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Bracket Busters: Western Carolina Eyes First NCAA Tournament Bid Since 2016

Zebby Matthews Courtesywcu
Western Carolina RHP Zebby Matthews (Photo courtesy of WCU)

Western Carolina is 21-12 overall, 9-4 in the Southern Conference with a series win over league-leading Samford already in its pocket. With an RPI hovering around the top 50 its working toward its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016, and if it doesn’t earn the auto bid it could get its first at-large bid since 2007.

Because that 2016 team, which ran through the loser’s bracket to win the SoCon Tournament, is the last WCU team to achieve the goal that this current group is looking to achieve, it’s the most obvious comparison to make between this club and one from the recent past.

After giving it some thought, WCU coach Bobby Moranda says that it’s a pretty good comparison.

“I hadn’t thought about that as much, but actually, that team and this team are starting to become (similar),” he said.

Moranda is quick to point out that both teams played challenging schedules that tested them outside of the conference.

The 2016 team played series against Georgia Tech and Indiana on the road, along with midweek games against North Carolina, Clemson and Georgia. The tough schedule had a lot to do with the fact that it only ended the season 31-31 despite going 15-9 in the SoCon and getting to a regional.

The 2021 club has played a series against Charlotte (which it won) and faced Tennessee in the midweek twice. For this team, it has not only helped keep the RPI in a place where WCU can reasonably aim for an at-large bid, but it has also proven that it can play with just about anyone.

Having seen high-end pitching, it also suggests that the Western Carolina offense should be able to travel, so to speak, and have success in places that aren’t the relatively hitter-friendly environments of the SoCon.

Because that’s another similarity with the 2016 team. That team could mash and so can this one.

WCU is in the top 10 in the country in team batting average at .307 and has a .307/.427/.453 team slash line, and Moranda is confident the offense is ready to go anywhere and put up runs.

“Experience (will) help our offense be more consistent over the long haul,” he said. “Facing those good (pitchers) and not being shocked by 95, 96 (mph) because you’ve already seen that, with a good wipeout slider from the left and right-hand side. I’ve been very impressed with the talent we’ve seen on the mound from our opponents.”

Left fielder Justice Bigbie (.341/.460/.538) is once again a centerpiece in the lineup. Bigbie, who was named the MVP of the Northwoods League after the 2019 season, has been a four-year star in the lineup with a .334/.409/.513 slash line and 24 career homers.

Utility player Will Prater (.436/.482/.485), catcher Luke Robinson (.338/.419/.603), first baseman Daylan Nanny (.336/.456/.477), second baseman Daniel Walsh (.333/.463/.463) and shortstop Pascanel Ferreras (.307/.424/.486) have all been key contributors as well, and both Prater and Nanny have been red-hot of late.

Prater is 28-for-62 (.452) since the calendar flipped to April, and he has three four-hit games this season, which is made all the more impressive by the fact that he wasn’t even a regular in the lineup until mid March. Nanny is just 1-for-13 in his last four games, but for the month of April before those three games, he was 18-for-45 (.400).

“Nanny has just been super consistent the entire year, doubles machine, good against lefties, righties, he’s another kid who is an experienced kid, been around a while,” Moranda said. “Prater, same deal, went through those tough times as a freshman, couple of bad years, kind of paid his dues, we use him as a utility guy all over the place. He’s just kind of figured out his approach and (has) kind of tried to stay inside his approach.”

The area in which this team is in better shape than the 2016 squad is on the mound, where righthander Zebby Matthews (6-1, 2.47) gives the team a workhorse on Fridays.

The product of Smoky Mountain High, just a little more than four miles from WCU’s Hennon Stadium, grew up going to WCU baseball camps, wanted to be a Catamount out of high school, and Moranda admits that he and his staff made a mistake in not prioritizing getting him to campus right away instead of letting him move on to Walters State (Tenn.) JC.

Matthews was excellent in his one season at the junior college level, and after pitching well at WCU in the small sample that was the 2020 season, the “Prince of Cullowhee” as his coaches and teammates playfully call him, has become one of the best starting pitchers in the SoCon.

He certainly seems to be hitting his stride as the Catamounts head for the stretch run. Over his last three starts, he’s thrown 21 innings, giving up 13 hits and one run with three walks and 25 strikeouts.

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“He is an unbelievable worker,” Moranda said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I think he might be one of the top three to four workers I’ve ever seen in the game (with) what he does off the field. The way that he works in the weight room, the way he works in between starts, he’s just relentless.

“He just gets out there and competes and throws strikes. If you see his numbers, you’ve got to earn it against Zebby if you’re going to beat him.”

Matthews has some good help in the bullpen, including from righthanders Nick Hyde and Christian Sidoti, who have combined for one earned run allowed in 8.2 innings in conference play. Righthander Zach Franklin (3.18 ERA, 22.2 IP) has also been very good this season, even if one rough outing in the Samford series inflated his numbers a bit recently.

Matthews should also soon get some additional help in the rotation from the return of righthander Gavin Mortenson (2-0, 4.88). The freshman showed real promise early this season but has been out the last four weeks due to injury. He’s expected back in about two weeks, which would help with depth in the rotation and with avoiding taxing the bullpen too harshly, especially once the conference tournament rolls around, when pitching depth is most needed.

“He’s a shortstop that we converted to a pitcher in October,” Moranda said. “He’s really talented, 6-3, 195 (pounds), he’s going to be pro. We’ll get him back they’re saying in two weeks and that will be helpful to have for the tournament.”

Moranda does have one notable hope for how this team is different than his 2016 team. That team went to Clemson and went 1-2 with a win over Nebraska. This time around, he’s looking for a deeper run.

“I would like it to be a very similar team,” Moranda said with a laugh, referencing the goal of getting to the postseason. “But (let’s) go further in a regional, let’s do that.”

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