The expectations never change at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
Two years removed from the program’s first Peach Belt Conference Tournament championship, getting back to an NCAA Regional is a realistic goal for this season’s team according to longtime skipper Paul O’Neil.
“People always ask how I think we’ll finish and the truth is, we should be pretty good,” O’Neil said Thursday. “We expect to have a very good season with the talent we have and ought be playing our best baseball at the end of the year. We want to be on a national level at the end.”
One of the PBC’s most consistent programs over the last decade, UNCP is vying for its eighth consecutive 30-win campaign under O’Neil who has managed the last 12 seasons. Saturday’s opening day lineup against Anderson (S.C.) could include as many as five new starters, but O’Neil is confident that each player brings a similar winning formula to the diamond.
UNCP will rely on the strength of its starting pitching throughout, a weekend rotation that includes a former Gamecock middle reliever and a top 2013 MLB Draft prospect according to Baseball America.
Newcomer Ethan Carter is the potential ace of the staff, a hard-throwing 6-foot-5 righty and former state player of the year in Virginia who was dismissed from two-time national champion South Carolina last spring. Carter tossed 28 innings out of the bullpen with the Gamecocks in 2010 before walking back onto the squad in 2012 following a season at Louisburg Junior College.
O’Neil says Carter consistently throws three pitches for strikes and has the best velocity on the team. He’ll start Saturday’s season opener against Anderson (S.C).
“Ethan gives us a chance to win every time he toes the rubber,” O’Neil said. “He’s worked extremely hard since August and we’re expecting him to have a great.”
O’Neil calls sophomore left-hander Jordan DeLoatch the staff’s “change of pace guy”, a pitcher with natural sink who paints corners. DeLoatch relies on lots of ground balls and went 4-3 last season with a 4.76 ERA.
“Jordan has lots of run and movement to his ball,” O’Neil said. “Opposing teams don’t like to hit off of him. He gets into a little bit of trouble when he’s up in the zone, but when he keeps it low, he’s pretty darn good.”
In a competitive conference where Sunday finales are pivotal, Walters State Community College (Ga.) transfer Dale Innes will face the pressure of closing out the weekend. Like Carter, Innes is a power pitcher who relies on his fastball when behind in the count.
The junior went 8-2 last season at nationally-ranked Walters State and nearly led the Senators to a berth in the JUCO World Series. Innes signed with Clemson out of Enka High School as a prep senior in 2010, but never pitched for the Tigers.
“It’s always nice having a guy out there in the rubber game with a tremendous amount of confidence,” O’Neil said. “When you play 18 innings on a Saturday like they do in the Peach Belt then you’re right back up and doing it again the next morning, teams are a bit slower. We’re depending on Dale to take advantage of that.”
The bullpen isn’t on as solid footing after heavy personnel losses including Braxton Lewis, UNCP’s all-time leader in career saves. O’Neil hopes to have a few middle relievers, a setup man and a closer picked by the start of conference play — two weeks from now against Columbus State. Possible mid-week arms Logan Cook and Jimmie Davis could see early action in long relief roles while the rotation is on a pitch count.
“The bullpen is our $64,000 question,” O’Neil said. “That’s a concern and we’ll need to try and establish roles as we get closer to March. Those questions won’t be answered until we’ve played competition in a different colored jersey than our own. We’ll see what guys handle it under pressure.”
Aaron Spano has the best shot at becoming the team’s stopper at the back end.
“He’d be the guy right now, but no one has pitched yet,” O’Neil said. “Aaron had a good fall and he’s really starting to believe in himself.”
As far as UNCP’s starting position players this weekend, Braves fans can expect an all-new middle infield with talent on the corners and an outfield that has some pop. That’s if everything goes according to plan according to O’Neil.
“We’re still tinkering with the lineup for the time being,” he said. “Everything really starts when Columbus gets in here. It doesn’t mean a whole lot to talk about the opening day starters. It matters who is playing in March and April.”