ATLANTIC SUN CONFERENCE
By Bill Ballew
FLORIDA GULF COAST EAGLES
Head coach Dave Tollett began the Florida Gulf Coast program in the early 1990s and has built it into one of the emerging mid-majors in the country. The Eagles have won four regular-season conference titles since moving to the Division 1 ranks in 2008. They also are coming off their best season in 2017, when FGCU had an RPI of 35, won a school-record 43 games, earned their first NCAA Regional bid, and notched their first NCAA tournament victory by defeating Michigan. Known for being the college of Boston Red Sox standout pitcher Chris Sale, FGCU has a great relationship with a talented recruiting base in the Fort Myers area, which should enable Tollett to maintain the momentum he and the program have built over the past several years.
The Eagles return several key contributors from last year’s team. Redshirt senior center fielder Gage Morey (.289/412/.348) is the top returning hitter and a stellar defender in the middle garden. Senior catcher Spencer Levine (.284/.369/.443) paced the Eagles with 13 multi-RBI games and was on the Johnny Bench Award watch list in 2017. Senior left fielder Eli Lovell (.283/397/.417) went deep on six occasions last year while hitting 15 doubles and driving in 40 runs. Sophomore third baseman Richie Garcia (.279/397/.417) is the reigning ASUN Freshman of the Year after leading all conference first-year players in home runs (6), RBIs (40) and slugging percentage. Sophomore Marc Coffers (.279/.342/.402) was the ASUN Tournament MVP after slugging .500/.593/.650 in six games.
The Eagles have the potential to be even deeper on the mound, thanks in part to the return of senior righthander Peyton Gray (4-3, 4.93 ERA), redshirt senior righthander Mario Leon (5-2, 4.70 ERA), and redshirt junior lefthander Josh Dye (8-5, 3.23 ERA), who possesses solid control with a 76-to-13 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. FGCU also has its closer back with the return of redshirt senior righthander Kenton Hering (7-3, 1.96 ERA), who notched seven saves last spring. Senior righthander Christian Townsend (4.58 ERA) is another proven arm in the bullpen. Two newcomers to keep an eye on are freshman righthander Neils Stone from nearby Gulf Coast High School and righthander Evan Lumbert, a transfer from South Florida State, where he struck out 88 batters last year.
Chris Hayes knows how to make a positive first impression. After serving the previous three years as the Dolphins’ assistant head coach, Hayes took the reins of the Jacksonville program prior to the 2017 campaign and proceeded to guide the team to the ASUN regular season title with a conference mark of 16-5 and an overall record of 36-23. The Dolphins have not appeared in a regional since 2011 and were last crowned the ASUN champions in 2009 but have the returning talent to potentially bring both of those streaks to an end this spring.
The Dolphins return seven players who served as starters last year, led by senior third baseman Sam Armstrong (.268/.368/.514), who crushed 10 home runs and 11 doubles to go with 41 RBIs in 2017. Armstrong led the team in home runs, triples (2), slugging percentage, and walks (34). He is joined by sophomore first baseman Angel Camacho (.299/.350/.433), who had six home runs and 34 RBIs and put together an 18-game hitting streak during the campaign. Sophomore infielder Scott Dubrule (.281/.345/.311), who had 26 RBIs a year ago, earned spots on the ASUN All-Freshman and All-Tournament teams. Four other players expected to receive extended activity included junior catcher Mike Cassala (.287/.342/.339, 20 RBIs), junior infielder Evan Fernandez (.265/.311/.387, 4 home runs, 20 RBIs), redshirt senior outfielder Chris Lehane (.288/.395/.322, 17 RBIs), and sophomore outfielder Ruben Someillan (.310/.357/.348, 15 RBIs), who joined Dubrule on the ASUN All-Freshman team.
The Dolphins will need pitchers to step up on the mound, where only one starter from a year ago returns. Junior righthander Chris Gau (2-4, 3.96 ERA) started 13 games in 2017 and had 69 strikeouts versus 16 walks. The bullpen features lots of depth. Senior lefthander Matt Meyer (4-2, 2.02 ERA) had three saves last spring. Senior righthander Spencer Stockton (5-2, 2.33 ERA) had a team-high six saves to go with 41 strikeouts and eight walks. Sophomore righthander Tyler Santana (4-2, 2.70 ERA) and redshirt senior righthander Shane Wise (4-2 2.70 ERA) had three saves apiece.
