Colonial Athletic Association Preview
Max Burt (24) / Northeastern Huskies
Team to Beat: UNC Wilmington.
The Seahawks came into last season with big expectations but fell short of a third-straight NCAA Tournament appearance. In 2018, UNCW will look to get back to regionals, as it returns 19 players, all of whom will be carrying chips on their shoulders and looking to prove that 2017 was an outlier. Led by a deep rotation that includes projected Friday starter Alex Royalty (the 2017 CAA pitcher of the year), Zarion Sharpe and Logan Beehler, UNCW should prove a tough test for opposing batters. They’ll need that increased pitching depth, as the team lost senior outfielder Casey Golden, who led the conference with 21 home runs. With Golden’s power production, the Seahawks led the conference with 85 total home runs—20 more than second place James Madison. Junior catcher Ryan Jeffers should be able to shoulder some of the offensive load after hitting 10 home runs last year, and hitting over .300/.400/.600 in each of his first two years in Wilmington. Outfielder Kep Brown, a junior college transfer, also adds some pop to the lineup. Still, this is a UNCW team that will have to be less reliant on the long ball, offensively, with lots of speed up the middle in freshmen Greg Jones and Doug Angeli, as well as sophomore Jackson Meadows, who is moving from the infield to centerfield, where he has the speed to track down plenty of fly balls.
Player of the Year: Ryan Jeffers, C, UNC Wilmington.
Returning a catcher coming off a career offensive year who can catch and throw is a luxury for any team. That’s especially true for a team out to prove something, and with younger players expected to get significant time up the middle, Jeffers has all the tools to lead the team on both sides of the ball and in the clubhouse. After hitting .328/.422/.604 and making 2017 first-team all-CAA, Jeffers should find himself in the middle of a lineup looking for a run-producer to replace Golden. When he’s not behind the plate, he’s spent time in the outfield and at DH, so he shouldn’t go wanting for plate appearances barring an injury.
Pitcher of the Year: John Rooney, LHP, Hofstra.
Royalty could well repeat as pitcher of the year after his impressive 2017 campaign, but the reports on Rooney after a strong summer are exciting. Rooney has a history of high strikeout numbers with Hofstra and set the team’s single season strikeout record with 77 in 2016 before upping the ante last spring with 86 strikeouts in 82.1 innings of work. Rooney throws from a 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame with easy arm action and a fastball that gets up into the mid 90s. His changeup is currently his best secondary offering and if he can improve a curveball that’s got just solid spin at the moment, he’ll have three quality offerings. Rooney went to high school in New York and still has some rawness to his game, as evidenced by a 4-8, 5.36 campaign last spring, but if he can iron some of that out this spring he could be primed to take a step forward as a junior.
Freshman of the Year: Greg Jones, SS, UNC Wilmington.
Ranked No. 75 on the 2017 BA500, Jones was one of the most dynamic players to make it to campus last fall, and projects to start shortstop in his first year at UNCW. A 70 runner on the 20-80 scout scale, Jones has the tools to impact the game with outstanding range defensively and with elite times down the first base line—especially when he’s hitting out of the lefthanded batter’s box. MLB teams let Jones get to campus because of a rawness to his game, and he’ll need to iron out some things as he continues to develop—notably defensive consistency and instincts—but he has bat speed from either side of the plate, and potentially a plus arm, giving him all the tools needed to excel with coach Mark Scalf’s team and turn into one of the best players in the conference.
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Notable Storylines: College of Charleston made the conference’s biggest offseason addition when it hired former South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook to replace Matt Heath as head coach. Holbrook, once Ray Tanner’s handpicked successor in Columbia, went 200-106 with South Carolina and led the Gamecocks to a pair of super regional appearances. The end of Holbrook’s tenure in Columbia was rocky, as was his introduction at Charleston, where some of the program’s alumni made a push to install one of their own as head coach. But now that Holbrook is settled, he should be able to help the Cougars bounce back after two disappointing seasons following former coach Monte Lee’s departure for Clemson. Holbrook inherits some talent, but the Cougars are coming off a 28-31 season, their worst since 2001, and a turnaround may require patience.
Towson could make noise with a coaching change of their own this year, with Matt Tyner filling out the lineup card in his first season for the Tigers after being named head coach last June. Before being named head coach, Tyner served as an assistant coach for Richmond for four seasons and replaces Mike Gottlieb, who was fired after 30 seasons. Towson hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013, but will be able to build this season around junior shortstop Richie Palacios (.338/.417/.502, 19 SB), the team’s leading hitter in 2017.
Can Northeastern stay on top? The Huskies return 26 players from their 29-25 team that won the regular season title last year, their first since 2005. A veteran core of athletic position players should help transition that success into the 2018 season, though the team will need to replace the innings (58.1) that Nate Borges offered while going 5-3, 2.93 during his senior season. Senior righthander Brian Christian (7-3, 3.59) provides an experienced hand on the pitching staff and senior shortstop Max Burt (.299/.371/.452), will again be a key player up the middle for the Huskies.
Tournament: Six teams, May 23-26, Harrisonburg, Va.
Top 10 Prospects:
1. John Rooney, LHP, Hofstra
2. Alex Royalty, RHP, UNC Wilmington
3. Clark Cota, RHP, UNC Wilmington
4. Adam Sisk, OF, James Madison
5. Richie Palacios, SS, Towson
6. Ryan Jeffers, C, UNC Wilmington
7. Max Burt, SS, Northeastern
8. Brian Christian, RHP, Northeastern
9. Colton Harlow, LHP, James Madison
10. Nick Patten, 1B, Delaware