball 2014 Schedule
February: 14 - Villanova, 4 p.m.; 15 - Villanova, 2 p.m.; 16 - Villanova, 1 p.m.; 18 - at College of Charleston, 4 p.m.; 22 - Siena (DH), 1 p.m.; 23 - Siena, 1 p.m.; 25 - Wofford, 6 p.m.; 26 - Rhode Island, 4 p.m.
March: 1 - Holy Cross (DH), 2 p.m.; 2- Holy Cross, 2 p.m.; 3 - Holy Cross, 2 p.m.; 5 - at Georgia, 6 p.m.; 6 - Toledo, 6 p.m.; 7 - Toledo, 6 p.m.; 8 - Toledo, 2 p.m.; 11 - USC Upstate, 6 p.m.; 14 - at Longwood, 6 p.m.; 15 - at Longwood, 4 p.m.; 16 - at Longwood, 1 p.m.; 18 - College of Charleston, 6 p.m.; 21 - Radford, 6 p.m.; 22 - Radford, 6 p.m.; 23 - Radford, 2 p.m.; 25 - at Savannah State, 5 p.m.; 26 - at The Citadel, 6 p.m.; 28 - at Coastal Carolina, 6 p.m.; 29 - at Coastal Carolina, 3 p.m.; 30 - at Coastal Carolina, 2 p.m.
April: 1 - Savannah State, 6 p.m.; 2 - at Savannah State, 5 p.m.; 4 - High Point, 6 p.m.; 5 - High Point, 6 p.m.; 6 - High Point, 2 p.m.; 11 - Gardner-Webb, 6 p.m.; 12 - Gardner-Webb, 6 p.m.; 13 - Gardner-Webb, 2 p.m.; 15 - at South Carolina, 7 p.m.; 17 - at UNC Asheville, 6 p.m.; 18 - at UNC Asheville, 6 p.m.; 19 - at UNC Asheville, 2 p.m.; 22 - Savannah State, 3 p.m.; 30 - at Wofford, 6 p.m.
May: 2 - at Presbyterian, 3 p.m.; 3 - at Presbyterian, 2 p.m.; 4 - at Presbyterian, 1 p.m.; 6 - Citadel, 6 p.m.; 9 - Winthrop, 6 p.m.; 10 - Winthrop, 6 p.m.; 11 - Winthrop, 2 p.m.; 13 - at USC Upstate, 6 p.m.; 15 - at VMI, 7 p.m.; 16 - at VMI, 7 p.m.; 17 - at VMI, 2 p.m.; 20 - Big South Tournament at Rock Hill, TBA.
CSU was picked to finish third in the South Division this season, which amounts to a middle of the pack outlook in the 12-team league. Lake says the expectations are higher for this year's club.
"The level of talent overall in the program is the best it has been since I've been here," said Lake, who is 104-175 in five seasons. "I had no idea when I took this job that it was going to take as long as it has taken to build and I am really at a point now where I want to win.
"The kids in our program and the way we are recruiting now, I really feel we can turn the corner now. I am really excited about the direction of our program, but we need to win."
Offensively, Charleston Southern stands to be a team that can challenge the league's best. Lake has a veteran cast returning led by junior center fielder Bobby Ison. The 5-9, 175-pound Stratford High product enters the 2014 season as the Big South's preseason player of the year after hitting .367 last season.
Ison anchors an outfield that is the clear strength of this year's team. Seniors Zack Hagaman (.326, 6 HR, 28 RBI) and Brian Welch (.283, HR, 16 RBI) are veteran hitters and solid defenders. Junior Chase Shelton (.318, 2 HR, 32 RBI) is the team's top pro prospect and will be in the outfield and work as the designated hitter. Senior Nick Berry provides solid depth after missing last season with an injury.
Senior Alex Tomasovich, who hit .343 last season, is moving from shortstop to third base this spring. Junior Robbie Streett will start the season at first base, while sophomore Kevin Hickey will start at shortstop. Second base is an ongoing early season battle between senior Cody Austin and freshmen Will Hartsell and Nate Blanchard.
Sharing time behind the plate is a pair of junior college transfers - Sam Remick and Andrew Widell.
"We have an experienced lineup overall and we'll probably have a freshman or two in there, guys that have earned their shot," said Lake. "The majority of our hitters have played a lot of baseball here or at a high level in junior college. I expect us to be a good offensive team.
"And, we have more depth than we've ever had. We have 11, 12 or 13 guys that can help us offensively and that's exciting to see. It gives us the flexibility offensively that we have not had here before."
Pitching would be Lake's biggest concern heading into the season. The coach is sure that the staff possesses quality arms and talent but is anxious to see how the individual roles are developed early on.
The team's ace is senior left-hander Tory Schroff, who was 6-5 with a respectable 3.52 ERA last season. Sophomore southpaw Andrew Tomasovich was 0-5 as a freshman but is very talented and capable, according to Lake.
The third starter going into the season is senior right-hander Levi Mauldin, who threw 33 innings as a freshman but only 11 innings over the last two seasons as he battled injury. Mauldin, says Lake, could be a difference-maker on the staff.
"He has looked really good in the fall and during the preseason," said Lake. "If he can return to the form that we saw during his freshman year, he's going to make us a lot better."
Junior Austin Weekley recorded seven saves last season as the closer and may be used in a variety of relief roles this season. His freshman brother, 6-4 right-hander Tyler Weekley, will contend for early time on the hill, along with 6-5 freshman right-hander Evan Nations.
Sophomore Kyle Dyson, a Hanahan High product, juniors Denis Buckley and Joe Pistacchio, and seniors Stephen Leopard and Matt Witt, will see plenty of time as spot starters and relievers alike this season.
"The pitching is an unknown, but we think we have a chance to be very competitive," said Lake. "There is a comfort level with a certain group of guys and there are others that we have to throw out there and see how they perform. I think, potentially, we have pretty good depth in the pitching staff."
If the Buccaneers are to contend for a Big South title, Lake says they must improve in one key area. CSU lost eight games by one run last season while dropping six more games by two runs. As he sees it, the Bucs were a hit or two away from winning 30 games last season.
"Without question, we have to find a way to win more of those close games," he said. "Our goal is to win the Big South and to put ourselves in a position to earn a spot in the regionals. To do that, we're going to have to win a higher percentage of those close games. And, we're going to be in a lot of those. Baseball is that way. We just have to do a better job, get that extra hit or get that big out when the game is on the line."