Feb. 15, 2012
Cullowhee, N.C. - Western Carolina opens the 2012 baseball season on Friday afternoon with a three-game nonconference series against the Fordham Rams at Childress Field / Hennon Stadium. The opening weekend schedule is for first pitch at 4:00 pm on Friday afternoon, 2:00 pm on Saturday and 1:00 pm on Sunday.
Position Player Overview - Key Losses:Western Carolina lost four players who graced the starting lineup in at least 49 of the Catamounts' 55 games a season ago. Outfielder Matt Johns, catcher/DH Stephen Notaro and third baseman Austin Schultz have all graduated off of last year's team, with all-conference right-handed pitchers Matt Benedict, Andrew Chilcoat and Brandon Johnson also all graduating out of the program. Combined, WCU lost 16 home runs - including six long balls apiece by Johns and Notaro - and 150 RBI. The trio of senior pitchers won nine games a year ago with 138 strikeouts a season ago, and combined for 33 career victories.
Additionally, four of the five had at least five stolen bases a year ago and combined for 56 of the Catamounts' 90 bag thefts a season ago.
2012 Overview:Finding the right mixture for success will be the key for Western Carolina and head coach Bobby Moranda. A youthful but surprisingly experienced team in the field and at the plate is combined with a pitching staff that struggled a season ago and lost several key ingredients. An influx of talented young arms could make 2012 one to remember in Cullowhee.
"Throughout the off-season and early season practices, we have been focused on improving upon what was a disappointing year last season," said Moranda. "The guys have put in long hours and a lot of hard work to get better both on the field, in the weight room and in the classroom. Our battle cry this year is `team' - doing your job and fulfilling your role to help the team and the program improve."
Western Carolina returns six of its eight position players from a year ago, but just one weekend starting pitcher. Offensively, the squad returns 22 of its 38 home runs from a season ago, and 55-percent of the team's run production with 184 of the 337 RBI in 2011. On the base paths, the Catamounts will have to replace 56 stolen bases from last year's fleet-footed squad.
Combined, the WCU pitching staff returns just 12 of the 23 victories on the hill and only 48-percent of all innings pitched from last season (241.1 of 501 innings).
"Our team is comprised of guys that have been role players or guys in the shadows the past few seasons and now is the time for them to come to the forefront and step-up - and I know that they are ready," added Moranda.
Preseason prognostications for the Catamounts have pegged the Catamounts in the middle of the pack in the Southern Conference including sixth by the league's head coaches and seventh by the voting members of the SoCon Sports Media Association. But some pundits are slow to count WCU out of the SoCon mix in 2012 as the Catamounts have been called a "darkhorse" in the conference race by several bloggers.
Position Preview - Catchers:Three players enter the season donning the catching gear for the Catamounts, led by sophomore back stop Adam Martin. Coming off a solid season that saw the freshman hit just below the .300 threshold with 13 extra base hits and 24 RBI, Martin factors in as the starting catcher. The Marietta, Ga., native started behind the dish in 27 of the 40 games in which he saw action as a rookie in 2011.
During the summer months, Martin took his talents to the Last Frontier, playing the Alaskan Summer League, claiming the league's homerun derby championship. He parlayed that into fall practice with nine home runs to end the calendar year 2011, and has pushed that total into double digits through early spring practices in Cullowhee.
Said Moranda of his second-year catcher, "Adam Martin has improved in so many areas including his throwing, hitting and maturity levels. He gained invaluable experience through his play in Alaska and came back to school in a great mindset. He has gotten bigger and stronger and I look for him to have a very solid season for us."
Martin will be joined by returning classmate Luke Gragg, who has impressed the coaches with his improvements behind the plate from a year ago, and freshman Connor Andrus (Winston-Salem, N.C.) figuring to factor into playing time this season. Gragg split time as a pinch and designated hitter, with limited playing time in the outfield for WCU as a rookie, hitting .318 with 27 hits including eight for extra bases in 85 at bats.
"Connor has become a Division I catcher in his short time here in Cullowhee," said Moranda. "The game has really slowed down for him, and he's doing better at the plate."
Position Preview - Infielders:Western Carolina returns three-quarters of its solid infield - and should be the strength of the squad as it enters the 2012 season. WCU is anchored by preseason All-Southern Conference selections Ross Heffley and Aaron Attaway up the middle, and one of the most dependable defensive first basemen in the league in Tyler White. Add in freshman third baseman Bradley Strong (Richlands, Va.) - who was named Player of the Year in Virginia after hitting a career-best .524 last year - defensively the Catamounts appear among the tops in the region.
"Our infield defense is the strength of our program going into the season. We're not extremely deep, but we are very solid," said Moranda.
Heffley, the sure-handed second baseman, has been steady at the plate for WCU over the past three seasons, pacing both the team and the SoCon with a .419 average a year ago. A preseason All-America selection, the Snellville, Ga., native boasts a .969 career fielding percentage and is on pace to shatter numerous WCU records including career base hits, entering his final season for the Purple & Gold with 274 hits - just 62 shy of matching Barrett Shaft's school-record of 336 set from 2005-08. All told, Heffley is a career .390 hitter entering his final season with 81 extra base hits including 51 doubles - 19 shy of all-time leader Rod Goldston (70 doubles from 2000-03), four triples and 26 home runs.
