Greenville, S.C. - Second-seeded Western Carolina is scheduled to open its Southern Conference tournament title defense against No. 7 ETSU in the third game of the first full day of competition at Fluor Field in Greenville. First pitch is slated for 4:00 pm, though preceding games and weather forecasts could alter the day's schedule.
For the first-time in 14 years, WCU will for the 10th time vie for consecutive conference tournament championship crowns -- a feat which has not been accomplished since The Citadel won back-to-back tournament titles in 1998 and 1999.
"We're very excited to get started; this is what we've been working for all year," said WCU head coach Bobby Moranda, who is in his 10th season in Cullowhee. "We feel that the schedule that we have played this year has prepared us for this moment. This is the culmination of what you play for all year long; you just have to lay it on the line for five days here in May."
Moranda added, "We are very happy to be in Greenville to compete for the championship; and are happy that the tournament is back in Greenville. It's a great stadium, great surface -- outstanding place to have the tournament. Win-or-lose, I just think it's a great place to play."
Fans can follow every game of the Southern Conference Baseball Championship, presented by Holston Gases, with live video coverage online through the SoCon Digital Network. Coverage of each game WCU plays in the tournament will be available with live streaming audio from the Catamount Sports Network online at CatamountSports.com.
The 2017 SoCon Baseball Championship, presented by Holston Gases, opened on Tuesday after a six and a half hour rain delay as No. 9 seed VMI upset eighth-seeded The Citadel and SoCon Pitcher of the Year, J.P. Sears. The Keydets advance into the double-elimination portion of the event and will face top-seeded Mercer in game two on Wednesday at approximately 12:30 pm after Upstate rivals No. 4 Furman and No. 5 Wofford open play at 9:00 am.
Wednesday's play concludes with third-seeded UNCG facing No. 6 Samford, with WCU facing one of those two squads on Thursday. The winner of the double-elimination tournament will secure the SoCon's automatic bid to NCAA post-season tournament.
Entering Wednesday's play, Moranda feels that the conference this year is as balanced as ever, which he feels will make for a tough -- but very exciting -- tournament.
"The parody in our league is outstanding this year," said Moranda. "There are some very good teams top-to-bottom with some outstanding players; it's a very competitive league and honestly, nationally, an underrated league. Looking forward to a very competitive tournament."
Western Carolina (28-26, 15-8 SoCon) enters the 2017 conference tournament as one of the top two seeds for the fourth time in the past five years -- doing so as the No. 1 seed in 2013 and 2014, while duplicating the No. 2 seed for a second-straight season this year. The Catamounts enter post-season on the strength of back-to-back wins over regular season champion, Mercer, last weekend, and have won four of their last six overall including 2-of-3 at Ball State.
WCU's first-round opponent, ETSU (27-27, 9-15 SoCon) likewise enters the post-season on an up-swing, sweeping VMI on the road to close the regular season and avoid Tuesday's single-elimination game. The Buccaneers have won seven of their last nine which included taking 2-of-3 at home over Samford.
The two mountain-rivals have squared off seven times previously in the conference tournament with WCU leading in those meetings, 5-2. The Catamounts and Bucs last met in the conference tournament in 1999, a 7-5 victory in Charleston, S.C.
Taking the mound in the starting role for Western Carolina is second team All-Southern Conference selection, senior left-hander Bryan Sammons (8-3). The Wilmington, N.C., native has matched his career-high with eight victories, while posting a career-low seasonal ERA of 3.08 with a career-best 102 strikeouts, 62 of which came in league play. ETSU will counter with South Carolina native, senior RHP Blake Smith.
WCU swept ETSU in Johnson City during the regular season, stretching its current series winning streak to five-straight. The Catamounts edged the Bucs, 5-4, in 12 innings to take the series opener before winning 9-6 on Saturday and 11-6 on Sunday. Sammons struck out seven over six innings while allowing three runs on five hits in a no-decision in Friday's series opener. In the Sunday game, Smith surrendered 12 hits over six innings, but limited WCU to just four runs with five strikeouts in taking the loss.
A combined seven All-SoCon selections will square-off in the WCU-ETSU match-up. WCU had five players tally post-season honors including SoCon Player of the Year -- and first-team outfielder -- Bryson Bowman who was joined on the first team by second baseman Nobu Suzuki. Sammons and shortstop Brett Pope collected second team honors, while outfielder Andrew Robinson was named to the All-Freshman team. Preseason Player of the Year, ETSU catcher Hagen Owenby was a first team selection while infielder Cullen Smith was named to the All-Freshman squad.
Making the program's 33rd tournament appearance all-time -- the most in SoCon history -- the Catamounts hold an all-time record of 72-49 at the conference championship event -- just one victory shy of matching The Citadel for the most wins at the tournament all-time. WCU has won a league-record 10 SoCon tournament titles -- two more than the closest team, The Citadel, with Furman (2) the only other school remaining in the league with more than one title, with Mercer, Samford, and Wofford each winning one apiece.
A veteran collegiate coach, Moranda has a simple philosophy on what it takes to win in tournament play.
"You've have to have a desire to win that dominates," Moranda summed. "A double-elimination tournament allows you to make adjustments and fight on; but it's the team with the most desire and that refuses to lose will be the one that walks away with the championship."
* NOTE: Be sure to keep track of any weather-related schedule changes online at CatamountSports.com or through WCU Athletics' social media outlets on Facebook (fb.com/catamountsports) and Twitter (@catamounts or @WCUCatamountBSB).
Projected Pitching Match-Up:
WCU -- Senior LHP Bryan Sammons (8-3, 3.08 ERA) vs. ETSU -- Senior RHP Blake Smith (4-6, 5.08 ERA)