Cullowhee, N.C. - With the blue-collar workmanship that is synonymous with Western Carolina Catamount baseball, this year's squad quietly went about its business during the 2015 fall workouts which concluded in mid-October.
The Catamounts moved their fall practice schedule to earlier this year in an effort to capitalize on the late summer, early fall weather conditions. WCU opened fall practice on September 1 and concluded at the university's fall break. The earlier start has also allowed the squad to shift focus from the field as a team to more individual development and to the weight room and the strength & conditioning portion of preparing for next season.
Head coach Bobby Moranda -- who is entering his ninth season at the helm in Cullowhee -- is flanked by three new assistant coaches for the first time this fall. Moranda brought in former Valdosta State assistant coach -- and a former teammate at Eastern Kentucky -- in veteran coach Todd Guilliams, along with Nate Cocolin, who served as head coach at Gannon University for eight seasons, as his full-time assistants.
Brock Doud, the program's volunteer assistant, likewise brings a wealth of experience to Cullowhee with seven years of experience at both the junior college and NCAA Division II level between Hope College, Kalamazoo College and Valdosta State.
"I thought it was an excellent fall. The guys worked really hard," said Bobby Moranda. "We had the new staff out there making some changes, making some adjustments, and trying some new things. And our guys adapted, they did well."
"We got a lot of intrasquads (scrimmages) in because the weather was outstanding in September. The main thing we wanted to get across this fall is that we wanted to watch our guys compete. With three new coaches, I think it was important for us to play a lot of games," said Moranda.
Catcher Danny Bermudez was the top hitter during the fall, collecting a combined batting average of .667 (16-of-24) with eight walks in the squad's Fall World Series competition. Infielder Brett Pope (.467) and outfielders Garrett Brown (.400) and Matthew Koehler (.438) each collected the second-most hits during the series with 14. Pope recorded the most quality at bats with 30 in 41 plate appearances, drawing seven walks and a pair of HBPs, while Brown tallied a team-high three stolen bases.
Caleb Robinson was close behind with 13 hits and a .382 batting average among the highlights for WCU.
Overall, Moranda stated that the early fall portion of off-season practice was spent on team instruction and less on individual work, shifting gears into the more individual focus since and during the winter months.
"We've seen a lot of guys making adjustments, a lot of good aptitude with our new players and we're seeing guys improve immediately," Moranda added.
Western Carolina is coming off of a 21-30 season that saw a good deal of adversity, especially from the injury front. For a second-straight year, the Catamounts dealt with the loss of the Southern Conference's preseason player of the year. Two years ago, it was shortstop Aaron Attaway who went down with a nagging wrist injury, and last spring, hard-hitting first baseman, slugger Jacob Hoyle was out of the lineup creating a void both offensively and on the right side of the infield.
The Catamounts also lost starting shortstop J.D. Long to a season-ending injury, with starting center fielder Matt Smith sidelined off-and-on throughout the season because of a variety of ailments. The pitching staff wasn't immune as relievers Colton Davis and Jonathan Waszak fought through injuries, and even ace closer Tyler Powell played the final regular season series and tournament not at 100-percent.
Long, Davis, and Waszak are expected to return to form as each returned and contributed in practice this fall.
On the flip side, the injuries did, however, allow numerous underclassmen to get into the lineup and become impact players. Three freshmen including infielder Brett Pope, outfielder Matthew Koehler and designated hitter, redshirt freshman Pierce Suttles -- who hit four home runs -- saw an increase in playing time. Suttles missed most of fall practice with shoulder surgery -- but is expected back in the spring.
Moranda returns six regular starters from a year ago including Bermudez; infielders Pope and Reece Strong; and outfielders Koehler, Smith, and Ferrell. Other returning position players that saw ample playing time -- including some starts -- a season ago include infielders Robinson and Jason Smith; speedy outfielder, Brown; and back-up catcher, Spencer Holcomb, who found a solid swing by season's end in 2015.
WCU returns strong arms on the pitching staff including starters in juniors Korey Anderson and Bryan Sammons, with sophomore Brendan Nail moving back into a potential starting role. Other returning pitchers include senior Taylor Durand; juniors Dillon Bray and B.J. Nobles; and second-year arms of Dylan Biumi and Corey Sikes, both of which were key in the stretch run a season ago.
The Catamount roster also features 11 new names including four junior transfers and seven freshmen.
"We're still young; but we had a lot of young guys get great experience last year," said Moranda. "We've still got a ways to go -- we're not there yet. But I like this club. I like these guys, we've got some great people. We just need some guys to step up -- we lost some great players off the team from last year, but we do have a lot of guys back. I'm looking forward to seeing these guys compete -- and we're very excited about 2016."
Western Carolina's 2016 schedule will be released in the coming days, but will feature a challenge non-conference slate leading up to a highly-competitive Southern Conference ledger. The 2016 SoCon Baseball Championship will be held May 24-29 at Fluor Field at the West End in Greenville, S.C.