2021 Southern Conference Preview
The Southern Conference consistently produces quality competition and last year was no different, as East Tennessee State, Mercer, Samford, UNC Greensboro and Wofford had all raced out to strong starts to the campaign.
With Samford and Mercer returning nearly their entire teams, it looks to be more of the same for the conference in 2021.
The conference did suffer a significant loss of its own during the offseason, however. Furman eliminated its baseball program, leaving the SoCon with eight baseball-playing members.
As a result of the pandemic, the SoCon expanded its schedule from 21 conference games to 30, adding three conference series to the slate. Conference series remain three-game sets but will now be held over two days. The home team will decide how to arrange the series over the two days.
The conference also is breaking into two divisions—Red and Blue—for scheduling purposes. The Red Division includes The Citadel, Mercer, Western Carolina and Wofford, while ETSU, UNCG, Samford and Virginia Military Institute make up the Blue Division. The divisions were created with competitive balance in mind. Teams will play the other three teams in their division in home-and-home series and will play one series against each inter-division foe.
The SoCon Tournament will again be held at Fluor Field in Greenville, S.C.
Will Samford win another championship?
The Bulldogs in 2018 won the SoCon Tournament and in 2019 comfortably won the regular season title, though they stumbled in the conference tournament. They were off to an excellent start in 2020 and were 13-2 when the season was canceled.
That team returns almost entirely intact, ready to make another run at a SoCon championship. Second baseman Brooks Carlson (.500/.644/.760, 3 HR) was one of the hottest hitters in the country early last season and is back to anchor the lineup, along with slugger Sonny DiChiara (.328/.378/.475) and outfielder Ayrton Schafer (.315/.371/.519). Third baseman Will David (.406/.524/.500) was on his way to a breakout 2020 as a sophomore and returns, further lengthening what should be the best lineup in the conference.
On the mound, Samford is led by lefthander Samuel Strickland, the 2018 SoCon Freshman of the Year. He impressed in 2020, going 3-0, 1.17 with 30 strikeouts and just one walk in 23 innings and could be the SoCon’s best pitcher in 2021.
The Bulldogs pitched well beyond Strickland in 2020, despite injuries to veteran starters Zach Hester and Jesse McCord and closer Gene Hurst. All three are back in 2021 and if they can recapture their previous form, it would be a significant boost to Samford. In their absence, pitchers like Carson Cupo (1-0, 3.86, 3 SV), Jalon Long (0-2, 5.60) and Hamp Skinner (1-0, 4.67) took on bigger roles. That trio is also all back, giving the Bulldogs plenty of depth.
With that level of depth and talent, Samford is a clear favorite going into 2021. Coach Casey Dunn has the program running on all cylinders and it could be in for a special spring.
Can Mercer make another postseason run?
The Bears won the 2019 SoCon Tournament to advance to regionals for the fourth time in the decade. They opened the 2020 season on an 11-game winning streak before losing three of four games against Florida State and West Virginia and finishing 13-3.
The Bears bring back the bulk of that team, especially offensively. They return all but one regular and add transfers infielder Ryan Archibald (West Virginia) and catcher Blake Schmitt (Purdue). Sixth-year senior slugger Brandon Michie (.339/.443/.559) and second-year freshmen outfielder Colby Thomas (.333/.403/.681, 5 HR, 6 SB) lead the returners, and shortstop RJ Yeager (.263/.434/.386, 3 SB) anchors the infield.
Mercer this offseason went through more turnover on the mound, but between some key returners and some strong newcomers, it has the makings of a solid staff. Righthander Jackson Kelley (3-0, 0.70), who makes for a difficult matchup thanks to his low arm slot, and lefthander Tanner Hall (3-1, 2.55) are back to lead the rotation. Righthander/infielder Garrett Delano, a graduate transfer from Brown, has an intriguing skill set and can help in a variety of roles, while lefthander Robert Bennett, a transfer from Chipola (Fla.) JC, adds another good arm to the mix.
Mercer’s pitching staff may need a few weeks to settle into its new roles, but its offense can carry the load until then. Once it all comes together for the Bears, they have what it takes to challenge Samford in the SoCon standings.
Can Wofford carry its momentum into 2021?
