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2020 SoCon College Baseball Preview

The Southern Conference consistently produces quality competition and last year was no different. Samford won 41 games and finished atop the standings, while producing three draft picks.

The Bulldogs didn’t quite build the resume of an at-large team, however, and got left out of regionals after getting upset in the SoCon Tournament. Ultimately, it was Mercer that represented the conference in the NCAA Tournament. The Bears beat Wofford, which was powered by an exciting offense, to win the tournament while coming out of the loser’s bracket.

Samford comes into the spring looking to repeat as regular-season champion and return to regionals for the second time in three years. Mercer and Wofford, meanwhile, are again leading the challengers in what should be another good year for the conference.

Player of the Year: Justice Bigbie, 3B, Western Carolina.

Bigbie last season was named SoCon player of the year after hitting .355/.446/.578 with 12 home runs. He carried that momentum into the summer in the Northwoods League, where he hit .346/.407/.537 with 12 home runs and was named MVP. Bigbie returns to WCU with big expectations for his junior season. He’s built a strong track record for hitting and hitting for power and can carry the load for the Catamounts.

Pitcher of the Year: Zach Hester, RHP, Samford.

Hester last season earned first-team all-SoCon honors after going 7-4, 2.17 with 82 strikeouts and 12 walks in 83 innings. The senior is a part of the best rotation in the conference and it wouldn’t be a surprise if his teammates Jesse McCord or Samuel Strickland walked away with this honor. But Hester, listed at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, is the rotation’s leader after an impressive first season in Birmingham after transferring from LSU Eunice JC.

Freshman of the Year: Colby Thomas, OF, Mercer.

Thomas last June was drafted in the 37th round by the Orioles but opted to continue on to Mercer, where he has impact potential. The righthanded hitter has a powerful swing that generates good bat speed. Thomas performed well against high-end competition in the Georgia prep ranks, which should help ease his transition to college baseball.

Wilson, Ethan 2 (Courtesy Of South Alabama)

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Projected standings (2019 record)

1. Samford (41-19, 19-5)

The Bulldogs last season won 41 games and comfortably finished atop the SoCon standings. But they stumbled at the wrong time in the conference tournament and missed their chance at back-to-back NCAA Tournament bids as a result. Samford now enters 2020 again positioned as the SoCon favorite. Last season it had the conference’s best pitching staff, led by a rotation of righthanders Zach Hester (7-4, 2.17) and Jesse McCord (6-1, 2.88) and lefthander Samuel Strickland (7-3, 4.00), all of whom are back for 2020. All three are talented enough to be Friday starters for Samford and the trio should be difficult to beat this spring. The Bulldogs need to replace closer Stephen Jones and will look to sophomore righthander Gene Hurst (4-2, 6.00, 50 K, 39 IP) to fill that role. The lineup isn’t as experienced but returns two key pieces in junior Brooks Carlson (.345/.429/.518), their leading hitter, and sophomore Sonny DiCharra (.293/.407/.646, 21 HR), their leading power threat. Losing shortstop Branden Fryman and catcher Anthony Mulrine creates two important roles to be filled. Senior Taylor Garris (.257/.381/.381, 12 SB) will slide from second base to shortstop and Carlson, who has primarily been a first baseman/DH during his college career, will move to second. They won’t be as good of a double-play combination as Fryman and Garris, but Samford just needs them to be solid. The Bulldogs have high expectations and the talent to make for another special season.

2. Wofford (36-25, 14-9)

After winning their first three games of the SoCon Tournament to advance to the championship game through the winner’s bracket, Wofford couldn’t get past Mercer. The Terriers lost both championship games to fall one win shy of what would have been their second NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2007. Wofford has a chance to get back to that stage in 2020 thanks to an older group. The Terriers will have five seniors in their lineup, and another in their rotation. Outfielders Mike Brown (.330/.441/.435, 38 SB) and Hudson Byorick (.326/.443/.436) and infielder Brett Rodriguez (.324/.435/.469, 33 SB) lead that group offensively and give Wofford three of its top hitters back. In addition to all those seniors, sophomore lefthander Hayes Heinecke (10-2, 2.65) could well be the best pitcher in the league and will lead the rotation, while closer Rasesh Pandya (4-2, 1.80, 2 SV) last season was one of the best relievers in the conference. The Terriers also welcome back sophomore shortstop Matty Brown (.304/.415/.402, 14 SB), who impressed last spring before he was sidelined late in the season due to injury. With so much returning talent, Wofford figures to remain among the SoCon’s top tier this spring.

