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2021 ACC Baseball Stock Watch: Which Programs Are Trending Up, Down?

Highfill, Sam (Photo Courtesy Of NC State)
NC State RHP Sam Highfill (Photo courtesy of NC State)

If you were to look at the College World Series field and see Virginia and North Carolina State among the final eight teams standing, you probably would have assumed that the ACC season went mostly according to plan. After all, the Cavaliers were a preseason top-five team and the Wolfpack are an annual fixture in the postseason.

But that’s not at all how it played out in an extremely unusual ACC season. Both Virginia and NC State overcame early-season swoons to make deep postseason runs. Furthermore, after years of struggle in the league, Notre Dame rose up to win the regular-season title and advance to a super regional. Louisville, as sure a thing as exists in the ACC, missed the postseason. Pittsburgh, another struggling ACC program, toyed with hosting a regional before collapsing down the stretch and ending up on the wrong side of the at-large bubble.

On top of this chaos (and perhaps exacerbating the chaos) in the conference was that the league instituted a 36-game conference schedule and 50-game cap for the 2021 season due to uncertainty about Covid-19 and potential risks involved in playing games against teams from other conferences.

With two teams in Omaha, 2021 has to be seen as a fairly successful season for the ACC. But given the grind that was an expanded ACC slate and the relatively high number of cancellations the league dealt with due to Covid-19 protocols, there’s no doubt that the league is eager to turn the page to 2022.

Presented here is a team-by-team analysis for every team in the ACC, as well as the trajectory of the program moving forward.

Boston College (21-28, 10-23), no postseason ⬅️➡️

Boston College started well in 2021, winning series against Duke and Auburn the second and third weekends of the season, but faded after that and weren’t able to parlay a hot start into a postseason appearance that looked like a real possibility going into the season. After the series win against Duke, a series win over Miami in early May was the only other ACC series victory for the Eagles.

While no one would argue that a 10-23 season in the ACC constitutes a successful season on its own, there were positives to be found that should keep it from being viewed as a totally lost season. With outfielder Sal Frelick and infielder Cody Morissette both getting drafted early, it shows BC’s ability to recruit and develop high-end talents to a degree that it hasn’t always been able to. And with third baseman Luke Gold one of the breakout stars of the Cape Cod League this summer, it appears that trend will continue. It was a tough 2021 season, but there should also be optimism about the state of affairs.

Clemson (25-27, 16-20), no postseason ⬇️

With under .500 marks both overall and in the ACC, Clemson missed out on the postseason for the first time since 2008. The Tigers looked on track for a regional bid with a sweep against Louisville in early May, but they lost eight out of their last nine regular-season ACC games to fall out of contention. Finding consistent starting pitching was an issue throughout the season, with 12 different pitchers getting at least one starting assignment and just one pitcher, Keyshawn Askew, earning double-digit starts.

There is some exciting young talent returning to Clemson, most notably slugger Caden Grice, who could end up as a two-star in the program if his development on the mound accelerates, and lefthander Geoffrey Gilbert, who emerged as the most reliable pitcher on the staff. To get back into the postseason, which is a bare minimum expectation at a place like Clemson, the Tigers will need others to fill in ably around its stars.

Duke (33-22, 16-17), reached regionals ⬆️

Duke waited until nearly the last possible minute to make a run to get into postseason position, but it pulled it off. After a series loss to Louisville in May, the Blue Devils reeled off eight straight wins to end the regular season, including sweeps of Virginia Tech and Clemson, and then left no doubt by winning the ACC Tournament, securing a third straight regional appearance for a program that went from 1962 to 2017 without one.

With its recent sustained success, it’s clear now that Duke is more than a flash in the pan, and in context with its entire history, three straight postseason appearances is a remarkable achievement. This staff continues to recruit well — shortstop Alex Mooney, the No. 66 prospect on the BA 500, opted to head to campus rather than begin a pro career this summer — and given the way things have gone on the field the last several years, the future appears very bright.

Florida State (31-24, 20-16), reached regionals ⬅️➡️

In a reversal of the normal assumptions about the way Florida State wins games, this particular FSU squad was one of the most consistent teams in the ACC last season thanks to an excellent pitching staff. Catcher Mat Nelson had a monster season in the Seminoles’ lineup, but he didn’t always get a lot of help, and time and again, it was pitching that led the way.

