Feb. 16, 2012
Cullowhee, N.C. - Western Carolina starts its quest for a 21st Southern Conference championship this Friday as the first pitch flies in the 2012 season at Childress Field / Hennon Stadium. The Catamounts host Fordham in a three-game nonconference series to open the fifth year under head coach Bobby Morandaand staff.
Due to unfavorable weekend weather forecasts, officials at WCU have made changes to the opening weekend schedule. The Catamounts and Rams will now play a double-header on opening day Friday with first pitch slated for 3:00 pm and the second game starting 30 minutes after. UPDATE: The third game of the series has been bumped to a 1:00 pm scheduled start time on Saturday, but still may change due to weather. Fans are encouraged to check CatamountSports.com for the latest weather-related schedule changes.
Live GameTracker coverage of this weekend's series will be available online at www.CatamountSports.com.
Opening weekend in Cullowhee will pit the Catamounts (23-31-1 in 2011) against the Fordham Rams (31-23-1 in 2011) out of the Atlantic 10 Conference in the first-ever meeting between the two programs on the diamond. Picked seventh in the 13-team A-10, the Rams are under the direction of first-year head coach Kevin Leighton, who most recently coached the Manhattan Jaspers who played in Cullowhee last season.
Fordham boasts the oldest and winningest baseball program in NCAA history, compiling 4,074 all-time victories, over 800 wins more than second place Texas (3,246). Except for 1944, the Fordham baseball program has played every year since 1859.
Entering this season, the Rams return five starting position players and 13 pitchers from last year's squad. Fordham just missed the A-10 championship game a season ago
"Fordham has a great program and a great coach in Kevin Leighton who is accustomed to winning games and going to the NCAA regional," said Moranda. "I expect them to be a very competitive, well-coached team coming to our home ball park to open the season. The key for us is to execute our system and play Catamount baseball. I am very confident that we'll come out and do that in this three-game series."
The Rams are expected to start a trio of right-handed hurlers in their first of five games in the state of North Carolina. Sophomore Chris Pike, an honorable mention all-conference and all-rookie team selection a year ago, will start on Friday with Joseph Charest on Saturday and returning Jordan Grangard - who missed the 2011 season due to injury - on Sunday afternoon. Grangard boasted a 1.74 ERA in 22 appearances in 2010.
Among Fordham's returnees are senior captains Brian Kownacki and Ryan Maghini, as well as the sophomore pitching trio of Pike, Tim Swatek and Jonathan Reich - all of whom were selected as Freshman All-Americans in 2011. Kownacki and Maghini return for their final season on the left side of the infield, after starting all 55 games in 2011, where the duo combined for 60 runs scored, 48 RBI, and close to 30 stolen bases.
Western Carolina finished 23-31-1 last year, the program's first non-winning season since finishing 28-31 back in 2004. Moranda and the Catamounts return six of its eight position players from a season ago, but just one weekend pitching starter from the close of the year. 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).
In an effort to gain playing exposure for many of his young players, Moranda scheduled an off-season game during fall workouts at the University of Tennessee. The team traveled to Knoxville for a scrimmage in mid-October which Moranda feels was invaluable to his squad.
"Playing that game at Tennessee during the fall was big for us. It was a great experience for our younger players to get into a NCAA Division I baseball game," said Moranda of the off-season, unofficial competition.
The Catamounts will start last year's leader in wins in sophomore Jordan Smith, who compiled six victories including a pair of complete games. The Liberty, N.C., native is pegged as the second-consecutive sophomore to be named the opening-day starter for WCU as Taylor Sandefurstarted - and earned the victory - in the first game of 2011.
"Jordan is our most experienced pitcher as a sophomore," said Moranda. "We need him to elevate his game to another level this year - and he has worked hard to do so. He's added a couple more pitches to his arsenal."
The Catamounts are expected to start redshirt junior Morgan McKinney on Saturday afternoon with true freshman Jeremy Nulltoeing the rubber on Sunday afternoon in the series finale. Coming off of off-season surgery a year ago, McKinney was used in a limited role a season ago, mostly in left-on-left situation. He made 26 appearances - second on the team - but only accounted for 9.1 innings with 14 strikeouts. Sunday's starter, Null, was selected in the 37th round of last year's Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Seattle Mariners.
Western Carolina has won three-straight opening-day games - and three of the four previous under Moranda. The Catamounts have managed to win five-straight opening weekend series including sweeping the last three, all under Moranda.
First pitch of Friday's double-header is scheduled for 3:00 pm.
WCU Projected Opening Weekend Pitching Rotation:
Friday - Gm 1 - WCU: Jordan Smith, So., RHP - 6-7, 5.29 ERA in 2011
Friday - Gm 2 - WCU: Morgan McKinney, R-Jr., LHP - 0-1, 8.68 ERA in 2011
Saturday - Gm 3 - WCU: Jeremy Null, Fr., RHP
WCU Projected Opening Day Starting Lineup:
C - Adam Martin, So. - .291 average with 7 doubles, 5 home runs and 24 RBI
1B - Tyler White, Jr. - .289 average with 10 doubles, 2 home runs, 27 RBI and 10 stolen bases
2B - Ross Heffley, Sr. - SoCon-leading .419 average, 18 doubles, 11 home runs, 65 RBI
SS - Aaron Attaway, So. - .293 average, 8 doubles, 1 home run, 9 stolen bases
3B - Bradley Strong, Fr.
LF - Bryant Noteboom, Jr. - .250 average with three doubles
CF - Julian Ridings, So. - .239 average, 4 doubles, 3 stolen bases
RF - Dykota Spiess, So. - .209 average, 5 doubles, 2 home runs
DH - Jacob Hoyle, Fr.