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In-state baseball preview

The Gamecocks typically make it a point to play many of the programs around the Palmetto State. Here’s a look at some of the top teams South Carolina has on the 2011 slate.

Clemson has its eyes focused on going to Omaha for the second straight year.

Clemson

A College World Series team a season ago, Clemson returns a lot of its team from a 45-25 season in 2010. The Tigers were bounced by South Carolina in Omaha bringing to an end a strong late-season run. Entering his 18th season with the Tigers, head coach Jack Leggett has a few key members of that squad to replace but his team is picked by many as not only an ACC title contender but a potential CWS team.

Key returners: 1B Richie Shaffer (.323, 7 HR, 0 errors); SS Brad Miller (.357, 3rd team All-American); LF Jeff Schaus (.320, 87 RBI, two-time All-ACC); RHP Scott Weisman (9-2, nearly 100 IP, heavy fastball)
Key losses: OF Wilson Boyd; OF Kyle Parker; RHP Casey Harman
Impact newcomer: IF Steve Wilkerson (6-1, 195)
In short: Clemson has plenty of talent returning and shouldn’t have too much of a problem filling the holes vacated by players who graduated or left early for the draft. The toughest spot to fill will ultimately be the innings lost with the departure of Harman. RHP Kevin Brady is one player I expect to emerge on the weekend this season and work to fill Harman’s shoes. A staff loaded with right-handers, the Tigers aren’t going to be able to mix and match very often. David Haselden and Alex Fredrick are the late inning pitchers and key guys out of the bullpen. Freshman Kevin Pohle is one newcomer to watch on the mound.

The Tigers shouldn’t have much of a problem scoring runs with middle-of-the-order hitters Schaffer, Schaus, and Miller in the lineup. Catchers Spencer Kieboom and Phil Pohl will see time both behind the plate and at designated hitter this season for the Tigers. One of my keys to the season for the Tigers is the play of the outfielders aside from Schaus. Centerfielder Will Lamb is one of the best athletes in the ACC standing 6-foot-6 but with plenty of speed to burn. He will have to be able to get on base though. An enigma for most of his career, Chris Epps has always put forth his best games against South Carolina but looking at career statistics, they’re nothing to gloat over. A left-handed hitter with good pop and great speed, Epps also needs to get on base at a much higher rate this season if he wants to stay in his leadoff role.

It should be a good season for the Tigers if they get production from the upperclassmen and also have a few arms emerge in the bullpen. Clemson and Florida State should battle down to the wire for the division title and are two of the top three teams in the ACC.

Furman

Perennially picked right around eighth in the Southern Conference, Furman is right there again this year in 2011. The Paladins are coming off a 19-37 season last year from a team that didn’t have a whole lot of pitching. The good news is, most of the players are back, including SoCon Freshman of the Year Will Muzika, who hit .329 with 14 home runs and 55 RBIs during his first season. Furman is shooting for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.

Key returners: 2B Will Muzika (.329, 14 HR, SoCon FOTY); LF Will Owens (.351, 8 HR, 2nd team All-SoCon); 1B Aaron Thompkins (.342, 30 RBIs); RHP Daniel Stallsmith (5-3, 10 saves, likely weekend starter in 2010)
Key losses: 3B Brian Harrison; RHP Ian Parry
Impact newcomers: 2B Hunter Burton; OF Heath Burton
In short: The Paladins lost two of their weekend starting pitchers from a year ago but it may be addition by subtraction given the struggles on the mound last year. Furman walked way too many hitters a year ago and a new rotation of Bobby Lyne, Daniel Stallsmith, and Tyler Wood may be the ticket. Wood, a freshman, was dominant this fall and spring for the Paladins and is a player the coaching staff has high hopes for. Lyne is a pitcher who really pounds the zone, something that Furman needs. Matt Plate is another pitcher to watch as he’s the hardest thrower on the staff but can be a bit inconsistent at times.

First baseman Aaron Thompkins hit .342 last season for the Paladins.

In the field, the main man to watch is Muzika, who will play both at second and in center this season for the Paladins. Muzika is one of the best all-around players for Furman in recent years but another player looking to emerge as one of the elite is Will Miller, a junior who started every game last year and hit .313. He could make the next step. Two newcomers to watch are twin brothers Heath and Hunter Burton. Hunter, primarily a second baseman, is also being cross-trained center because of his play throughout the fall and preseason given Muzika’s stranglehold on the infield position. Heath is likely to make some starts in center against left-handed pitchers and could see his innings increase as well depending on production during his opportunities.

Furman’s success this year will have a lot to do with how the young pitchers from last year have matured. The bats should be able to provide enough offense for the Paladins to be successful but the arms have to come through.

