2022 Southern Conference Preview
The Southern Conference continues to produce compelling competition year after year. Last season the conference ranked ninth in RPI with four top-100 teams, although it was again just a one-bid league.
The talent in the SoCon is befitting more NCAA Tournament berths and a few teams sat just off the bubble last year. With some better breaks in RPI, the SoCon could break through as a multi-bid league, though one is again ore likely.
After last season expanding its conference slate from 21 games to 30 and splitting into two divisions to help with the expanded schedule, things are back to normal in the SoCon. The conference tournament at Fluor Field in Greenville, S.C., promises again to be a fun weekend.
Who are the favorites?
The SoCon this spring looks like it could be a very tight race. Samford has won two of the last three SoCon Tournaments but after heavy turnover in Birmingham, Mercer and Wofford enter 2022 as the conference favorites—though they too have big losses to account for.
Mercer stands out for its strong lineup. Outfielders Bill Knight (.325/.405/.544, 10 HR) and Coby Thomas (.247/.356/.479, 10 HR, 9 SB) and first baseman Angelo DiSpigna (.266/.391/.563, 15 HR) give the Bears offense plenty of pop. On the mound, Mercer returns swingman Jackson Kelley (3-4, 3.67) and will look to get a boost from the return of sixth-year lefthander Tanner Hall, who missed last season due to injury, and sophomore righthander Josh Harlow, a junior college transfer. Still, Mercer must replace two-way star Garrett Delano, who last year led the team in hitting and innings pitched, and shortstop RJ Yeager, who transferred to Mississippi State.
Wofford has won 36 games in each of the last three full seasons (and was 14-3 when the 2020 season was canceled) and is ready for another strong campaign in 2022, despite losing both the SoCon player and pitcher of the year in Colin Davis and Elliot Carney. Outfielder Nolan Hester (.363/.472/.463, 13 SB), the team’s leading hitter in 2021, returns. Outfielder Trey Yunger (.321/.412/.400, 20 SB) and third baseman Jack Renwick (.295/.376/.390, 28 SB) are back as well and fit the Terriers’ aggressive style on the bases. Wofford is resetting its rotation after Hayes Heinecke was drafted and Carney left as a graduate transfer for South Carolina. Righthander Josh Vitus (3-5, 7.12) and lefthander Sam Stratton (4-4, 6.04) both spent time in the rotation a year ago but will now need to take a step forward. The best news on the pitching staff is that relief ace Dalton Rhadans (6-0, 2.59, 7 SV) returns and will shorten games for the Terriers.
The title race may be decided by how well both teams are able to adjust on the mound. Hall’s return looms large for Mercer, while Wofford will need some of its returners to step into bigger roles if it is to reach its ceiling.
How will Samford fare under first-year coach Tony David?
Samford last season won the SoCon Tournament for the second time in three seasons and can’t be counted out of the title race in 2022. But following last season, Casey Dunn left Samford after 17 years as coach to take over at Alabama-Birmingham. The Bulldogs also saw heavy player turnover, as ace Samuel Strickland was drafted and several players like catcher Tyler McManus, their leading hitter, and slugger Sonny DiChiara, their leading home run hitter, transferred.
To replace Dunn, Samford promoted Tony David to head coach. David spent the last 16 years as associate head coach and was on staff throughout Dunn’s tenure. David also kept on pitching coach Tyler Shrout, who was promoted to associate head coach, and volunteer assistant Brad Moss, who was promoted to a full-time role, giving the Bulldogs continuity in the dugout.
While Samford lost several players in the transfer portal, it also hit the portal hard itself. The Bulldogs brought in five four-year transfers, all of whom come from ACC or SEC programs. Outfielder Maurice Hampton (Louisiana State) is the highest profile of the group and drew first round interest coming out of high school in 2019 but opted to play both baseball and football at LSU. He is now focused on baseball and has plenty of upside.
Samford will need its newcomers to step up if it is to again compete at the top of the SoCon, but it also brings back a talented group. Third baseman Will David (.304/.400/.377) and outfielder Towns King (.285/.362/.465, 6 HR, 7 SB) both return with plenty of experience. On the mound, righthanders Jacob Cravey (1-2, 3.66) and Jalon Long (2-2, 6.23) return with a lot of innings under their belts. But after losing Strickland and closer Chase Isbell, the Bulldogs will need new answers in key roles on the mound.
