With 13 seniors on his roster, Charleston Southern head baseball coach Stuart Lake is optimistic his team can fare a little better than preseason expectations.
CSU was picked to finish seventh in the preseason Big South Conference poll, which says a lot about the quality and depth of the league this spring. Lake, now in his eighth season, said being picked seventh is a show of respect in a lot of ways.
“When I got here, we were picked to finish last or next to last for a lot of years,” said Lake, who is 157-231 in seven seasons at his alma mater. “I think people are seeing what we are doing as a program. We’re continuing to build a program here. Our goal is to be in the top four of our league. Our league is now more than a one-bid league for the NCAA Tournament.
“If any coach enters a season and doesn’t see his team finishing first, he probably should get into another line of work. We will set high expectations every year. I think if you go into the conference tournament in the top half, you have more confidence and can set yourself up for some good things. Let’s get our program into the top half and then go do something in the tournament.”
Facilities upgrades at CSU’s ballpark have aided the CSU coaching staff in recruiting. Lake said he and his staff are having more success in attracting quality junior college talent, as well as good high school talent, into the program. The program has had several players drafted and succeed in the pro ranks in recent years, which also helps recruiting.
“Kids see they can come here undrafted out of high school and can be drafted out of here,” Lake said. “We feel like they can see how we develop players. We’re also able to get some really good junior college players in here who see a great opportunity at CSU.”
As for 2016, Lake said this year’s team is far and away his toughest team from a mental perspective. Players within the program have suffered personal losses over the last year or so — most notably outfielder Chris Singleton, whose mother was killed in the Mother Emanuel Church shooting in downtown Charleston last summer.
“What makes this team different is what we have been through mentally, not only with Chris, but with other players in our program as well,” Lake said. “Our motto right now is ‘what’s next.’ Not from a question standpoint, but in a positive way. Whatever comes next, we will be ready for it.”
The strength of this year’s team will be defensively, said Lake. Every position behind the pitcher is manned by an experienced player, and in some cases, more than one at a position.
Anchoring the corners are junior third baseman Nate Blanchard and senior first baseman Bryan Dye, the top two returning hitters. Both batted over .300 last season and combined for 50 RBIs. Blanchard mans the leadoff spot in the batting order.
Up the middle is senior Cole Murphy at shortstop and seniors Ryan Maxsim and Kevin Hickey at second. Hickey is the only one of the 13 seniors who is a four-year player at CSU — the others all being junior college transfers.
“We have really stressed our infield play, particularly being able to turn double plays,” Lake said. “We’re old and experienced in the infield, so that should be a strength.”
Starting behind the plate is sophomore catcher Mike Sconzo, backed up by sophomore Wesley Aschenbrenner (Ashley Ridge HS) and freshman Jack DeLongchamps (Wando HS).
Singleton returns as a starter in the outfield and will hold down right field this season. Seniors Brandon Burris and Sly Edwards will share time in center with Edwards also working in right. Burris is the fastest player in the program.
Freshman Cole German, who was a late signee after a verbal commitment to Maryland was not honored, will make an immediate impact as an outfielder as well. Senior Jack Crittenberger, slated for designated hitter duties to open the season, is the fifth outfielder.
“Our outfield, no matter what combination we use, can really run,” said Lake.
The defense will need to carry the Bucs this season as an unproven pitching staff tries to navigate a tough schedule.
Senior left-hander Evan Raynor returns as the ace of the staff, posting a 4-5 record with a 3.01 ERA last season. Very little experience or production returns behind Raynor.
However, sophomore left-hander Daniel Johnson is coming off a very productive summer performance in the Coastal Plains league and appears ready to make an impact as a weekend starter. Senior John Piriz is slated as the third starter, with junior right-hander Kyle Dyson and senior lefty Alex Ministeri expected to fill weekday starting roles early on.
“Those spots could change based on performance and they all know that going in,” Lake said. “Our bullpen might be the most talented that I’ve had here, but they have not pitched in a lot of games at this level. I like the arms, but they have a lot to prove.”
