2021 Big South Conference Preview

Image credit: Campbell celebrates last season (Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Campbell and Winthrop have topped the Big South standings since 2017 and the two programs are the favorites again entering the 2021 season. 

The Camels are looking to take the next step in the NCAA Tournament after advancing to the regional finals in 2019, while Winthrop will try and carry over its hot start in 2020 to 2021. 

There are exciting dark horse teams who could make it an interesting fight at the top though—hello, South Carolina-Upstate—and a new coaching staff taking over at Charleston Southern that highlight the storylines for the 2021 season in the Big South.

The 2021 season will feature 40 league games made up of 12 weekend three-game series and four midweek games for all 10 Big South teams. Each team is also able to schedule up to 10 non-conference games. The top four teams in the conference will advance to the Big South Tournament (May 27-29).

Is The Conference Campbell’s To Lose?

Campbell enters the 2021 season as the two-time reigning champions and was also voted the league favorite in the Big South preseason coaches poll. 

Pitching and defense will be the backbone of the club after posting the best fielding percentage (.977) in the conference and the No. 3 ERA (4.72) in the shortened 2020 season. Righthander Cam Cowan (2-2, 3.00) returns and will front a rotation that gets reinforced with lefthander Ryan Chasse and righthander Jonathan Beymer—both of whom didn’t pitch in 2020. Chasse was recovering from Tommy John surgery after earning Big South freshman of the year honors in 2019 and offers a four-pitch mix, while Beymer has pro potential with a fastball that was up to 94 mph in the fall.

Freshman righthander Cade Boxrucker has impressed since getting to campus and adds to the pitching depth, as does projected closer Kevin Westlake (2-1, 4.60) and righthander Logan Heintzman (01-4.42), who should be frequently used out of the bullpen.

How much Campbell can get out of its bats might determine the ultimate ceiling of the Camels and be the deciding factor in whether the team can take the next step in the NCAA Tournament. First baseman Zach Williams (.300/.463/.400) is the team’s top returning hitter, but shortstop Collin Wolf (.270/.378/.429) has the ability to hit at the top of the lineup and be a table-setter, while left fielder Spencer Packard (.164/.387/.236) might be the most talented pure hitter on the team.  

Campbell lost both regional games in 2018 in uncompetitive fashion to Georgia and Duke, but in 2019 made the regional finals in Greenville before falling to East Carolina in two games. Taking the next step could rely on improvement from its hitters.

Will Winthrop Pick Up Where It Left Off In 2020?

Winthrop was off to a terrific start in 2020, leading the conference in overall winning percentage (.733) through 15 games. The 2021 team returns two out of its three weekend starters and eight lineup regulars and with the group returning 93% of the runs scored and 85% of the innings pitched it has a chance to be the most talented team coach Tom Riginos has ever had with the program. 

If Campbell is the favorite in the conference, Winthrop is the team best suited to push it for the conference title. 

Winthrop has a strong veteran presence at up-the-middle positions. Catcher Spencer Yankle (.339/.426/.508) will hit in the middle of the lineup as one of the better hitting catchers in the conference; shortstop Tyler Baker (.232/.283/.263) is a reliable defender in the infield and center fielder Scout McFalls (.375/.478/.518) is a four-year starter and likely the team’s best all-around player.

After leading the conference in ERA (2.79) in 2020, Winthrop will also return starters Daniel Blair (1-2, 4.67) and Tyler Jones (0-0, 2.51). Both pitchers have made jumps in stuff since last season and could take another step forward this spring, while righthander Willie Lumpkin (0-0, 2.03) is a reliable strike-thrower who didn’t issue a free pass in 13.1 innings in 2020.

The pitching staff doesn’t end there, with righthander Colten Rendon (1-0, 1.29) a reliable backend bullpen arm and senior lefthander Jason Crumley (2-0, 1.93) an option to pitch in a variety of roles.

How Does A New Coaching Staff Impact Charleston Southern?

Charleston Southern has finished in the bottom four teams in each of the last four full seasons and the team had a 7-9 record in the shortened 2020 season under interim head coach George Schaefer, who replaced Adam Ward in January 2020. 

Now, the program will be guided by Marc MacMillan, who was named the 11th head coach in Charleston Southern history last May. MacMillan brings in pitching coach/recruiting coordinator Anthony Izzio and hitting coach Ladd Rhodes into the fold as the group attempts to get the program out of the basement of the conference. 

It’s never wise to judge a first-year coach on his first season alone, but it should be interesting to see how the Buccaneers look with an entirely new staff in charge. MacMillan spent seven years with Mississippi as the team’s volunteer assistant coach and director of operations from 2014-2020. His experience with an SEC program that went to the College World Series and hosted four regionals should be an asset to the program. 

The Buccaneers will need some players to take a step forward offensively in 2021, as the team doesn’t return a bat that hit over .300 a year ago. They do have the top draft prospect in the conference in RJ Petit (0-0, 1.80) who is projected to move to a starting role this spring.

Will Any Pitching Staff Be Better Than South Carolina-Upstate?

The 2020 South Carolina-Upstate pitching staff was top-three in ERA (3.61) and strikeouts (164) through 18 games and enters the 2021 with enviable depth on the mound.

Multi-inning closer Kevin Davis (1-0, 1.35) is back after leading the team and ranking second in the conference in ERA and should continue to create extremely uncomfortable at-bats with a 6-foot-10 frame and low-90s fastball.

Righthander Jordan Marks (3-1, 1.75) returns to front the starting rotation with a three-pitch mix that includes a 90-95 mph fastball and a slider and changeup that both get whiffs. Righthander Alex Garbrick is a transfer from Morehead State and was up to 95-97 mph last fall, with an improved slider/cutter, while righthander Ben Ferrer (2-0, 1.46) is a proven strike-thrower who made a jump in 2020.

Righthander Austin Morgan (0-1, 3.44) has also improved since putting hitting behind him and focusing on pitching, while the program has a wealth of freshmen who could make an immediate impact, including righthanders Lukas Touma, Eben Heine, Jake Cubbler and Trey Miller and lefthander Connor Brinson—all of whom have impressed since stepping on campus.

On paper, the pitching looks tough to beat and should be the focal point of a team that also just happened to lead the conference in hitting (.289) and runs (136) in the shortened 2020 season.



What Does RJ Petit Look Like In A Starting Role?

Petit broke out in a big way in his first year with Charleston Southern, posting a 2.45 ERA over 40.1 innings primarily out of the bullpen. Petit led the team in ERA and opposing batting average (.163) and was second on the team with 50 strikeouts. 

After throwing five innings in relief in 2020 to similar success, Petit should step into a starting role this spring. 

With a massive, 6-foot-8, 300-pound frame, Petit has an imposing presence on the mound and a big arm to go with it, with a fastball that’s been in the 90-94 mph range and up to 95-96 at points last summer and fall. He will need to improve his strike-throwing in order to translate his relief success to a starting role (career 4.4 BB/9 rate) but if he does he could be a solid anchor for the Buccaneers and also improve his draft stock.

Top 5 2021 Draft Prospects:

  1. RJ Petit, RHP, Charleston Southern
  2. Mason Miller, RHP, Gardner Webb
  3. Jonathan Beymer, RHP, Campbell
  4. Cam Cowan, RHP, Campbell
  5. Jordan Marks, RHP, South Carolina-Upstate

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