3. Mercer (35-29, 14-10)

The Bears last season came out of the losers’ bracket to win the SoCon Tournament, beating Wofford twice in the championship game to claim the title. That triumph sent them to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in the decade and first time since 2015. Mercer returns a lot of players from that team, though it’s still a young roster overall. Redshirt senior second baseman Kyle Dockus (.323/.421/.383, 17 SB), its leading hitter, is the Bears’ elder statesmen and returns as an offensive catalyst. Also back are junior shortstop RJ Yeager (.253/.333/.415, 8 HR), sophomore first baseman Angelo DiSpigna (.289/.396/.509, 13 HR) and sophomore catcher/outfielder Collin Price (.276/.368/.458, 9 HR). The Bears must replace Kel Johnson, who hit 23 home runs last year, but fortuitously Le Bassett, who hit 17 home runs to earn Freshman All-America honors in 2018, returns after missing last season due to a ruptured Achilles tendon. With so many players back, the Bears should again have an explosive offense. The pitching staff is not early so experienced. Starters Kevin Coulter and Sawyer Gipson-Long are gone, as is closer Nick Spear. Senior lefthander Tanner Hall (8-6, 5.29) will lead the staff and junior lefthander Beau Healy gives the Bears another pitcher with a lot of innings under his belt. Mercer dipped heavily into the transfer market for help on the mound, adding righthanders Joe Molettiere (Monmouth) and Hunter Phillips (South Alabama) as grad transfers, as well as a few junior college transfers. Mercer’s lineup has enough firepower to support the pitching staff while it rounds into shape.

4. UNC Greensboro (34-20, 14-10)

Under Link Jarrett, UNCG worked its way up the SoCon pecking order. In 2017 it won the SoCon Tournament and in 2018 won the regular-season title—neither of which the program had accomplished in 20 years. Now, however, UNCG has a new challenge. Jarrett was hired away by Notre Dame following last season and Billy Godwin took over the program. Godwin has a strong resume, including 15 years as a head coach at Louisburg (N.C.) and East Carolina—where he is the second-winningest coach in program history—and five years as a scout for the Yankees. He inherits a team set up to contend in the SoCon, led by a strong, veteran lineup. Junior outfielder Greg Hardison (.340/.413/.475) and senior third baseman Caleb Webster (.327/.376/.464, 11 SB) last season led the Spartans in hitting and will again anchor the offense. The pitching staff is not as experienced and getting a few new pitchers to step into bigger roles will be key for UNCG. Sophomore righthander Austin Koehn (4-3, 3.49) impressed as a freshman and gives the Spartans a reliable starter on Friday nights. Redshirt senior lefthander Jake Lewis returns after missing last season due to injury, giving the rotation a boost, and UNCG will look to righthanders Alex Hoppe (0-0, 6.59) and Phillip Sanderson (5-4, 6.16) to take a step forward. If the Spartans find some answers around Koehn on the mound, they can challenge the other contenders.

5. Western Carolina (21-32, 8-16)

The Catamounts have endured a couple tough seasons, finishing eighth and ninth in the conference the last two seasons. Such a run is rare for WCU and it should be able to start moving back up the standings this spring. The Catamounts are led by junior third baseman Justice Bigbie (.355/.446/.578, 12 HR), the reigning SoCon player of the year. He’ll anchor an offense that also includes the powerful bats of junior outfielder Danny Nanny (.320/.403/.515) and senior catcher/first baseman Luke Robinson (.299/.380/.557, 11 HR). The Catamounts last season ranked second in the SoCon in scoring (6.51 runs per game) and should again be dangerous offensively. If they are going to make a move in the standings, they’ll need to improve a pitching staff that combined for a 6.43 team ERA. Righthander Chase Walter (5-6, 4.84) led the staff last year and was drafted in the 32nd round by the Angels but chose to return for his redshirt junior season. The Catamounts added junior college transfers Zebby Matthews and Anthony Silkwood, who can make an immediate impact, and also get back redshirt sophomore righthander Zach Franklin, who was a solid contributor in the bullpen as a freshman before missing almost all of last season due to injury. Getting strong seasons from that group will be critical for WCU.