Equally as solid at first is junior Tyler White, who erases many arrant throws on the right-side corner with his abilities with the glove. Offensively, the Forest City, N.C., native found his groove at the end of the season, raising his collective batting average nearly 70 points the second half of the year - something he carried into fall practice in 2011, hitting .490 during the off-season workouts with 13 extra base hits. He also returns as WCU's top stealing threat, swiping a returning-best 10-of-12 a season ago.
Attaway started all 55 games a year ago as a true freshman - the only Catamount to do so during the 2011 season. With a .293 batting average, 10 extra base hits and nine stolen bases - second among all returning players, the Morganton, N.C., product was a second team all-conference selection in the preseason.
Combined, the trio of Attaway, Heffley and White accounted for 29 of WCU's 54 double plays a season ago. Attaway was a part of 31 twin killings while Heffley helped turn two a total of 30 times.
Adding depth for the Catamounts will be freshman utility player Jacob Hoyle (Hickory, N.C.) and classmate Austin Neary (Baltimore, Md.), who earned Gatorade Player of the Year accolades in Maryland as a high school senior.
Position Preview - Outfielders:Patrolling the outfield for Moranda will be a youthful group of Catamounts. In the same breath, though, one could comment on the amount of experience the rookies from 2011 gained in their first collegiate season. Only one upperclassman in junior Bryant Noteboom with the remainder of the corps including four sophomores and two freshmen make up WCU's outfield entering 2012.
Combined, WCU's five returning outfielders saw action in at least 25 games - nearly half of the schedule - a year ago.
"We have a really good mixture of speed and size in our outfield. We are very youthful at every outfield position - but had several players gain valuable playing experience a season ago as freshmen that will be starting as sophomores," said Moranda.
Sophomores Julian Ridings and Dykota Spiess are the top two players in terms of career starts in the Catamount outfield. Ridings - an opening day starter in centerfield a year ago - made 18 appearances in the starting lineup a season ago including 15 in center field alone. Spiess started 13 games in left field, with Cody Jones and Luke Gragg starting a combined 13 games in 2011.
Adding depth to the outfield will be a pair of freshmen in two-sport standout, Garrett Brown (Asheville, N.C.), and Dale Urquhart (Hope Mills, N.C.). Brown, who also plays football at Western Carolina, joined the team for limited time in the fall with the bulk of his baseball exposure coming this spring. He will split time between the two squads this season with spring football practice running from March 12 through April 14. Urquhart hit .281 during the fall practice season, legging out six extra base hits.
Position Preview - Pitchers:Entering the 2012 season, Western Carolina head coach Bobby Moranda has assumed the role of pitching coach - a position he held as an assistant coach previously in his career. He inherits a total of 16 pitchers including nine returning and seven new arms. Statistically, the pitching staff has the most experience with 10 upper classmen including seven juniors and three seniors - but in terms of innings pitched, the squad is youthful and inexperienced.
"We've got a staff of guys who have mostly been role players or behind the scenes guys over the past couple of seasons. But, they are guys that have a strong desire to step-up and do something significant this year as go-to guys," said Moranda. "Keying our success will be throwing strikes - pitchers executing within the strike zone - and limiting the number of freebies in walks and hit batters. We have to execute to allow our defense to play behind us."
"There's a lot of guys who are going to get opportunities who've had limited roles in the past. There are some new guys who are going to get huge roles right off the bat. We've got to have a lot of guys step up," he added.
WCU's experience factor was dealt a blow during the fall practices as returning junior RHP Taylor Sandefur suffered a shoulder injury that is expected to keep him sidelined through the 2012 season.
Leading among the returning pitchers who saw the most action a season ago is sophomore RHP Jordan Smith, who was thrust into a weekend starting role a year ago. He finished with a team-high six victories including a pair of complete game shutout victories - the most for a Catamount freshman pitcher since 1999.
The staff features three seniors, all of which hope to take a bigger role in their final season. Fifth-year left-handed senior Vance Chavis - the recipient of the "Leggett No. 7 Legacy" this year - is joined by righties Andrew Blackwell and Darron Dotson, all expected to come out of the bullpen, but did combine for three starts in 2011.
Among the seven juniors are five returning pitchers Sandefur, Adam Curtis, Preston Hatcher, Jeremy Sluder and Morgan McKinney who combined for 81 appearances and 16 starts. Junior transfers Jon Nadale (Petaoma, Calif.) and Hunter Brister (Pleasant Grove, Ala.) will be called upon to add experience to the staff.
Highly touted newcomers Jeremy Null (Claremont, N.C.) - who was drafted in the 37th round of the Major League Baseball First-year Player Draft by Seattle last year - and Tyler Powell (Charlotte, N.C.) headline four freshman arms. Crafty leftie William Frazier (Charlotte, N.C.) and right-hander Danny Schneider (Roswell, Ga.) will be counted upon to add depth to the pitching staff for Moranda and the Catamounts.