2021 NCAA Tournament Greenville Regional Preview
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No. 1 East Carolina vs. No. 4 Norfolk State (12 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 2 Charlotte vs. No. 3 Maryland (6 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 1 East Carolina (41-15)
Season in a Sentence: East Carolina continued its run as the class of the American Athletic Conference, winning its second straight regular-season title with a 20-8 mark in league play and going 41-15 overall, led by a well-rounded team that can beat the opposition in many ways.
Best Pitcher: RHP Gavin Williams, 4YJr.—A hard-thrower who battled inconsistency and injuries during the early years of his ECU career put it all together in a standout 2021 season. He’ll go into the regional with a perfect 10-0 record and a 1.32 ERA with 108 strikeouts compared to just 18 walks in 68 innings after he was named the AAC pitcher of the year. Quietly, he’s been one of the most dominant pitchers in college baseball since returning to the rotation in mid March.
Best Hitter: 2B Connor Norby, 3YSo.—Like Williams, it took Norby some time to find his footing in Greenville, but once he did, he became a superstar. In a season that earned him AAC player of the year honors, Norby is hitting .424/.487/.686 with 15 doubles, 15 home runs and 15 stolen bases, and leads the team in all three categories.
Outlook: East Carolina plays really well at home and will go into this weekend as the prohibitive favorite to advance to the super regional round. The Pirates are an extremely well-rounded team, featuring a lineup hitting .302 as a group and a pitching staff with a 3.99 ERA, led by Williams and relief ace Cam Colmore. ECU is looking to break through to the College World Series for the first time. The path to Omaha, with a potential super regional matchup with Vanderbilt looming, is tough, but this team has the goods to get there.
No. 2 Charlotte (39-19)
All-Conference Team Honorees: 3B Austin Knight (1st), SP Bryce McGowan (1st), RP Christian Lothes (1st), C Aaron McKeithan (2nd), DH Will Butcher (2nd)
Season in a Sentence: Charlotte arrived on the national scene in a big way in coach Robert Woodard’s second season on the job, going 39-19 overall and 24-8 in Conference USA, which earned the 49ers their first conference title since the program was in the Atlantic 10 and their first postseason bid since 2011.
Best Pitcher: LHP Christian Lothes, 2YFr.—Charlotte has talented starting pitchers, but no pitcher was as important to the team’s success in 2021 as Lothes in a relief role. In 39.2 innings spread out over 20 appearances, he has a 2.72 ERA, 54 strikeouts, a .177 opponent batting average and eight saves. Versatility is a huge part of his game as well. He can come in and slam the door for a save or give the team four or five innings if need be.
Best Hitter: 3B Austin Knight, 3YSo.—The Conference USA player of the year and newcomer of the year, Knight makes the 49ers lineup go. He’s hitting .351/.402/.622 with 29 doubles, four more than anyone else in the country, 10 home runs and 61 RBIs. For good measure, he’s 11-for-11 in stolen base attempts. His steady presence in the lineup helped the 49ers deal with injuries to lineup stalwarts David McCabe (who has since returned) and Dominic Pilolli.
Outlook: Charlotte has had a dream season and one worth celebrating as perhaps the start of something bigger in the Queen City, but if it’s going to compete to get out of this regional, it will have to play better than it has of late. In the last five weeks, it lost a series to Old Dominion, split four games with struggling Rice, looked uninspired against UNC Wilmington and went 0-2 in the C-USA Tournament. It was swept by ECU in a series early this season, but if it comes up against the Pirates at any point this weekend, there is something to be said for playing a team it is familiar with in a place it has played before.
No. 3 Maryland (28-16)
Season in a Sentence: After a somewhat sluggish start to the season, Maryland steadied the ship over the second half and earned its first postseason appearance since 2017 and the first under coach Rob Vaughn.
Best Pitcher: RHP Sean Burke, 3YFr.—One of the best pitching prospects in the country, Burke lived up to the hype in 2021, turning into the type of ace that Maryland needed him to be. He is 5-3 with a 3.56 ERA, 99 strikeouts and a .176 opponent batting average in 68.1 innings.
Best Hitter: SS Benjamin Cowles, 3YSo.—Cowles, who had a total of six home runs in his first two seasons, hit 17 of them this season in a breakout campaign that also has him going into regionals with a .302/.421/.660 slash line. Cowles’ emergence alongside Chris Alleyne and Matthew Shaw has helped mitigate the effects of Randy Bednar missing time with injury and Maxwell Costes not hitting for power.
Outlook: Maryland certainly has the pitching to go toe-to-toe with anyone in this regional, including ECU. Burke, righthander Nick Dean and righthander Jason Savacool all have a lot of ability, even if Savacool has dealt with the usual ups and downs of being a freshman. Lefthander Ryan Ramsey also gives Maryland the kind of versatile relief arm that is so valuable this time of year. If Shaw, Alleyne and Cowles can lead an offensive attack to keep up with the rest of the teams in Greenville, the Terrapins have a real shot to advance to the super regionals.
No. 4 Norfolk State (25-26)
All-Conference Team Honorees: SS/SP Danny Hosley (SS 1st/SP 2nd), 2B Alsander Womack (1st), 1B Mason Velasquez (1st), OF Dionte Brown (1st), SP James Deloatch (3rd)
Season in a Sentence: The model of consistency in the MEAC in terms of regular-season results, Norfolk State again put together a good season with an 18-10 mark in conference games, but this time, it won the big one in the MEAC Tournament final against North Carolina Central to advance to the program’s first regional.
Best Pitcher: RHP Danny Hosley, 4YJr.—Hosley didn’t pitch at all in the abbreviated 2020 season, appearing exclusively as a position player, but he took his opportunity on the mound and ran with it in 2021. He’s 7-1 with a 2.95 ERA, 79 strikeouts compared to 17 walks and a .206 opponent batting average in 73.1 innings.
Best Hitter: 2B Alsander Womack, 4YJr.—The answer here might also be Hosley, who hit .375/.461/.500 as a shortstop, so for variety’s sake, let’s go with Womack, who has an excellent case as well. He’s hitting .358/.428/.471 with more walks (24) than strikeouts (18) and 17 stolen bases.
Outlook: Because it’s the program’s first-ever trip to regionals, look for Norfolk State to come out playing loose and with nothing to lose. The Spartans will have to play over their heads a little bit to turn that enthusiasm into any wins this weekend, but with an offense that likes to run and has 107 stolen bases on the season, it could be an uncomfortable matchup if any of the other three teams come out of the gate playing tight.