6. East Tennessee State (34-21, 11-12)

Since 2016, its second year in the SoCon, ETSU has finished between fifth and seventh place every season. The Buccaneers this season look to again be on track for a solid, middle-of-the-pack finish. ETSU last season led the SoCon in ERA (3.48), edging Samford. Its pitching staff again looks to be its strength, with senior righthander Landon Knack (9-4, 2.60) returning to the rotation and sophomore righthander Nathaniel Tate (4-0, 1.21) at the back of the bullpen. The Bucs will need some new pitchers to step up around that duo after losing their other two starters, but in sophomore righthander Zach Kirby (1-1, 4.85) and freshman righthander Hunter Lloyd, they have quality options. Senior catcher Jackson Greer (.314/.434/.541, 10 HR) gives the Bucs staff a steady, experienced hand behind the plate and also anchors the lineup. Senior shortstop Cade Gilbert (.278/.333/.351) and senior first baseman Noah Hill (.279/.366/.370) add more experience to the lineup.

7. Furman (26-31, 13-11)

Like ETSU, Furman has been a reliable middle-of-the-pack SoCon team for the last several years and is coming off a fifth-place finish in the conference. The Paladins have some key holes to fill, starting with ace David Dunlavey and leading hitter Jabari Richards. Furman will be led offensively by seniors Trent Alley (.310/.368/.476) and Dax Roper (.278/.396/.515, 9 HR), and redshirt junior David Webel (.288/.366/.362) gives it another reliable bat in the lineup. On the mound, redshirt junior lefthander John Michael Bertrand (4-6, 4.90) and sophomore righthander Rob Hughes (5-2, 4.43) lead the returners. If Furman can get contributions out of some its newcomers as well, it has the makings for another solid spring.

8. Virginia Military Institute (17-41, 9-15)

The Keydets are coming off a tough season that saw them finish in seventh place in the SoCon. They ranked eighth in the league in scoring (5.12 runs per game) and last in ERA (6.68). To improve those marks, they’ll need some help from newcomers like freshman shortstop Zac Morris and freshman catcher Justin Starke. VMI does return some key older players to help the newcomers along. Junior second baseman Callen Nuccio (.316/.395/.398, 10 SB) was reliable last spring and senior first baseman Ryan Hatten (.209/.254/.434, 10 HR) gives the lineup some thump. On the mound, senior righthander Jacob Menders (5-5, 4.15) returns to lead the rotation, but replacing ace Zak Kent won’t be easy.

9. Citadel (12-43, 5-19)

The Bulldogs struggled mightily down the stretch last spring, going 3-24 in April and May and at one point enduring a 22-game losing streak. Their offense struggled all spring long and they averaged just 3.53 runs per game. Getting that offense on track will be critical to taking a step forward in 2020. The Citadel’s lineup is highlighted by junior outfielder Ryan McCarthy (.274/.316/.398, 9 SB), a premium athlete who also plays football for the Bulldogs. They also return senior catcher Bryce Leasure (.300/.358/.373), who will have a bigger role in 2020. On the mound, junior lefthander Shane Connolly (2-7, 4.66) leads the way. The Citadel brought in a strong group of newcomers, who will be counted on to help the team take a step forward this spring.

Top 10 2020 Draft Prospects

1. Justice Bigbie, 3B, Western Carolina
2. Samuel Strickland, LHP, Samford
3. Ryan McCarthy, OF, Citadel
4. Zach Hester, RHP, Samford
5. Landon Knack, RHP, East Tennessee State
6. Chase Walter, RHP, Western Carolina
7. Brooks Carlson, 2B, Samford
8. RJ Yeager, SS, Mercer
9. Jesse McCord, RHP, Samford
10. Alex Hoppe, RHP, UNC Greensboro

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