The wet weather that rolled into the Lowcountry on Friday certainly didn’t dampen the spirits or the optimism of the three local college baseball teams.
Although all of the local schools — College of Charleston, The Citadel or Charleston Southern — will have to wait another day to open practice for the 2015 season, all three couldn’t wait to get back onto the field.
“It’s exciting to finally be able to get back at it,” said Citadel coach Fred Jordan. “It’s too bad the weather didn’t cooperate because I know the players wanted to get things going (Friday).”
All three teams are expected to “officially” open practice for the 2015 season on Saturday.
Coming off one of the most successful seasons in school history, which featured a regional championship and a super regional appearance, expectations are at an all-time high for the Cougars.
The Cougars, 44-19 a year ago, are ranked No. 25 in Collegiate Baseball’s preseason poll. Cougars head coach Monte Lee has dealt with high expectations before.
“We played in a regional championship game in 2010 and we came into the 2011 season ranked in the Top 25,” Lee said. “We won 39 games in 2011, but I think we finished fourth in the Southern Conference and didn’t play in the postseason. We don’t need to worry about the expectations. We need to be concerned with the process of getting better each day and the championship part will take care of itself.”
Like a year ago, the Cougars will lean heavily on one of the Colonial Athletic Association’s top pitching staffs. Last season, the Cougars set new program records in team ERA (2.73) and fielding percentage (.973). The Cougars ranked seventh in the nation for fewest walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP) with 1.11, while ranking eighth in the country in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.89). The pitching staff will be anchored by sophomore Bailey Ober, who went 10-3 with a 1.52 ERA and earned national Freshman Pitcher of the Year honors, and junior Taylor Clarke, who was 10-4 with a 2.51 ERA and received second-team All-CAA selection.
“You win championships with pitching and defense,” Lee said.
The Cougars should be an improved hitting team as well. Charleston returns eight position players who have at least 100 or more at bats and six who started in 40 or more games. Leading the way will be third baseman Carl Wise, who was a preseason First Team All-CAA pick.
“I think we’re going to be a very good hitting team,” Lee said.
The Citadel enters the 2015 season looking to bounce back from a disappointing year and return to contending for a Southern Conference title.
The Bulldogs will have to do it with several new faces in the lineup. The Bulldogs must replace six position starters, but have the majority of their pitching staff returning. The bullpen is deep from both the left and right side, making that a strength of this year’s team.
The Bulldogs lost 75 percent of the team’s extra base hits and nearly 70 percent of the RBIs from a year ago. One of the few returning position players is senior shortstop Johnathan Stokes, who has started 131 of the last 133 games.
“It’s always exciting to see players develop and get their chance to play,” Jordan said. “We’ve got some position players that we need to replace, but I like what I saw from them in the fall.”
Juniors Austin Mason and Austin Livingston have seen extensive work as weekend starters over the past two years and will be in the mix for that role again this spring. Getting to the late innings will be a key for the Bulldogs, who have one of the top closers in the country in Skylar Hunter. Hunter tied the school record and rank 11th nationally with 15 saves. Hunter could see time as a starter in certain situations.
“We feel pretty good about our pitching,” Jordan said. “We’ve got a three or four pitchers we feel can consistently get a quality start for us. We feel very good about our bullpen.”
The SoCon is revamped this season with the departure of tournament champion Georgia Southern, regular season runner-up Davidson and a perennial strong Elon squad. Mercer and East Tennessee State — the Buccaneers are led by Citadel Hall of Famer Tony Skole — and have made significant strides over the past few years.
“You can’t worry about who you are playing against,” Jordan said. “At the end of the day, you’re playing against the game. As long as we’re playing the game the right way, then the wins and losses will take care of themselves.”
Charleston Southern head coach Stuart Lake, who begins his seventh season with the Buccaneers, is looking to build on a successful campaign from a year ago.
CSU won 30 games in 2014, the most in Lake’s tenure, and has a host of new faces on this year’s roster.
“With the guys we lost from last year, we’ll have a lot of junior college transfers and some high school guys that will definitely figure into the mix this season,” says Lake. “We had a productive fall and we are optimistic about competing this season. I’ve been very pleased with the work our players did in the weight room and their commitment level has been very high so far.”
Lake says while the fall was productive, the level of intensity will increase with the season slated to start in three weeks.
“The fall is important for us to evaluate our personnel and try to start piecing together who can do what for us,” said Lake. “Now, the focus turns to really stepping up and trying to be ready for games in three weeks. Pitching-wise, we feel like we have a good handle on who will be pitching and in what roles. The biggest thing is seeing live pitching. We haven’t hit live batting practice since about Halloween so that’s why a day like today, with the rain, is really frustrating. Our main emphasis will be getting some live at bats.”
Offensively, senior first baseman Chase Shelton is the top returner. Shelton hit .348 with four homeruns and 44 RBI last season. Infielders Nate Blanchard and Kevin Hickey also return with significant experience.
Anchoring the pitching staff is junior southpaw Andrew Tomasovich, who was 7-3 with a 3.83 earned run average in 2014. Closer Austin Weekley, who had 11 saves last spring, will anchor the bullpen.
David Shelton contributed to this story.