Lake expects freshmen Jamison Mobbs, Jacob Childress, Tyler Lander, Cody Maw and Eddie Hiott, along with sophomore Cody Smith, to work out of the bullpen. Mobbs and Hiott are Stratford High products, Maw is from Cane Bay and Smith is a Goose Creek High graduate.
Childress, a two-time Class AA player of the year from Ninety Six High School, will make an impact as a two-way performer. He led the team in hitting during the fall.
2015 RECORD: 23-30 (10-14 Big South)
COACH: Stuart Lake, 157-231 in 8th season
TOP PLAYERS: 1B Bryan Dye (.320, 25 RBI); IF Nate Blanchard (.325, 14-2B, 25 RBI); LHP Evan Raynor (4-5, 3.01 ERA)
TOP NEWCOMERS: OF Cole German (5-10, 165), Newtown, Pa.; LHP Eddie Hiott (5-11, 165), Stratford HS; RHP Jamison Mobbs (6-3, 180), Stratford HS
OUTLOOK: CSU’s season will come down to pitching. The Buccaneers return a top-line starter in Evan Raynor, but the staff is very inexperienced behind him. Lake feels his team will be solid defensively and should be able to manufacture runs. The Buccaneers need a good start as 13 of the first 15 games are at home.
19 — West Virginia, 4 p.m.; 20 — West Virginia, 2 p.m.; 21 — West Virginia, 1 p.m.; 23 — College of Charleston, 6 p.m.; 24 — Jacksonville, 6 p.m.; 26 — Butler, 6 p.m.; 27 — Butler, 4 p.m.; 28 — Butler, 1 p.m.
1 — at Georgia, 5 p.m.; 2 — at Georgia, 5 p.m.; 4 — UMass, 6 p.m.; 5 — UMass, 4 p.m.; 6 — UMass, 2 p.m.; 8 — N.C. Central, 6 p.m.; 9 — USC Upstate, 6 p.m.; 11 — at South Carolina, 7 p.m.; 12 — at South Carolina, 4 p.m.; 13 — at South Carolina, 1:30 p.m.; 16 — at College of Charleston, 6 p.m.; 18 — George Washington, 6 p.m.; 19 — George Washington, 4 p.m.; 20 — George Washington, 1p.m.; 22 — at Jacksonville, 6 p.m.; 24 — Campbell, 6 p.m.; 25 — Campbell, 6 p.m.; 26 — Campbell, 2 p.m.; 29 — at The Citadel, 6 p.m.
1 — Longwood, 6 p.m.; 2 — Longwood, 4 p.m.; 3 — Longwood, 2 p.m.; 5 — The Citadel, 2 p.m.; 8 — at Liberty, 7 p.m.; 9 — at Liberty, 3 p.m.; 10 — at Liberty, 2 p.m.; 12 — Savannah State, 6 p.m.; 13 — at Savannah State, 5 p.m.; 15 — UNC Asheville, 6 p.m.; 16 — UNC Asheville, 4 p.m.; 17 — UNC Asheville, 2 p.m.; 20 — at USC Upstate, 6 p.m.; 22 — at Gardner-Webb, 6 p.m.; 23 — at Gardner-Webb, 2 p.m.; 24 — at Gardner-Webb, 2 p.m.; 26 — Wofford (at Lexington), 6 p.m.
6 — at Winthrop, 6 p.m.; 7 — at Winthrop, 6 p.m.; 8 — at Winthrop, 2 p.m.; 11 — at N.C. Central, 6 p.m.; 13 — Coastal Carolina, 6 p.m.; 14 — Coastal Carolina, 4 p.m.; 15 — Coastal Carolina, 2 p.m.; 17 — at Clemson, 6:30 p.m.; 19 — at Presbyterian, 3 p.m.; 20 — at Presbyterian, 3 p.m.; 21 — at Presbyterian, 3 p.m.; 24-28 — Big South Tournament, Lexington.