PEMBROKE — Despite the snow, it’s baseball season at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and that’s exciting for assistant athletic director Paul O’Neil who’s entering season No. 14 as the Braves’ skipper.
Picked by coaches to finish fifth in the Peach Belt Conference, widely considered small college baseball’s most competitive league, UNCP was able to clear the field and squeeze in a final workout Thursday before leaving for Anderson, S.C., site of this weekend’s season-opening three-game series.
The first steps toward Cary, site of the Division II Baseball Championship at the USA Baseball National Training Complex, begin Saturday and O’Neil says his team’s continued development from its pitching staff is of utmost importance.
“You’re going to give yourself a chance to be in every game when you can pitch and play defense,” O’Neil said. “Pitching’s always the main key to everything for us. We’ll feel we’ve got some quality arms and our guys have really worked hard. It’s now up to them to go out and play.”
The Braves were power-heavy at the front end of the rotation last season and had it not been for a late home sweep at the hands of Armstrong Atlantic, would’ve likely been awarded a regional berth for the second time in program history at 38-16 overall.
Ethan Carter and Dale Innes won 15 out of 20 combined starts and provided UNCP with a lift against some of the PBC’s top threats on the mound. This season, the Braves welcome a new-look rotation of right-handers Logan Cook, JUCO transfer Garrett Hickman and Connor Pratt, pitchers with college experience yet unproven in an extended role.
Innes, the staff’s projected ace coming into spring, was recently dismissed from the team after what O’Neil labeled a decision “made within the best interest of our club” while Carter is back home in Newport News, Va., having expended his collegiate eligibility.
“We don’t have an Ethan Carter-type guy at the front end … you don’t replace that,” O’Neil said. “You’re not going to be fortunate enough to have another pitcher of the year on your bench, so one of these guys has a chance to grab their opportunity. That’s a big void and someone else has to step up and get those innings.”
Several players who are starting the season as relievers, including Jordan DeLoatch and Alex Britt, will get a chance to show their stuff early according to O’Neil.
Britt, a freshman from Fairmont, showed good command during the fall with an improved curveball and went through his first period of practice without having to pick up a bat for the first time in his life. With a consistent fastball in the lower 90s, he’s handling the mound full-time with the Braves despite a .442 batting average his senior season.
There’s no plan to redshirt the former two-time Robeson County player of the year.
“We’re absolutely going to throw him into the fire and run him out there at some point,” O’Neil said. “We like Alex and he’s worked very hard on his game. If he keeps developing, he’s a guy that we feel confident with in pressure situations.”
Britt’s ready to perform.
“We have a lot of talented pitchers and I just plan to work hard from the mound doing what I love,” Britt said.
O’Neil adds that the closer job is available until a player earns the right to slam the door.
“We don’t have someone identified as the final three outs guy,” O’Neil said. “It’s a different beast and some guys can’t handle it. The biggest difference between us and the professional ranks is that we go with the hot hand. If a guy’s rolling, we don’t hook them. Ride that car until it runs out of gas. We’re not against a two or three-inning save.”
UNCP’s hoping its bats can produce enough runs to avoid constant late-game strain. Considering the standouts returning at the top of the order, the Braves could have one of the PBC’s most potent lineups.
Jordan Edgerton, one of three Peach Belt players named as preseason All-Americans by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, hit .392 last season and led the team in several statistical categories including homers and RBI. He’ll be in the three-hole in the first game of a doubleheader Saturday against Anderson just behind Daniel Fraga and gold glover Ben Schmucker, returning starters who each hit over .300 last season.
Dalton Knight, a selective junior slugger from Morehead City, is in the clean-up spot.
“We’re expecting big things out of all our hitters and they all played a bunch last year,” O’Neil said. “We had guys make a huge development jump from their freshman to their sophomore seasons. If they can do the same as juniors, we’re going to be alright at the plate.”
Coming off a league regular-season title and a brief No. 1 ranking last season, USC Aiken is the coaches’ favorite to repeat as Peach Belt champions. Nine seniors are back for the Pacers including all-conference infielders Ty Barkell and Ryan Metzler.
The Braves host Montevallo and then travel to Georgia College, two programs picked to finish Nos. 3 and 4 respectively, in their second and third PBC weekends of the season beginning Feb. 22.
They won’t have to deal with USC Aiken or second-place pick Lander during the regular season.
“I think the league will be a little bit better than it was last year based on the good teams returning the bulk of their starters,” O’Neil said. There’s a reason why this league’s regarded as the best DII league in the country because it’s a dogfight every weekend. If our pitching continues to develop and improve like we’ve been doing, we should be there at the end and have a really good season.”
OPENING WEEKEND ROTATION
Logan Cook, Soph., RHP — Spot starter who went 6-1 as a freshman with a 5.11 ERA in 56.1 innings. Struggled at times with control, but has a lethal breaking ball.
Garrett Hickman, R-Jr., RHP — The power hurler of the three, Hickman’s a transfer from Guilford Technical Community College who went the distance in six of 11 starts last season.
Connor Pratt, Jr., RHP — Lanky junior with a cutting fastball who induces grounders. Stingy 3.98 ERA was second only to top starters Ethan Carter and Dale Innes with over 50 innings pitched.
Daniel Fraga, Sr., 2B — The table-setter leading off scored a team-best 62 runs as a junior.
Ben Schmucker, Jr., OF — One of the best arms in the outfield didn’t have a single error in 52 starts and drove in 45 runs.
Jordan Edgerton, Jr., 3B — The preseason All-American hovered around .400 last season and is a and RBI machine.
Dalton Knight, Jr., DH — A tough out with a .425 on-base percentage, Knight’s in the clean-up spot because he puts the ball in play and pushes runners across.
Zade Denton, Jr., SS — Slick-fielding shortstop with power to all fields.
Drew Cole, Jr., OF — Hit .351 last season and provided an offensive lift late in the spring.
Brett Huffman, Sr., 1B — A big bat at the bottom of the order, strikeout numbers are something to keep an eye on.
Victor Zecca, Jr., OF — With 19 total starts over his first two seasons, this contact-hitting outfielder could move up in the order with more ABs.
Max Gagnon, Sr., C — Split starts behind the plate with Chad Whitehead as a junior and had 30 RBIs in 33 games.
Reach Brad Crawford at 910-272-6111 or on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.