KENNESAW STATE OWLS
For more than two decades, from the 1980s through the early 2000s, the Owls were one of the nation’s most dominant programs at the NAIA and Division II levels. Currently in its 13th season as a Division I program, Kennesaw State has emerged as one of the more formidable mid-major programs in the South under head coach Mike Sansing, who is in 26th campaign as the leader of the Owls. The team earned its lone NCAA tournament berth to date in 2014, when the Owls advanced to the Super Regional round. This season Kennesaw State is coming off a 2017 campaign in which the team posted an overall mark of 25-32 and 10-11 in the ASUN, good for fifth place.
The Owls have one of the top candidates for ASUN Player of the Year in redshirt senior first baseman/outfielder Taylor Allum (.319/.435/.590). Allum led Kennesaw State by hitting 15 home runs and driving in 46 last year. Sophomore right fielder Terence Norman (.318/.379/.482) and senior second baseman Grant Williams (.305/.375/.359), who had an excellent summer in the Cape Cod League, will also anchor the offense. The catching and designated hitter duties will be filled by senior Griffin Helms (.296/.383/.453), who had 27 RBIs last spring, and redshirt senior Forrest Bramlett (.258/.351/.577), who was third on the 2017 team with seven home runs in only 97 at-bats. Sophomore outfielder Garrett Hodges (.318/.375/.545) should see his playing time increase after a solid freshman showing.
Sansing will be counting on some unproven arms to contribute on the bump. Senior righthander AJ Moore (5-7, 6.21 ERA) did not pitch as well last spring as he did as a sophomore but is the lone Owl to have any significant starting experience. Junior lefthander Brian Exley (3.60 ERA) and sophomore righthander Jordan Krueger (1-1, 5.24 ERA) worked 20 and 16 games, respectively, out of the bullpen last year. A quartet of right-handed transfers should get significant innings, a group that includes Ryan Wesley (Gordon State), Jake Rothwell (Dayton State College), Brooks Buckler (Tallahassee Community College), and Jack McLinskey (West Georgia Tech).
Lipscomb was a favorite to be a sleeper on the national scene last year yet failed to live up to the lofty expectations when several key members of the Bisons struggled to find consistency. The Bisons lost eight of their last 11 games, including two of three in the ASUN Tournament, to finish with an overall record of 28-28. Head coach Jeff Forehand had three key players taken in the major league draft and must replace six of his top pitchers from a year ago, including All-America starters Brady Puckett and Jeffrey Passantino, which creates plenty of opportunity this spring on the school’s Nashville campus.
The Purple and Gold returns 20 letterwinners, including its entire infield. Senior second baseman Lee Solomon (.243/.358/.352) and senior shortstop Blake Thomas (.273/.370/.339) have experience up the middle and provide speed on the base paths after stealing 23 and 16 bases, respectively, last year. Junior first baseman Cade Sorrells (.298/.426/.369) had a team-high 42 RBIs a year ago and junior third baseman Zeke Dodson (.309/.407/.435) earned First Team ASUN All-Conference honors. Senior designated hitter Jake Perry (.279/.349/.464) brings power to the plate after hitting seven homers with 37 RBIs in 2017. Senior Jeffrey Crisan (.294/.392/.412) will handle the majority of the catching duties. The outfield candidates include junior Von Watson (.265/.333/.367), freshman Chris Bashlor, sophomore Coleman Goodwin, and redshirt junior Tevin Symonette .159/.288/.216), all of whom hit well in fall practice.
Senior righthander Dayton Tripp (3-5, 5.31 ERA) is the top returner on the mound. Redshirt junior righthander Kyle Kemp (2-1, 5.02 ERA) and senior righthander Nicko Ortego (4.98 ERA) will be two of the top arms in the bullpen. Eight of the 12 newcomers are pitchers and will help determine how successful Lipscomb’s 2018 campaign will be. Junior college hurlers Chris Kachmar, Robbie Knox and Joshua Colon and freshmen Noah Thompson and Max Habegger were among the standouts during the fall. Colon arrives from Western Oklahoma Community College and is a candidate to earn a spot in the weekend rotation.
