Big South Conference Preview

Zach Cook (Photo by Tom Priddy) 

SEE ALSO: College Preview Index

Members: Campbell, Charleston Southern, Gardner-Webb, High Point, Liberty, Longwood, Presbyterian, Radford, UNC Asheville, Winthrop.

Team to Beat: Winthrop. The Eagles were a senior-laden team last season and lost some key contributors from a team that went 28-27. But Winthrop has the talent to bounce back this spring. Senior outfielder Anthony Paulsen (.352/.415/.441, 11 SB), the team’s leading hitter, returns, as does junior shortstop Mitch Spires (.286/.319/.371). Winthrop’s pitching staff is the strength of the team. Senior righthander Reece Green (2-1, 4.56) will lead the rotation as he comes off a strong summer in the Great West League. Redshirt-junior closer Zach Cook (9 SV, 3.48) also returns, giving Winthrop an experienced arm in the back of the bullpen. Head coach Tom Riginos will have plenty of other options to choose from, including exciting freshmen righthanders Zach Peek and Colton Rendon, and sophomore righthander Nate Pawelczyk, who also had a strong summer. The Eagles could receive a significant boost in the middle of the season when redshirt-junior lefthander Matt Crohan returns from a labrum injury. He made just three starts last season before getting injured, but has elite talent and pitched for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team in 2015. If he is able to get back to his pre-injury form, he will give Winthrop a crucial weapon down the stretch.

1. Matt Crohan, lhp, Winthrop
2. Tanner Chock, rhp, Presbyterian
3. Michael Osinski, ss, Longwood
4. Zach Cook, rhp, Winthrop
5. Andrew Witczak, lhp, Campbell
6. Collin Thacker, 2b, Gardner-Webb
7. Will Shepherd, of, Liberty
8. Danny Sullivan, of, Gardner-Webb
9. Anthony Paulsen, of, Winthrop
10. Josh Greene, of, High Point

Player of the Year: D.J. Artis, of, Liberty. An unsigned 40th-round pick out of high school, Artis put together an excellent freshman season in 2016. He hit .369/.500/.464 with 23 stolen bases to earn All-Freshman honors and the conference’s freshman of the year award. Artis will now look to build on that performance as a sophomore. He has impressive tools and profiles well as a top-of-the-order hitter.

Pitcher of the Year: Andrew Gottfried, rhp, High Point. While veteran Scot Hoffman and hard-throwing Andre Scrubb pitched ahead of him in the Panthers’ rotation last year, it was Gottfried (6-5, 2.65) who led the team in ERA and picked up all-conference honors as a freshman. Hoffman and Scrubb are now gone, leaving Gottfried to front High Point’s rotation. He isn’t overpowering, but fills up the strike zone and is difficult for hitters to square up.

Freshman of the Year: Colton Rendon, rhp, Winthrop. An impressive showing in fall ball and the preseason has Rendon in the mix to claim a spot in the Eagles’ rotation. Listed at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, he gets sinking action on his fastball and has good feel for his offspeed pitches.

Top 25 Teams: None.

Other Projected Regional Teams: None.

Notable Storylines: Coastal Carolina won the first national championship in Big South history last year—on the last day it was still a member of the conference. The Chanticleers officially left the Big South for the Sun Belt Conference on July 1, leaving the Big South with 10 members. Even before the national championship, Coastal had become the conference’s premier program, and had won the Big South regular-season title 10 times since 1999. Coastal ran away with the championship last year, finishing seven games ahead of a three-way tie for second between Gardner-Webb, High Point and Longwood. Without the Chanticleers, the conference looks to be much more open this season. . . Liberty, the runner-up in the Big South tournament, had a surprising coaching vacancy after last season. Head coach Jim Toman resigned after nine seasons with the Flames and ended his tenure as the second-winningest coach in program history. Scott Jackson was hired to replace him, taking over the program after spending the last eight seasons as an assistant coach at North Carolina. He inherits a team with 14 seniors, including first baseman Andrew Yayck (.307/.383/.492, 7 HR) and outfielder Will Shepherd (.328/.390/.502, 8 HR, 11 SB). With veterans in the lineup combined with talented underclassmen such as Artis, Liberty is in position to produce a strong season in Jackson’s debut. . . The Big South’s other coaching change was also a surprise. Charleston Southern coach Stuart Lake resigned last month after eight seasons as head coach to take a job on the South Carolina staff as director of player development. He left his alma mater as the second-winningest coach in program history. Associate head coach Adam Ward will lead the program this spring. CSU will have several new faces this year after losing six starters from last year’s team that went 19-33. . . Campbell has a new roommate at Perry Stadium. The Astros’ high Class A affiliate will spend the next two seasons in Buies Creek while their new stadium in Fayetteville, N.C., is built. Perry Stadium has undergone a significant renovation this year, including the installation of a turf field, a new locker room and dugouts and expanded seating areas. On the field, Campbell welcomes back senior righthander/outfielder Cole Hallum, the 2015 conference player of the year. He played just six games last year before his season was ended by injury. Redshirt junior righthanders Alan Winans and Andrew Witczack are also returning from missing last season due to injury. To reach its ceiling, Campbell will need that trio to quickly get back up to speed.

Tournament: Eight teams, May 23-27 at Lexington County Stadium in Lexington, S.C.

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