FSU’s 42-year streak of 40-win seasons came to an end (with help from the 50-game cap and expanded ACC slate, of course) and a regional appearance is the expectation in Tallahassee rather than something to be celebrated, but it still should be considered a successful season for the program. And furthermore, with a lot of the pitching staff back in the fold, most notably the top two starters in Parker Messick and Bryce Hubbart, there should be a lot of optimism about the 2022 season ahead.

Georgia Tech (31-25, 21-15), reached regionals ⬅️➡️

After a season filled with wild ups and downs week after week, Georgia Tech ended up as a poster child for an inconsistent ACC in 2021. For every big series win, like a sweep of NC State on the road to begin ACC play, there is a confounding series loss, like its home series loss to Kennesaw State in early May. In the end, though, led by a deep lineup, the Yellow Jackets got into a regional and played well in the regional final against Vanderbilt before being eliminated.

It’s been a long time since Georgia Tech has been on the biggest stage in the sport, with its last CWS appearance (and super regional appearance, for that matter) coming way back in 2006. The 2022 team has the talent to make a deep postseason run if it can get more consistent pitching, and given the relative lack of postseason success in recent years, there will be an urgency to do so.

Louisville (28-22, 16-16), no postseason ⬇️

A combination of injury woes and steps back from certain key players kept Louisville from the postseason for the first time since 2011. The Cardinals fought through adversity and treaded water for much of the season, but hit the skids in a big way down the stretch, losing three of their last four ACC series, including six straight conference games to end the season. That finish and an RPI that was out of at-large range due to a soft non-conference slate, ended up dashing Louisville’s regional hopes.

There should be zero concern about the overall trajectory of Louisville’s program based on this one season. No program in today’s college baseball is completely immune from having that kind of season, even one as consistent as Louisville. That said, the 2021 season was a clear speed bump in the program’s quest to secure its first national title. Just based on its history, it seems safe to expect Louisville to be back among the ACC’s elite in 2022, but it will have to be done with a re-tooled roster.

Miami (33-21, 20-15), reached regionals ⬅️➡️

Miami had a season fitting of a young team that just welcomed in the top-ranked recruiting class in the country. There was a lot of inconsistency from start to finish as those young players experienced growing pains, but in the end, it all resulted in the Hurricanes finding their way into a regional again. If there was any disappointment with UM’s season, it’s that it wasn’t able to take advantage of not having to face Florida in the Gainesville Regional when the host Gators went 0-2, as the Canes were eliminated with a 1-2 showing.

As veterans like catcher Adrian Del Castillo, first baseman Alex Toral and righthander Daniel Federman leave the program this offseason, it will become increasingly important that those young players, both in the class that arrived on campus last year and the group arriving this year, take on bigger roles. Whether Miami is more like the team we saw in 2021 or something better than that likely comes down to whether or not a leap is made in that regard.

North Carolina (28-27, 18-18), reached regionals ⬅️➡️

North Carolina won three of its first four ACC series, and the early cushion it built for itself played a big role in getting the team to a regional, even as the Tar Heels, like so many others in the ACC, were inconsistent down the stretch. Righthander Austin Love turning into a workhorse at the front of the rotation was a huge catalyst for UNC’s success in 2021 and that showed again in the postseason when it won Love’s start to begin the Lubbock Regional but then lost the next two games.

UNC will have some major questions to answer in 2022. Love will no longer be around to lead the rotation, making the emergence of other pitchers on the staff incredibly important. And two of its three best hitters from an offense that had its fair share of struggles a season ago, Justice Thompson and Caleb Roberts, are gone as well. Suffice it to say that the Tar Heels will have a lot to prove next season.

North Carolina State (37-19, 19-14), reached CWS ⬆️

No one had a more dramatic season than North Carolina State. First, the Wolfpack battled back from a 1-8 start in ACC play to get into the postseason. And after sweeping through the Ruston Regional, they took down No. 1 Arkansas in a super regional after getting blown out in the first game. As if that wasn’t enough, they went 2-0 to start the CWS, only to have a Covid-19 issue crop up that ultimately caused their elimination.

The disappointment in the way the 2021 season ended will take some time to shake off, and the draft took some of NC State’s best players off into pro baseball, but the 2022 team should be in good position for another deep postseason run. Righthander Sam Highfill gives the Pack an excellent Friday starter, the program has been active in bringing in impact players via transfer, and although there are plenty of pieces to replace in the lineup, you have to trust that NC State will always put a solid lineup together when it’s all said and done.

Roc Riggio (Gina Ferazzi Los Angeles Times Via Getty Images)

2021 Recruiting: 10 Classes That Just Missed The Top 25

Here are 10 more classes that fell just outside the Top 25.

