Seahawks Soar On Opening Weekend

WILMINGTON, N.C.—If a UNC Wilmington hitter needs to know where he stands, the answer can be found in something the Seahawks call the QUAB chart.

“Everyone wants to be on top of that QUAB chart that we keep—that quality at-bat chart,” junior catcher Gavin Stupienski said. “I think that’s our goal every game and every series. We want to get QUABs.”

Assistant coach Randy Hood, the keeper of the QUAB chart, was kept plenty busy on opening weekend. The Seahawks, the preseason favorites in the Colonial Athletic Association, put on an offensive tour de force, scoring 43 runs and batting .345 as a team in a trio of wins against Western Carolina, St. John’s and Richmond. Just four teams in the entire country put up more runs over the season’s first three days than did the Seahawks.

“To be able to see one right after the next step in the box and maintain a solid approach—see the baseball, work the middle of the field—it’s fun to watch,” UNCW coach Mark Scalf said.

The Seahawks aren’t without power threats—they return 29 of the 44 homers they hit last year—but their calling card figures to be the speed and athleticism up and down their lineup.

Scalf believes this year’s group can be even deeper than last year’s team that won 41 games, and their prolific opening weekend stands out even more considering they did it without presumptive starting right fielder Casey Golden, who was held out due to a hamstring injury. Junior Daniel Stack filled in for Golden and duly went 4-for-11 (.364) with a homer and six RBIs on the weekend.

The team’s speed dimension begins with leadoff man Steven Linkous, the CAA’s stolen bases leader a year ago with 30, and players such as Golden, center fielder Robbie Thorburn and shortstop Kennard McDowell are all capable runners. The Seahawks aren’t necessarily a small ball team—their 35 sac bunts ranked just 154th in the nation last year—but their coaching staff absolutely emphasizes running the bases hard and putting pressure on opposing defenses.

“That’s one of the reasons we’ve built our club the way it is,” Scalf said. “We like the athleticism, the speed on the bases … if everybody in the lineup gives you hard 90s (feet), thinking 180s, being able to go from home to second, first to third, it puts pressure on the opposing defense, and they know that you’re turning the corner, you’re taking hard turns. They can’t make mistakes, and a lot of times they tend to rush plays, and that’s where defensive mistakes happen.”

That speed forced a pair of key Richmond errors in the third inning on Sunday, opening the door to an eight-run inning that turned a 2-1 deficit into a 9-2 lead. That one wasn’t even UNCW’s most explosive inning of the weekend—they scored 10 in the fifth against Western Carolina on Opening Day—and they also had six- and five- run innings against St. John’s.

“Our coaches preach quality at-bats all the time,” Linkous said after Sunday’s win. “That’s what we live and breathe here at UNCW. We’re taught here to play aggressive on the bases and we’re a very aggressive team. That’s one of the aspects of the game we try to go hard at every single day. I feel like this weekend, a game like this, it really shows.”

On the pitching side, the Seahawks have a pair of building blocks in senior righthander Ryan Foster, their Friday starter, and senior closer Jared Gesell, their top draft prospect. Foster might not be the classic, hard-throwing Friday night ace, but he’ll compete every game, throwing four pitches for strikes. He turned in a workmanlike five innings on opening night, allowing two runs on three hits against Western Carolina before being pulled with an 11-2 lead. Gesell faced seven hitters over two appearances on the weekend, and not one put the ball in play. One walked and the other six all struck out as he worked at 93-94 mph with his fastball.

The rest of the pitching is less settled, although freshman righthander Alex Royalty turned in a solid five innings in his collegiate debut on Saturday, beating St. John’s. The freshman wasn’t overpowering, throwing mostly 88-89 mph, but his heavy ball induced a slew of groundouts and weak contact. Fellow freshmen Gunner Deal and Brandon Mulier could help out in the bullpen, alongside key returnees Josh Roberson, Whitman Barnes and Austin Magestro.

“I thought we had two or three go out there and settle in,” Scalf said. “I thought (righthander) Austin Easter threw the ball well on Friday night (in relief). Zack Burke (on Saturday). Gunner Deal being able to get in there and do what he did on Friday night was nice to see. Brandon (Mulier) threw fairly well on Friday night. . . . It’s just going to be a matter of continuing to get those guys out there. We have two or three others that have the ability to start for us. Unfortunately you can’t run them all out there in one weekend.”

Friday’s win was Scalf’s 800th for his career, and the Seahawks have won at least 30 games every year but one since 1999. They’ve also made seven trips to regionals since 2003, but have not gone further in the NCAA Tournament. As Scalf and his players were quick to point out on Sunday, there’s a long way to go and a lot of baseball to be played. But for at least one weekend, they looked the part of a dangerous team.

“We have to work hard throughout the whole year,” Stupienski said. “Hopefully we can make history at this program, and that’s what we all want to do. That’s our goal here.”

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