The 2014 Southern Conference baseball season marks the end of an era. For the last several years, the SoCon has been a premier mid-major baseball league, often ranked in the Top 10 in conference RPI in the NCAA.
In the latest round of conference realignment, largely driven by football and men’s basketball, baseball was a casualty in the SoCon. Since 2008, the league has earned 11 bids to the NCAA tournament. Of those 11 bids, six teams have been represented. Four of those six teams (Elon University, Georgia Southern University, College of Charleston and Appalachian State University) will not play in the SoCon in 2015. In fact, Charleston is already gone, slightly weakening the league this year.
Interestingly enough, the preseason favorites for 2014 are a pair of teams that seem to be in the SoCon for the long haul — Western Carolina University and The Citadel. Western Carolina was the 2013 regular season champion of the SoCon, finishing with a 23-7 mark in league play, but could not advance past the quarterfinal round of the conference tournament. The Citadel wound up fourth in the regular season a year ago, yet advanced all the way to the SoCon championship game, where they fell to Elon 6-5.
We’ll take a look at all 10 teams in the SoCon, as ranked by the league’s preseason coaches’ poll.
1) Western Carolina
WCU accumulated seven of the ten first-place votes in the league, thanks in part to the fact that the Catamounts have seven returning position players and a pair of returning starting pitchers from the 23-7 squad of 2013. Five Catamounts earned preseason all-SoCon first team honors, including preseason player of the year senior shortstop Aaron Attaway and junior starting pitcher Jeremy Null. WCU went on the road in the first weekend of the season and defeated Mississippi State University. The Catamounts followed that up with a win over Clemson University at home. For now, it seems that the road to the NCAA Tournament runs through Cullowhee.
2) The Citadel
The Bulldogs, a perennial competitor for the SoCon championship, have placed seven players on either the first or second team preseason-all SoCon. The Citadel lost catcher Joe Jackson, their leading hitter from a year ago, but return senior outfielder Hughston Armstrong and junior first baseman/designated hitter Bo Thompson on offense. On the mound, Citadel boasts senior starting pitcher Logan Cribb and sophomore relief pitcher Skylar Hunter, the preseason all-SoCon first team reliever. The Citadel hit a rough patch in the first weekend of SoCon play when the Bulldogs were swept at Davidson College.
3) Appalachian State
After coming a game from the NCAA Super Regionals in 2012, Appalachian State slipped to 13-14 in conference play in 2013. The Mountaineers did defeat North Carolina State’s sophomore pitcher Carlos Rodon on opening day, but the momentum could not hold up throughout the year. ASU did see the continued emergence of junior starting pitcher Jamie Nunn, who is a second team preseason all-SoCon pick. 2014 has not been kind to Appalachian State, as the Mountaineers started 0-9 and lost 11 of their first 12 games. Three of their five wins came over the University of North Carolina at Asheville in a home sweep.
Elon has never finished below fourth in the Southern Conference. The final campaign brings many question marks, as the Phoenix lost 16 players from the 2013 SoCon championship team. Only one Elon player, senior second baseman Sebastian Gomez, made preseason all-SoCon. For more, check out our Elon baseball season preview.
5) Georgia Southern
The Eagles were a major disappointment in 2013, stumbling to a 13-17 league record. The 2014 team boasts only two preseason all-SoCon selections, both from the second team- junior catcher Chase Griffin and senior third baseman Ben Morgan. Morgan is one of only five seniors on the Eagles, so Georgia Southern could be a team that gels as the season goes along. GSU started 15-2 with wins over the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, but many of the victories came against inferior competition in four-game series.
A team that can never seem to get over the hump and into the upper echelon of the Southern Conference, Furman University is projected for another middle-of-the-pack year in 2014. Junior third baseman Chris Ohmstede was picked as a first-team all-SoCon selection, and junior pitcher Alex Abrams was picked second team. Abrams posted a 2.43 ERA in 17 appearances and seven starts a year ago, the top ERA on the team.
After winning the SoCon in 2012, Samford took a step back by finishing 12-17 in conference play in 2013. The bad news for coach Casey Dunn’s squad is that the road only gets tougher. Outfielders Christiaan Durdaller and Philip Ervin, along with second baseman Zeth Stone and pitcher/first baseman C.K. Irby are gone. 2014 figures to be a rebuilding year for Samford.
Although the Spartans have struggled of late, they boast two solid players in 2014 — first team preseason all-SoCon outfielder Eric Kalbfleisch, who hit .310 a year ago, and junior pitcher Max Povse, who struck out 81 hitters in 2013.
Wofford College has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2007, and that figures to continue in 2014. Their top starting pitcher, Brandon Yarusi, is gone, though second team preseason all-SoCon relief pitcher selection senior Eric Eck is back. Also garnering second team preseason all-SoCon was senior outfielder Josh Hyman.
The Davidson College Wildcats’ final season in the SoCon figures to be more of the same: a long season in the cellar. Davidson does not have a single preseason all-SoCon pick, and has not posted a winning season since 2005, which was also the last time they won more than 20 games. Davidson did make a splash to start SoCon play by sweeping The Citadel at home. Can the Wildcats keep it up? We’ll see.