The Southeast Region was THE most volatile region in the country in 2016. The level of play, the offensive barrage and the flat out dominant pitching shown in this region was as good as it gets. Shoot, even the best pitcher in the country came out of this region (Tusculum’s Placido Torres). And no one else was close to him!
In 2017, one may believe that level of play cannot be sustained. But we actually think things are going to get even better! For all three conferences, it is a year long brawl that ends up with one bloodied victor headed to the CWS. Lander, who was the 2016 Southeast Region champion, finished in the final four at Cary, losing in a 4-2 game to Millersville.
As we have said for many years, this region top to bottom may be the best in the country. There are so many good squads, so many top programs, that anyone can literally win this thing. And we are not exaggerating.
This year, we look for many of the ones that have continued to play at the regional tournament to make runs yet again. But as we stated, there are NO GUARANTEES in the Southeast Region. And there are some squads out there that return veterans to already good teams, and are itching for their crack at Grand Prairie.
So, we list our Top 5 preseason Southeast Region teams but we can tell you right now, we aren’t real comfortable with these. This WILL be the best season we have seen in probably ten years out of this region.
Grab a ticket and some popcorn. Some of the best college baseball in the country, at any level, is about to be played in the Southeast Region.
The Belmont Abbey Crusaders (Conference Carolinas) cruise into our #5 spot, after a very good 2016 season. The Crusaders finished the year 39-16-1, with a trip to the Southeast Region tournament, where they beat Catawba but lost two straight to Lander and Tusculum to be eliminated.
Coach Chris Anderson returns a core group of key players which should help Belmont Abbey move deeper into the post season. A team that hit .304 for the season with 61 homeruns includes junior Colin Rosenbaum (.389 average, 79 hits, 22 doubles, 2 triples, 3 homeruns, 43 RBIs) and senior Nick Beinlich (.333 average, 67 hits, 13 doubles, 1 triple, 13 homeruns).
With the loss of several key bats, Coach Anderson will need to reload a part of his offense and get more out of his bullpen. Leading this inexperienced pen will be sophomore Blake Waldren (78.1 IP, 2.87 ERA, 69 strikeouts). Belmont Abbey will be right there at the top of Conference Carolinas if this young bullpen can hold back the sticks they will be facing.
With our #4 Southeast Region pick, we expect to see the Columbus State University Cougars (Peach Belt Conference) battling USC Aiken for supremacy. The Cougars had a great year in 2016, winning the Peach Belt Conference tournament before being eliminated in the Southeast Region tournament by the Pacers and Mount Olive.
As is the case with almost every team in the Peach Belt Conference, Columbus State could swing the bat. The team finished the year with a .343 average and 82 homeruns. Although the biggest bats from 2016 are gone, there is plenty of firepower left in the line-up. Leading the team at the plate in 2017 will be seniors Tyler Fichter (.359 average, 71 hits, 10 doubles, 2 triples, 1 homerun, 29 RBIs, 20 stolen bases) and Lake Hart (.345 average, 29 hits, 4 doubles, 2 triples, 5 homeruns, 36 RBIs).
With a lot of new faces in the batting order, Coach Greg Appleton will need increased output from his bullpen if he expects to last against the Peach Belt hammers. Returning to the mound for the Cougars will be the three-headed monster of seniors Brandon Koehler (91 IP, 5.44 ERA, 68 strikeouts, .277 BAA), Albert Harless (89.1 IP, 4.94 ERA, 66 strikeouts, .280 BAA) and Caleb Kutsche (74.2 IP, 5.79 ERA, 59 strikeouts, .322 BAA). If these three veterans got better in the off season, Coach Appleton may have the defense needed to give his young bats a chance.
The Catawba Indians, our #3 pick, had a typical year in the South Atlantic Conference. While fighting it out in regular season play to win the SAC regular season title (and a trip to the Southeast Region tournament), the SAC tournament came down to a battle with its arch-rival Tusculum in the championship game, for which both team’s were named co-champions.
While losing one of the best hitters in the country from 2016 (Will Albertson), Coach Jim Gantt returns a very good, young team at the plate. Returning hitters are junior Kyle Smith (.347 average, 42 hits, 5 doubles, 5 homeruns, 27 RBIs), Chance Bowden (.324 average, 77 hits, 31 doubles, 1 triple, 5 homeruns, 47 RBIs), Zach Almond (.271 average, 49 hits, 8 doubles, 1 triple, 13 homeruns), and seniors Bryce Fowler (.310 average, 26 hits, 18 RBIs) and Malachi Hanes (.295 average, 57 hits, 11 doubles, 3 triples, 13 homeruns, 50 RBIs).