College of Charleston

College of Charleston was one borderline call from coming to Columbia last season for a Super Regional showdown with South Carolina, the former employer of head coach Monte Lee. The Cougars were 44-19 a season ago based primarily on the strength of their hitting. The good news is, most of those sluggers return from last year and CofC adds one of the top junior college players in the area with the arrival of Marty Gantt.

Key returners: OF Cole Rakar (Preseason POTY, .378, 31 multi-hit games in 2010); OF Jose Rodriguez (.355, 16 HR); C Rob Kral (Led SoCon with .482 OBP, .344, 15 HR)
Key losses: 2B Joey Bergman; RHP Kevin Decker
Impact newcomer: OF/LHP Marty Gantt
In short: There is a lot to be excited about in Charleston this season as many of the big bats return from a powerful lineup that was literally inches from being a Super Regional team a year ago. Lee has the program on firm footing but it will be interesting to see how his sluggers swing the new bats. Preseason SoCon Player of the Year Cole Rakar is dynamic both at the plate and in the field while players like Gantt, Rodriguez, Matt Leeds and Daniel Aldrich will drive in the runs. Scoring won’t be a problem for the Cougars this season.

Where it will get interesting this season is on the mound. Most of the pitchers return from a year ago and there are some new arms in the squad that should help out. In 2010, CofC had a staff earned run average of 5.41 and the opposition hit .319. Those numbers will certainly need to decrease. Gantt will make an impact at the plate from day one but can also help on the mound. Starter David Peterson is a key arm on the staff this year as is reliever Casey Lucchese. Pitching performance will determine just how deep College of Charleston can go this season because it certainly has the sticks to be a Super Regional team.

Wofford

Head coach Todd Interdonato returns for his fourth season as head coach at Wofford coming off a 17-38 year. The good news is, all but one contributor returns from last year. The bad news is, the record wasn’t too good. The Terriers had a staff earned run average last year of 7.87 and one needs to look no further than that number to find the reason for the record.

Catcher Mac Doyle is one of the top backstops in the Southern Conference.

Key returners: C Mac Doyle (.377, 16 HR, 75 RBI); OF James Foster (.387, 35 RBI); RHP John Cornely (6.41, 3-7, 78.2 IP); LHP Cash Collins (6.00, 1-2, 33 app)
Key losses: OF Kyle Behrendt
Impact newcomer: IF Josh Hyman
In short: We’ll see just how much experience benefits the Terriers this season. Basically everyone returns – position players and pitchers. The same guys will be counted on this season as were counted on last season but performances have to improve. Catcher Mac Doyle is one of the top backstops in the Southern Conference while James Foster has proven to be one of the better on-base percentage guys. Players like Josh McKinney and Alex Lee are going to have to improve their numbers, get on base more, and drive guys in.

Hitting production will be all for naught though if the pitchers can’t find a way to get the opposition out. The numbers – both collectively and individually – were atrocious last season. No pitcher had a sub-6 ERA. One pitcher had an opposing batting average under .300, and no pitcher had a better than .500 record. Wofford has enough hitters to be a mid-pack SoCon team but the pitching staff has to find a way to get some outs.

The Citadel

Head coach Fred Jordan enters his 21st year with The Citadel and is coming off one of his finest seasons with the team. The Bulldogs were 43-22, 24-6 in the SoCon, but lost a lot of what made them a Regional team a year ago. Pitcher Asher Wojciechowski and infielder Bryan Altman were the team’s top players and both have departed for the professional ranks.

Key returners: Justin Mackert (.335, 5 HR, 38 RBI); Nick Orvin (.335, 7 HR, .430 OBP); LHP Matt Talley (3.71, 8-3, 104.1 IP, 32bb/85k); LHP Drew Mahaffey (4.75 ERA, 4-3, 7 saves)
Key losses: Asher Wojciechowski; Bryan Altman
Impact newcomer: INF Calvin Orth
In short: It will be very difficult for the team to achieve the kind of success this season as it did last season. However, the Bulldogs’ fuel last year was people on the outside not believing so it could be much of the same this year. What The Citadel had last year that it doesn’t have as much of this year is front-line talent. There weren’t many better players at their positions than Wojciechowski and Altman and the task to replace them is a remarkable one. Middle infielder Calvin Orth is one player to watch for this year and should be a fixture as a starter at shortstop.

The Bulldogs do have two of the better arms in the Southern Conference in southpaws Matt Talley and Drew Mahaffey. Talley was largely overshadowed last year by Wojciechowski but it will be his turn to shine as a senior. Mahaffey, the team’s closer, will hope to get some chances on a staff that has to replace 125 innings from Wojciechowski.

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