Coastal Carolina Reloads On The Mound
During Coastal Carolina’s 2016 postseason run that culminated with the national championship, the Chanticleers, like most teams, significantly winnowed their pitching staff. They used seven pitchers in Omaha, and four – Andrew Beckwith, Alex Cunningham, Bobby Holmes and Mike Morrison – combined to throw 60.1 of the 72 innings they played.
That core returned nearly intact in 2017, losing only Morrison, a senior. But now, two years after the national championship, the Chanticleers’ pitching staff has nearly turned over completely. Beckwith, Cunningham and Cole Schaefer graduated last year. Holmes is out this season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, leaving Jason Bilous and Zack Hopeck as the only pitchers on staff who appeared in the College World Series. Coastal also lost lefthander Austin Kitchen, who last year led the team with 24 appearances, to a torn ACL just before the season began.
Despite those high-profile losses, Coastal has reloaded on the mound. Bilous has taken over as the Friday night starter and has premium stuff. Hopeck provides a steadying, senior presence in the rotation and lefthander Anthony Veneziano is a solid third starter. In the bullpen, freshmen righthanders Zach McCambley and Shaddon Peavyhouse have power arms and are ready to pitch at the back end of games.
The pitching staff looks different now but its talent, combined with a dynamic group of position players has Coastal (7-2) off to a strong start to the season that includes wins against Kansas State, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
“We’re a long way from Omaha, but it’s a talented team and as long as we play hard and compete we’ll be ok,” coach Gary Gilmore sad. “We’ll surprise a few people.”
Bilous (1-0, 2.79) ranks No. 116 on the Top 200 Draft Prospects list and has the stuff of a true Friday starter with a fastball that reaches the upper 90s and a changeup and breaking ball that both have above-average potential. The junior has struggled with his control throughout his career – he’s walked more than seven batters per nine innings in college – and is still working to harness his power stuff so he can pitch deeper in games.
If Bilous is able to do so this spring, he can lead a strong rotation with Hopeck (0-1, 4.76) and Veneziano (1-0, 2.38) following. Lefthander Scott Kobos, a transfer from St. John’s River (Fla.) JC, and freshman righthander Anthony Simonelli give the Chanticleers two more strong starting options, which they need in the early going. Coastal frontloads its schedule because of the tournaments it hosts and will play 19 games in the first 25 days of the season. Once it gets into Sun Belt Conference play, however, the schedule thins out, which will allow Gilmore and pitching coach Drew Thomas to condense the staff.
In the meantime, Coastal is experimenting with the dozen new pitchers on its staff. As a senior, Hopeck said he is trying to help them settle into their new roles.
“I try to mentor them the best that I can because I remember when I was a freshman coming in, what that was like and the things you had to learn on the fly,” he said. “I try to give them tips and keys here and there to slow the game down.”
McCambley made his college debut Feb. 17 against Oklahoma in the second game of the season, entering in the ninth inning with the score tied at 3. He said Hopeck reminded him to breathe. The advice worked. McCambley struck out four batters in two scoreless innings and earned his first college victory when Coastal walked off with a 4-3 win in 10 innings.
“Going from facing high school guys to facing Oklahoma is crazy,” McCambley said. “He’s teaching us to get through it. We’re all young. He said he remembers back to being a freshman and you’ve got to learn quick and pick things up quick if you want to be good as a freshmen. I think we’re all doing a good job of that.”
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McCambley was ranked No. 262 on the 2017 BA 500 and was a premier recruit. Peavyhouse and Simonelli also came to college with plenty of promise. He was the headliner of one of the best recruiting classes in program history, which ranked just outside the Top 25. That group provided a much-needed injection of talent at a critical time for Coastal.
Morrison was at Coastal for Opening Weekend and is in regular contact with the coaching staff. He said the Chanticleers pitching staff this year is more talented than the 2016 group.
“It’s exciting to watch,” Morrison said. “Thomas has) a lot of weapons down there he can mix and match with and I know (Gilmore) likes to play matchups a lot.
“They’re all so young they have feed off each other and work together. You see one of your freshmen buddies succeed and you’re like if he can do it, I can do it. They’re all chomping at the bit to get out there.”
The Chanticleers have plenty of talent, but they are also in the unfamiliar position of pitching freshmen in critical roles. Gilmore said he can’t remember doing that since the early days of his 22-year tenure, back when he was still building the program and didn’t have much of a choice.
Because of the staff’s inexperience, Gilmore expects some early-season growing pains. But once their young pitchers get more acclimated to college, Coastal should be ready to take a step forward and return to regionals after last year missing the NCAA Tournament.
“For us, it’s going to be a team of growth all year long,” Gilmore said. “If it can just incrementally move forward and move forward and move forward, it’s a very talented team. If we can survive the first 30 games until (McCambley and Peavyhouse) get seven, eight, nine, 10 outings, all of a sudden this team will have a chance.”