Look Out For: Lights Out Pitching Leads UNC Wilmington To Quick Start
Losing a longtime head coach, especially one who collected more than 900 wins and led the team to 10 regional appearances, is a tough thing for a college baseball program to overcome.
But in the season after Mark Scalf retired after 28 seasons as head coach, UNC Wilmington has gotten out of the gate fast. The Seahawks are 9-3 on the season and coming off a sweep of Kentucky on the road - their first ever series win against an SEC opponent.
This wasn’t a typical coaching change, though, as UNCW turned things over to Randy Hood, who was an assistant under Scalf for 18 seasons. It’s not as if these players are having to adjust to a whole new way of doing things.
With that type of continuity in the dugout and a talented team in the fold, UNCW is off and running in a way that you don’t always see with teams under first-year head coaches.
One needs to look no further than the mound for reasons that the Seahawks are having so much success early on. Going into the season, Hood anticipated that the weekend rotation would be a real strength for his club and that has been the case through three weeks.
“We felt like, going into the season, we had a good nucleus of returning starters back, guys that pitched on the weekend in the past for us that would be guys that we could count on,” Hood said. “So far, we’ve thrown the ball really, really well on the weekend.”
The pitchers he’s referring to are redshirt-junior lefthander Zarion Sharpe (2-0, 0.96), junior righthander Landen Roupp (3-0, 0.47) and senior righthander Luke Gesell (2-0, 6.00). Those three have pitched in that order on all three weekends so far, with great success.
Sharpe has now thrown 14 consecutive scoreless innings. He tossed seven scoreless innings against Kentucky one week after throwing seven hitless innings against Bowling Green. Roupp, meanwhile, has allowed just one earned run this season in 19 innings and most recently gave up just two hits to UK in seven innings.
Gesell’s numbers aren’t on the same level, but he’s battled his way to five innings in all three of his starts, backing up the reputation he earned when he led the team in innings last season.
“Our three main starters - Zarion Sharpe, Landen Roupp and Luke Gesell - have been really good,” Hood said. “That helps us when we’ve had 3-1 weeks all three weeks so far. We’ve lost two midweek games, which, we’ve got to shore up our midweek pitching a little bit and trust our bullpen a little bit more, but on the weekends, we’ve been really good.”
UNCW had a good idea of what it was going to get with Roupp and Gesell coming into the season. Both were workhorses in their own way in 2019 and hoped to reprise those roles in 2020.
But it was Sharpe who came in as both the biggest question mark and the pitcher who perhaps held the key to UNCW taking the next step as a pitching staff.
After a freshman season that saw him start to put things together late in the campaign, he missed most of the 2018 season with injury. Last season, he came back in early March and returned to the rotation later that month, but he was limited in his ability to get deep into games.
So far this season, after a strong summer in the Cape Cod League and choosing to return to school rather than sign with the Cardinals as a 19th-round pick, it has been a different story. In his career, Sharpe has gone seven innings or more in a start three times, and two of those came in 2017. This season, he’s already done that twice.
“Zarion has just pitched really well on Friday nights and (has) given us some good quality starts on Friday, which has allowed us to kind of not have to go to the bullpen much,” Hood said.
One of the hallmarks of UNCW under Scalf was its ability to win big with a number of different offensive personalities. The 2016 team, which advanced to the final of the Columbia Regional, mashed 123 doubles and 88 home runs as a team.
The 2018 team, which made it to the Greenville Regional final, had about 40 percent fewer home runs, with 54, but still made it just as far, proving that they didn’t need to bludgeon teams with homers to have success. Last season’s team had fewer home runs still, with 35, but leaned on athleticism and speed to the tune of 107 stolen bases as a group.
At this early juncture, Hood is still learning about what his lineup can do.
“I kind of thought that we’d be more of an athletic, small-ball, move the ball around, hit singles, doubles, steals some bases, use the bunt a lot (kind of team), but we jumped out and hit some home runs early and we hit, I think, three this weekend,” Hood said. “I still don’t think we’re a power team, but I think we’ll hammer some balls if some guys make some mistakes.”
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One early catalyst has been center fielder and leadoff hitter Noah Bridges. A toolsy player whose talent has been a little bit ahead of his production to this point of his career, Bridges has been outstanding thus far, hitting .319/.407/.426 with a team-leading eight stolen bases.
“Noah is a toolsy outfielder that can really run. I think he maybe ran one of the fastest times up in the Cape this year, around 6.2, 6.3 (in the 60-yard dash),” Hood said. “Has a lot of tools, just needs to continue to work on putting the ball in play a lot more to use that speed, but he’s been a catalyst up in the leadoff spot. If he continues to hone his craft and keep working, I think you’ll see him continue to put up good numbers, and (he) has the ability to turn a walk or an infield single into a runner at third with stolen base opportunities that he’s able to take advantage of.”
Third baseman Cole Weiss is a less heralded player, but he’s been as steady as they come for UNCW going on three years. He’s been a member of the everyday lineup each of the last two years, he handles his position well and he showed significant improvement at the plate from 2018 to 2019.
As a sophomore, he hit .264/.335/.357 while striking out more than twice as often as he walked. Last year as a junior, those numbers jumped to .305/.387/.434, all while increasing walks and cutting down on strikeouts. He’s tracking well to be even better in 2020, what with a .311/.404/.489 slash line in the early going.
For all of Weiss’ attributes, what makes him valuable in his coach’s eyes isn’t always something that’s easily detectable in the box score. Take an example from Sunday against Kentucky.
“Yesterday, their starter in the first inning kind of mowed our first two guys down and Cole just kept fouling off, fouling off, fouling off pitches and then finally singled to right field,” Hood recounted. “Then, in the second inning, we all the sudden put five runs up, so I thought that at-bat really just kind of showed everybody in the rest of our lineup ‘hey, this guy’s got good stuff, just get in there and shorten things up.’”
Consistency at UNCW has been impressive in recent years, and in fact, the program seemed to find another gear late in Scalf’s tenure. Six of his last eight years at the helm ended in a regional appearance.
With a new coach in the top job, the standard isn’t any different now.
“It’s a good start,” Hood said. “We want to be in position to be an at-large team when it’s all said and done.”