Few D1 teams struggled more than the Highlanders last year, when they finished 289th in RPI and posted a 9-40 record, including a 2-19 mark in the ASUN. Pitching was the team’s biggest weakness, as evidenced by its ERA of 8.00, which was better than only three other D1 clubs. NJIT moved to D1 in 2007, joined the ASUN in 2016, and has won two conference games in each of its first two campaigns as a member of the league. Currently in his sixth season as the Highlanders’ head coach, Bob Guiliana led NJIT to four straight 20-win seasons, from 2011-15, including a program-best 24-23-1 mark in 2015.
Guiliana believes the pieces are in place to have a more successful season in 2018. One reason for his optimism centers on the return of junior center fielder Mike Anastasia (.373/.463/.507), who led the ASUN in batting average and on-base percentage and earned Second Team ASUN All-Conference honors in 2017. Sophomore outfielder Matt Coccidiferro (.277/.344/.415) was named to the ASUN All-Freshman team after he tied for the NJIT team lead with four homers and was third with 28 runs scored. Redshirt senior outfielder Jesse Uttendorfer (.277/.312/.415) suffered a hamate bone injury last year yet hit four home runs with 22 RBIs in a team-high 188 at-bats. Junior shortstop Justin Etts (.288/.340/.390) led the team with 31 RBIs and has made steady improvements in every phase of the game. Junior second baseman Tom Brady (.286/.370/.324) forms the Highlanders’ double-play combination with Etts. Freshmen expected to contribute include first baseman Nick Hussey, infielder Julio Marcano, and catchers Paul Franzoni and Bryce Short.
While pitching will once again be the team’s biggest question mark, there is good news with the return of redshirt junior Sean Lubreski (1-1, 4.19 ERA), who was limited to four starts last season due to a back injury. Sophomore righthander Tyler Staffinger (1-4, 4.13 ERA) led the team in ERA and tied for second by making eight starts. Redshirt senior lefthander Brian Sondergard (1-6, 7.14 ERA) started a staff-high 11 games among his 15 outings last year, and junior righthander Brett Lubreski (0-3, 6.80 ERA) started eight of 11 outings. Senior righthanders John Saviano (0-6, 8.91 ERA) and Andres Fernandez (2-3, 6.75 ERA) add experience to the Highlanders’ bullpen.
NORTH FLORIDA OSPREYS
More than a few observers believe that the arrival of Tim Parenton as head coach of the Ospreys is the perfect fit for the North Florida program. A former assistant coach at UNF before managing in the Tampa Bay Rays organization for the past three years, Parenton replaces Smoke Laval, who guided the Ospreys to two 40-win seasons in his six years at the team’s dugout helm. The Ospreys finished in fourth place in the ASUN last year with a 12-9 record and went 33-24 overall.
The Ospreys’ pitching staff should be a team strength this season. The team’s top pitcher from a year ago, junior righthander Frank German (8-1, 2.43 ERA), returns to head the rotation. German earned First Team ASUN All-Conference honors in 2017 while striking out 76 batters in 81/1 innings. He is joined by junior lefthander Austin Drury (6-2, 3.03 ERA), a member of the ASUN All-Freshman team in 2016, and junior righthander Brad Deppermann (4-3, 5.57 ERA), who started eight times in 12 appearances last spring. Sophomore righthander Cooper Bradford (1-4, 2.79 ERA) was member of the ASUN All-Freshman team in 2017 and could join the weekend rotation after striking out 53 batters in 51.2 innings.
Offense may be a little more difficult to come by unless several newcomers fill some voids. The top offensive returners are junior utility man Chris Berry (.310/.425/.398), who had three homers and 32 RBIs, and senior outfielder Wes Weeks (.267/.362/.358), who had 10 doubles, two home runs, 21 RBIs and 11 stolen bases last year. Redshirt senior Blake Voyles (.217/.280/.298) and senior Rey Gonzalez (.300/.390/.314) are expected to handle the catching duties. Sophomore outfielder Tanner Murphy (.337/.378/.446) and senior infielder Mac Wilson (.270/.341/.333) should see their activity increase after steady showings in part-time roles last year.
The Hatters underwent a change just prior to the start of the 2017 slate. Pete Dunn retired due to health concerns in December 2016 after 37 years as Stetson’s head coach. Steve Trimper made the trek from the University of Maine to the Sunshine State and guided the Hatters to a 15-6 conference mark, good for second place in the ASUN. Stetson struggled against non-conference competition, however, and finished with an overall mark of 27-29.