As has been the case in the SAC the last two years, which saw the top pitcher in the country come out of Catawba in 2015 and Tusculum in 2016, pitching will be the key. Coach Gantt writes into the line-up a squad led by senior Russ Weiker (66 IP, 4.09 ERA, 45 strikeouts, .259 BAA) and juniors Connor Johnson (65.2 IP, 6.99 ERA, 52 strikeouts, .311 ERA) and closer Bryan Blanton (30.1 IP, 2.67 ERA, 9 saves, 37 strikeouts, .167 BAA).
If the Indians expect to make it out of the hit happy SAC and Southeast Region, they must step up their their game on the mound from 2016. The hitting will be there…will the pitching? Coach Gantt usually finds a way.
The Tusculum College Pioneers, our #2 pick for 2017, continue to knock on the door in order to make another run like they did in 2012. No offense to the other teams in the South Atlantic Conference, but every year Catawba and/or Tusculum are in contention for the crown. It is no wonder both teams’ coaches are the top two coaches in wins in SAC history. With both teams battling to a co-championship in the SAC tournament last year, we expect the same-old, same-old this year.
Coach Doug Jones rode the best college pitcher in the country (Placido Torres) in 2016, as well as a very competent closer (Devan Watts). Both players were drafted in the 2016 MLB Draft. And it might be easy to overlook with such two dominant arms, that the Pioneers actually had some very good arms behind these two. Many of them return. Seniors Christian Raasch (88.1 IP, 3.67 ERA, 60 strikeouts), Ethan Carpenter (61.2 IP, 3.65 ERA, 60 strikeouts) and Zach Slagle (59 IP, 3.05 ERA, 39 strikeouts) will likely be the weekend starters for Coach Jones and will be expected to shut things down.
In 2016, Tusculum counted on its bullpen to keep it in games and as such, got close to making it to Cary (they were eliminated in the Southeast Region semi-finals) even though its offense was anemic at times (especially with runners in scoring position). The Pioneers will need increased production at the plate if they want to be able to go deep again this year. Returning hitters who should make an impact include seniors Nick Lacina (.382 average, 66 hits, 17 doubles, 2 triples, 2 homeruns, 32 RBIs), Dante Key (.312 average, 44 hits, 7 doubles, 7 triples, 3 homeruns), John Topoleski (.311 average, 7 doubles, 1 homerun, 30 RBIs), Jeremy Glore (.289 average, 44 hits, 6 doubles, 2 triples, 20 RBIs) and sophomore Zack Finchum (.337 average, 61 hits, 10 doubles, 2 triples, 1 homerun, 28 RBIs).
Coach Jones returns a lot of his line-up from 2016, plus three dominant pitchers to lead his bullpen. While the 2016 team sat in the shadows of two extremely good pitchers, the 2017 Tusculum Pioneers may actually have gotten better. We expect to see them around in late May.
And…..our #1 2017 Southeast Region Pre-Season pick is:
The University of South Carolina – Aiken Pacers (Peach Belt Conference) made it to the final two in the Southeast Region in 2016. Lander, the eventual South Region Champion, defeated the Pacers twice in two close games in the Southeast Region tournament to head to Cary.
Coach Kenny Thomas returns a senior-laden squad for 2017, with all of the key pieces in place to finish what they started in 2016. Chief among his weapons is his offense. As we mentioned at the top, the Southeast Region is LOADED with hitting, and the Pacers represent a brutal murderers-row. Although some big bats were lost to graduation, returning to a line-up that hit .321 for the season last year…with 81 homeruns, are seniors Mitchell Price (.333 average, 77 hits, 8 doubles, 2 triples, 14 homeruns, 57 RBIs, 11 stolen bases), Zach Moon (.342 average, 75 hits, 14 doubles, 16 homeruns, 68 RBIs), Skylar Marcado (.302 average, 65 hits, 13 doubles, 3 homeruns, 27 RBIs) and junior Brian Parreira (.306 average, 68 hits, 11 doubles, 13 homeruns, 40 RBIs).
What Coach Thomas will need is the same offensive effort as he had last year with a little better pitching. And it looks like the Pacers are bringing back enough seasoned vets in the bullpen that this may be the Pacer’s year. The pitchers he will count on to hold down the explosive bats in the Southeast Region will be seniors Nick Yobbi (73.1 IP, 5.52 ERA, 54 strikeouts, .321 BAA) and James Lynch (49 IP, 3.86 ERA, 56 strikeouts, .221 BAA).
The Pacers will hit….they always do. We will see if the pieces are in place in the bullpen to carry them. If they can get their team ERA under 4.00 this season…its a good bet we see the USC Aiken Pacers in Grand Prairie in May.