Big South Conference Preview
Team to Beat: Winthrop.
The reigning Big South regular season conference champions, Winthrop returns with even higher expectations in 2018. Led by seventh-year head coach Tom Riginos, the Eagles welcome back eight of their top 10 hitters from last year’s team, including first-team all-conference shortstop Mitch Spires, who led the team with a .345 batting average and 49 runs scored as a junior. Outfielder Hunter Lipscomb returns for his junior season after recording a team-high 60 RBIs last year and should give the Eagles another strong presence in the middle of their lineup.
Pitching-wise, Winthrop returns more than 80 percent of its innings pitched and total strikeouts from a season ago. The Eagles can turn to a trio of experienced righthanders to fill out its weekend rotation, led by junior Nate Pawelczyk (7-2, 2.23) and supported by sophomores Zach Peek (5-1, 3.70) and Colton Rendon (7-5, 4.19). Rendon was the Big South Freshman of the Year in 2017, while Peek was this summer the top-ranked player in the Valley League. Senior righthander Daniel Willcutt (2-0, 4.65) gives Winthrop some experience as a midweek starter who can be used in a myriad of roles, while fellow senior Riley Arnone (3-2, 3.38) should be a vital lefthanded piece at the backend of the bullpen.
Player of the Year: D.J. Artis, OF, Liberty.
The 2017 Big South player of the year, Artis has separated himself as the best position player and draft prospect in the conference heading into 2018. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, Artis has shown excellent hand-eye coordination and an advanced approach at the plate, leading the country in walks (62) and finishing second in the nation with a .532 on-base percentage as a sophomore. In addition to hitting a conference-best .359 for the year, Artis led Liberty in stolen bases with 23 and projects as an above-average defensive centerfielder with solid range and instincts. Artis is currently ranked No. 119 on BA’s Top 200 Draft Prospects list for 2018.
Pitcher of the Year: Nate Pawelczyk, RHP, Winthrop.
A first-team all-conference selection and runner-up for the league’s pitcher of the year award last season, Pawelczyk enters his junior campaign as one of the Big South’s most accomplished pitchers in 2018. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound righthander led the Big South in ERA (2.23) and opposing batting average (.192) a season ago, striking out a team-best 69 batters in 76.2 innings. Pawelczyk, plus the duo of talented sophomores Winthrop has in Zach Peek and Colton Rendon, gives the Eagles several candidates who could eventually take home this award.
Freshman of the Year: Brandon Rohrer, OF, Liberty.
There’s a chance Artis’ understudy is already on the Flames roster, as freshman outfielder Brandon Rohrer has impressed Liberty coaches in the preseason and will likely begin the season in a corner position next to Artis. Rohrer is a 5-foot-11, 170-pound lefthanded hitter who should provide the Flames with consistent contact and a high on-base percentage at the plate. A good athlete with above-average speed, Rohrer is capable of handling centerfield in the future and should prove to have good range in either left field or right field right away.
Despite finishing tied for fifth in last year’s regular-season conference standings with a 11-13 league record, it was Radford that broke through in the Big South Tournament and earned the league’s lone berth into the NCAA Tournament. The Highlanders ended up going 0-2 as the No. 4 seed in the Louisville Regional, but the bigger blow may have come when 2017 Big South pitcher of the year and Radford ace Zack Ridgely (7-5, 2.84) injured his elbow in his final start of the season and was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss the entirety of the 2018 season. The Highlanders, who also lost righthanders Kyle Zurak (4-4, 2.40) and Danny Hrbek (5-5, 4.96) due to graduation, will have to replace more than 230 innings and 200 strikeouts just Ridgely, Zurak and Hrbek combined. While the weekend rotation may take some time to sort itself out, Radford will likely rely heavily on junior righthander Ryan Sande (0-4, 3.97), who started 11 games last season, and sophomore righty Evan Threehouse (2-1, 3.13). Offensively, sophomore first baseman Spencer Horwitz (.311/.384/.481) and redshirt junior second baseman Kyle Butler (.308/.344/.392) return after leading the Highlanders in hitting a season ago.
Lynchburg, Va., will likely be a popular landing spots for MLB scouts this year, as teams try to figure out just how high to draft talented Liberty centerfielder D.J. Artis, who is ranked No. 119 on BA’s Top 200 Draft Prospects list for 2018. But while Artis is the headliner — in both Lynchburg and throughout the Big South — second-year head coach Scott Jackson was dealt a tough hand in the months leading up to the season when projected Friday night starter Jack DeGroat went down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. DeGroat, who is expected to miss the entire upcoming season, had an excellent summer in 2017, striking out 30 hitters over 15 innings while being named an All-Star in the Cape Cod League. Liberty is now expected to turn its Friday night role over to North Carolina State transfer and junior righthander Evan Brabrand, who is eligible immediately after making 11 relief appearances for the Wolfpack in 2017. How Liberty figures to cope with DeGroat’s loss and fill in behind Brabrand on the mound will be key this season, just one year after the Flames finished one game behind Winthrop for the regular season title.
High Point joined Winthrop, Liberty and Radford as the four teams to receive first-place votes among coaches in the Big South preseason poll. The Panthers return a pair of second-team all-conference selections from a year ago, including sophomore righthander Drew Daczkowski. As a freshman, Daczkowski, who is the team’s Friday night starter, made a team-high 14 starts for High Point and led the team in wins (six), innings (76.2) and strikeouts (70). Offensively, third baseman Blake Schunk is back for his senior season, just one year after hitting .326/.399/.438 for the Panthers. Schunk is just one of several experienced position players returning for the Panthers, who have won 30 or more games in three of the past four seasons.
Conference Tournament: Eight teams, double-elimination, from May 22-26 at Liberty Baseball Stadium.
2018 Top 10 Prospects
1. D.J. Artis, OF, Liberty
2. Nate Pawelcyzk, RHP, Winthrop
3. Nik Constantakos, RHP, Charleston Southern
4. Mitch Spires, SS, Winthrop
5. Jack DeGroat, RHP, Liberty
6. Cody Smith, RHP, Charleston Southern
7. Daniel Johnson, LHP, Charleston Southern
8. Austin Zente, OF, High Point
9. Mason Fox, OF, Gardner-Webb
10. Evan Brabrand, RHP, Liberty