If Samford’s newcomers provide instant impact, the Bulldogs won’t need to take a step back. But the Bulldogs have less experience returning than Mercer and Wofford.
Can Western Carolina step forward to contend for the title?
WCU hasn’t won the SoCon since its tournament title in 2016 and last season’s fourth-place finish in the regular season standings was its best since a runner-up finish in 2017. But after a run to the SoCon Tournament championship game last season that included twice beating Wofford, are the Catamounts ready for more in 2022?
WCU must replace Justice Bigbie, its leading hitter and the 2019 SoCon Player of the Year, but does return shortstop Pascanel Ferreras (.329/.419/.624, 16 HR) and second baseman Will Prater (.395/.457/.461), as well as outfielder Seth Graves (.311/.448/.443). That will give the Catamounts a solid core to their lineup, albeit one that may need to find a way to score runs without being as focused on the long ball as they have been in the past.
On the mound, righthander Zebby Matthews (6-2, 3.52) returns to lead the rotation. The Catamounts have plenty of depth behind him but will need to find the right combination. Lefthander Eric Wallington (0-1, 6.75) has good stuff and if he can harness it better, has upside as a starter. Freshman righthander Lucas Hartman is capable of stepping into a significant role right away and righthander Zach Franklin (7-4, 4.96) adds another experienced arm to the bunch.
If WCU is able to make good on its pitching depth and adjust to a new offensive style (or get new power hitters to emerge), it can make a push into the top tier of the conference in 2022.
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Will UNC Greensboro bounce back in 2022?
UNCG went 12-18 in SoCon play in 2021 and finished in last place in its division. While the Spartans went 27-25 overall, it was their worst conference performance since going 8-16 in SoCon play in 2014. UNCG had won at least 34 games every season from 2016-19 (the last four years of Link Jarrett’s tenure) and was 11-5 when the 2020 season was canceled, so last year’s disappointing finish was a surprise.
UNCG will be aiming to prove last year was just a blip. It lost Corey Rosier, its best hitter, but returns first baseman Greg Hardison (.312/.389/.465) and second baseman Hogan Windish (.280/.419/.538, 10 HR) to lead the lineup. Getting bounce-back seasons from shortstop Zack Budzik (.259/.322/.368, 16 SB), who was first-team all-SoCon as a freshman in 2019, and outfielder Pres Cavenaugh (.230/.372/.427, 8 HR, 10 SB), who led the team in hitting as a freshman in the abbreviated 2020 season, would be a big boost.
On the mound, righthanders Alex Hoppe (1-3, 5.23), Austin Koehn (4-3, 5.24) and Austin Parsley (8-2, 3.30) give the Spartans plenty of experience. Some new faces will have to step up in the bullpen, but UNCG has a solid foundation to work with.
UNCG might not be ready to challenge for a SoCon title in 2022, but it should rise up the standings.
Who are the player of the year contenders?
The SoCon had no shortage of talented players in 2021 with the likes of WCU’s Justice Bigbie, Wofford’s Colin Davis and Mercer’s Garrett Delano and RJ Yeager. That group, however, is all gone.
But they didn’t leave the cupboard bare for 2022 and there are several standout contenders. Virginia Military Institute first baseman Justin Starke (.422/.525/.602) last season was named SoCon freshman of the year after winning the batting title. The third-year slugger will now be aiming for the conference’s top honor.
WCU shortstop Pascanel Ferreras slugged 16 home runs in 2021, second most in the conference, and Mercer first baseman Angelo DiSpigna ranked third with 15 homers. Either could parlay their power into hardware. Wofford third baseman Jack Renwick led the conference with 28 stolen bases and could be the Terriers’ top candidate.
In an offensive league, new hitters are sure to emerge as well. Starke is the early favorite, but the race should be wide open.
Top Five 2022 Draft Prospects
1. Maurice Hampton, OF, Samford
2. Pres Cavenaugh, OF, UNC Greensboro
3. Colby Thomas, OF, Mercer
4. Shane Lussier, 2B, Wofford
5. Colby Stuart, LHP, East Tennessee State