Notre Dame (34-13, 25-10), reached super regionals ⬆️

Notre Dame engineered the turnaround of all turnarounds in 2021. After giving us a sneak peek with a hot start to the 2020 season before things were canceled, Notre Dame hit the accelerator and never looked back in 2021, running away with the ACC regular-season title and not just qualifying for the postseason, but hosting a regional for the first time since 2004. Ultimately, the Irish got a rough draw and ended up being eliminated by eventual national champion Mississippi State in the super regionals, but that doesn’t take any shine off of what they accomplished last season.

It might be tempting to assume that Notre Dame simply caught lightning in a bottle in 2021 and that what it did isn’t sustainable, but that would be misguided. The Irish are set to return most of their best pitchers, plus everyone in the lineup except first baseman Niko Kavadas, and coach Link Jarrett is well-established as one of the best hitting coaches in the country. Is it possible Notre Dame is susceptible to some ups and downs in the future to a greater degree than other ACC teams? Sure, but it also doesn’t seem like it’s going to slink back into obscurity anytime soon.

Pittsburgh (23-20, 16-17), no postseason ⬆️

Early on in the 2021 season, Pittsburgh rivaled Notre Dame for the best story coming out of the ACC after it won three of its first four conference series, including a sweep of Florida State to kick off its league slate. The Panthers began to fade as they got into the teeth of ACC play, but as late as mid May, they were part of the preliminary list of 20 potential host sites for regionals. From that point, however, Pitt lost its last six ACC regular-season games and went 1-1 in the ACC Tournament, not only pushing it out of the host race but out of the field of 64 altogether.

Coming so close to making the postseason for the first time since 1995, perhaps as a host, no less, only to fall short in the end has to sting, but looking at the bigger picture, the 2021 season was a huge success for Pitt. It was the closest the program has come to finishing .500 in the ACC and it was just the second time it has finished over .500 overall as a member of the conference, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider the high percentage of Pitt’s games that were ACC games last season. In a short period of time, it seems coach Mike Bell has already made an impact.

Virginia (36-27, 18-18), reached CWS ⬆️

A preseason top-five team, Virginia sure didn’t look the part coming out of the gate in 2021, at one point dropping to 4-11 in ACC play in late March. Not unlike NC State, though, the Cavaliers got up off the mat and made a run all the way to the College World Series.

Until last season, Virginia hadn’t been to Omaha since 2015, when it won the national title. For that matter, the Cavaliers hadn’t even been in the postseason since 2017, so last season was a major return to form for a program that had been missing from the national spotlight for a few years. Furthermore, it looks like the momentum from last season should carry forward at least into 2022, when catcher/outfielder Kyle Teel, outfielder Chris Newell and a whole host of talented arms, led by lefthander Nate Savino, return to place Virginia among the favorites in the ACC.

Virginia Tech (27-25, 16-20), no postseason ⬆️

The 2021 season was a success for Virginia Tech on many fronts. The Hokies put up their best conference winning percentage since 2015 and finished over .500 overall for the first time since 2013, which is also the last time they got into the postseason. Along the way, outfielder Gavin Cross also established himself as one of the most dynamic players in college baseball.

But tempering some of that optimism is how the season played out. Virginia Tech got off to a fast start in ACC play and looked like a postseason lock for much of the regular season before faltering late in the campaign to miss regionals for the seventh straight time. The 2021 season was a step forward, there’s no doubt, but the Hokies will go into 2022 with some urgency about making a postseason push. Cross gives them a centerpiece to build around, but they will need a number of others to step up to give themselves a realistic chance of playing June baseball.

Wake Forest (20-27, 10-22), no postseason ⬇️

It was a tough season for Wake Forest all around. It suffered through a Covid-19 pause early in the season, which wiped out an entire series against Boston College in early March and forced the cancellation of a third game in the ensuing Miami series due to a lack of available pitchers for the Demon Deacons. Once they moved past that, things didn’t go much better on the field, as a talented, veteran team never found its stride on the way to a 10-23 ACC record.

The 2022 season feels a bit like the turning of a page for Wake Forest baseball. Much of the class of players who arrived in the aftermath of the 2017 super regional appearance have matriculated out of the program and new stars like third baseman Brock Wilken and righthander Eric Adler are emerging by stacking impressive summers in the Cape Cod League on top of impressive debut seasons at Wake. The hope is that a turnaround will follow in short order.

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