Stetson returns most of its team from a year ago, which includes one of the nation’s premier pitching staffs. Right-handed pitcher Logan Gilbert (10-0, 2.02 ERA) will enter the spring ranked among the top pitchers available for this year’s draft after striking out 107 batters and walking only 26 in 89 innings last season. The 6-foot-6 Gilbert is the reigning ASUN Pitcher of the Year who throws three pitches for strikes, including his low-to-mid 90s fastball and a sharp breaking ball. The Hatters also return senior righthander Brooks Wilson (4-7, 3.01 ERA), who fanned an impressive 127 batters last season, and junior righty Jack Perkins (7-5, 2.71 ERA), who struck out 108. Junior righthander Joey Gonzalez (1-1, 5.23 ERA) had five saves a year ago, and sophomore righty Ryan Stark (2-3, 5.26 ERA, 2 saves) pitched 51.1 innings in 20 appearances, including five starts. Former Kentucky righthander Jeremy Orbik, a transfer from State College of Florida-Bradenton, is projected to contribute this season as well.
The returning Stetson lineup is nearly as deep as the pitching staff. The entire outfield is back with the return of junior center fielder Jacob Koos (.317/.402/.352) and fellow juniors Kirk Sidwell (.273/.309/.341) and Mike Spooner (.303/.380/.412). Koos has outstanding speed, leading to 50 runs and 23 steals in 2017, and Spooner notched 43 RBIs. Senior catcher Austin Hale (.266/.348/.440) had five homers and 25 RBIs a year ago. Sophomore shortstop Jorge Arenas (.268/.325/.378) and junior designated hitter Jack Gonzalez (.298/.371/.453) add some pop to the batting order. Newcomer Baylen Sparks is expected to man first base after transferring from Palm Beach State. Catcher Nick Cardieri was one of several freshmen that stood out during fall practice.
SOUTH CAROLINA UPSTATE SPARTANS
The Spartans have yet to earn a spot in an NCAA Regional since joining the Division 1 ranks 11 years ago but have challenged at times for the ASUN title over the past decade. The program’s best season took place in 2012 when USC Upstate went 33-20 and 16-10 in the ASUN, with head coach Matt Fincher being named the ASUN Coach of the Year. After a difficult season in 2017, during which the team went 24-31 overall and 7-14 in the ASUN, Fincher is confident that his veteran returning lineup can make this season one to remember in Spartanburg.
USC Upstate will be led by senior catcher Charlie Carpenter (.357/.441/.592). Drafted by the Atlanta Braves last year before deciding to return to school, Carpenter emerged as an intriguing hitting prospect while swatting 11 of the Spartans’ 21 home runs and leading the team in most hitting categories, including 46 RBIs. A trio of seniors also return in the outfield in JJ Shimko (.300/.417/.435), Russell Schwertfeger (.278/.322/.366), and Pat Raiff (.323./.447/.438). Shimko contributed 16 doubles and 35 RBIs to the USC Upstate cause, and Schwerfeger led the team with 12 steals and was third with 28 RBIs. Versatile junior Devon Ortiz (.291/.360/.362) will play in a variety of positions, including center field, while sophomore shortstop Jake Bourke (.287/.361/.333) will anchor the infield defense. Andres Kim is projected to start at second base after earning All-America honors at Pasadena Community College. Freshman Kyle Gensler impressed in fall practice and should see activity on the infield.
In order for the Spartans to challenge for the ASUN crown, the team will need more consistency from its pitching staff. Senior righthander Kevin Hickey (4-7, 4.73 ERA) is the team’s top returner on the mound. Hickey started 13 games last year, as did senior righthander Blake Whitney (5-6, 5.50 ERA), who struck out 82 batters in 73.2 innings. Sophomore lefthander Trey Van Der Weide (2-2, 6.06 ERA) started three of his 23 appearances in 2017. A pair of transfers, righthander Jacob Thiessen (Indian Hills Community College) and lefty Caleb Matthews (Kankakee Community College), and freshman righthander Jordan Marks from Bright’s Grove, Ontario, could have an immediate impact on the Spartans’ staff.