The Terriers were off to a 14-3 start in 2020 and were playing with determination after falling just short in the 2019 SoCon Tournament, losing twice to Mercer in the finals. Part of the secret of Wofford’s success in 2020 was its 11 fourth-year players. While the NCAA’s decision to grant an extra year of eligibility meant they could all return in 2021, only one—righthander Elliot Carney—did so. Wofford has no graduate school programs, making an extra year at the school less appealing for players who were ready to complete their bachelor’s degree.
As a result, the Terriers must replace five regulars in their lineup and two of their top pitchers. The good news for Wofford is it still has a strong 1-2 punch in its rotation in lefthander Hayes Heinecke (3-1, 1.75) and righthander Josh Vitus (1-1, 2.18). That duo and reliever Dalton Rhadans (4-0, 2.35) are a strong core for what should still be one of the best pitching staffs in the SoCon. Offensively, outfielder Colin Davis (.348/.375/.591, 4 HR, 5 SB) and second baseman Shane Lussier (.344/.475/.469, 5 SB) return to lead the lineup.
While another opportunity for that team to show how good it could be would have been fun, Wofford had already been preparing for the 2021 team to have that level of turnover. It will likely take a step back—losing that kind of class will take a toll—but its frontline pitching can be a differentiator in a conference that often emphasizes offense and the Terriers’ own trademark fast, aggressive offense will still be a difficult matchup. Look for the Terriers to stay in the mix near the top of the conference.
How will UNC Greensboro fare in coach Billy Godwin’s second season?
Under former coach Link Jarrett, UNCG became a consistent contender in the SoCon. In 2020, after Jarrett left to become the head coach at Notre Dame and Godwin took over the program, the Spartans again looked like they were going to be in the mix. UNCG went 12-4, including Opening Weekend wins against Virginia Tech and San Diego State.
The Spartans had a solid offense in 2020 and with several key contributors returning, they should again in 2021. Outfielder Pres Cavenaugh (.452/.500/.548, 7 SB) was off to an excellent start to his college career and is back for his second year. Shortstop Zack Budzik (.263/.419/.368) also returns after stealing 12 bases, the fifth most in the nation. UNCG will have to replace third baseman Caleb Webster, who started the last 136 games for the Spartans and finished his career as one of the best players in program history.
On the mound, UNCG must replace starters Jake Lewis and Jeremiah Triplett. But they bring back some other key pitchers, including righthander Alex Hoppe (2-1, 4.82), who has the most upside on the staff. Righthanders Austin Koehn (1-0, 1.02) and Austin Parsley (3-0, 1.74) both pitched important innings in 2020 and return. UNCG also has some intriguing newcomers on the mound who add options for the staff.
UNCG has the talent to remain among the best teams in the conference. It will need a few players to step up to keep pace with the likes of Samford and Mercer, but the Spartans are in good shape going into 2021.
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Who will emerge as the SoCon’s best pitcher in 2021?
Landon Knack was the SoCon’s biggest star in 2020, as the East Tennessee State ace went 4-0, 1.08 and led the nation with 51 strikeouts in 25 innings. He parlayed that breakout into a spot in the second round of the draft. So, with Knack now in professional baseball, who will become the conference’s top pitcher this spring?
There’s no shortage of candidates but it starts with Heinecke, the 2019 SoCon Freshman of the Year. He has been outstanding for the Terriers over the last two seasons going 13-3, 2.45 and has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 120-to-18 in 114 innings. His combination of control and solid stuff gives him a chance to be a top-five rounds pick, much like former Wofford lefthander Adam Scott, who was picked in the fourth round in 2018.
Strickland also has that kind of upside. His strong, physical 6-foot-2, 218-pound frame and solid all-around stuff have made him a consistent starter for the Bulldogs for three years. ETSU righthander Nathanial Tate has been one of the best relievers in the SoCon over the last two years, piling up 42 strikeouts in 36.2 innings. With a further step forward in 2021, he could be in line for a big year.
Citadel righthander Jacob Pilarski is a wild card. He’s a graduate transfer from Division III Virginia Wesleyan, where he had a standout career as a two-way player. His stuff plays on the mound—his fastball works in the low 90s and he commands it well—but he’ll have to prove himself against SoCon hitters.
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