Big South teams again chasing Coastal

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The Big South has been Coastal Carolina and everyone else the past few seasons.

Perhaps that won’t be the case this season.

The Chanticleers welcome back several key hitters and pitchers from a team that finished last season with a 47-16 record.

Liberty and Winthrop will attempt to challenge the Chants.

The Flames are seasoned and experienced and expect to be in the regional hunt. The Eagles are close to fully recovering from some growing pains a few seasons ago. They finished last season with 35 wins and expect even more this season.

It’s time to take an inside look at the Big South.

HOW THEY STACK UP

1. Coastal Carolina – The Chanticleers return a fantastic one-two punch in Anthony Meo and Cody Wheeler. They also welcome back a potent offense. This could be the year the Chants take the next step.

2. Liberty – The Flames hope to take another step forward this season with the return of eight position starters and a few very talented pitchers.

3. Winthrop – The Eagles could return to the regional picture this season with the return of several key players both at the plate and on the mound.

4. Radford – The Highlanders hope to improve on last season’s solid conference campaign. They welcome back some key cogs both at the plate and on the mound.

5. Virginia Military – The Keydets had an ’09 campaign to forget, but have renewed hope with the return of seven position starters.

6. Charleston Southern – The Buccaneers pretty much welcome back all their key players. This could be the year they take a step forward.

7. High Point – The Panthers have plenty of questions to answer on the mound before expecting too much success this season.

8. Gardner-Webb – The Bulldogs lost several seniors from a team that finished last season with a .500 record. Trouble could be on the horizon.

9. Presbyterian – To no surprise, the Blue Hose didn’t have much success last season. Can they find a way to move forward in 2010?

10. UNC Asheville – The Bulldogs hope to begin the Tom Smith era on the right foot, but accomplishing that goal could be difficult.

ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM

C Eddie Rohan, Winthrop

1B Adam Rice, Coastal Carolina

2B Matt Thielepape, Winthrop

SS Jeff Kemp, Radford

3B Scott Woodward, Coastal Carolina

OF Rico Noel, Coastal Carolina

OF Curran Redal, Liberty

OF Daniel Bowman, Coastal Carolina

DH Jordan Ballard, Virginia Military

SP Anthony Meo, Coastal Carolina

SP Cody Wheeler, Coastal Carolina

SP Shawn Teufel, Liberty

RP Tyler Mizenko, Winthrop

RISING STOCK

Coastal Carolina pitcher Cody Wheeler – Wheeler has transformed into one of the nation’s better pitchers in the last year. Wheeler had an average freshman campaign for the Chanticleers, but rose to the occasion as a sophomore last season. Coastal once again is counting on Wheeler to have a productive campaign.

Liberty coach Jim Toman – The Flames knew they had a good one when they hired Toman from South Carolina. Now, the nation is catching wind of what Toman is able to accomplish. Liberty has finished the last two seasons with 30-plus wins and will contend for a regional berth this spring.

Winthrop – The Eagles just now have completely recovered from losing pitchers Alex Wilson and Jason Franzblau a couple of seasons ago. The Eagles used to be a consistent regional contender. Now, coach Joe Hudak hopes to return the program to an NCAA regional this season.

Liberty outfielder Curran Redal – Redal was an unknown on the national stage entering last season after spending two seasons at the junior college level. But now Redal is a household name in the Big South. Look for the senior to have another productive offensive campaign.

FALLING STOCK

Gardner-Webb – The Bulldogs finished in the top half of the conference last season, but will take a step back this season with the departure of several key players. Another top half finish certainly would be a surprise.

UNC Asheville – They made a coaching change during the offseason, but their stock plummeted after last season. Asheville recorded 24 wins two seasons ago but only won nine games last season. Perhaps new skipper Tom Smith knows what it takes to turn the tide.

BEST PITCHER

LHP Cody Wheeler, Coastal Carolina

The Chanticleers have a fantastic staff ace in the junior left-hander. Wheeler had a sensational sophomore campaign and hopes to have an even better draft year. The lefty finished last season with a 10-1 record and a 3.83 ERA in 91 2/3 innings. He also struck out 98 and walked 34 and limited opposing teams to a .222 batting average. Wheeler also threw a complete game.

BEST HITTER

OF Curran Redal, Liberty

Redal is a huge reason the Flames made a statement last season. He also is a reason why the Flames may make an NCAA regional this season. Redal finished last season with a .380 batting average, 13 doubles, four triples, six homers and 42 RBIs. He also slugged .563 and had a .447 on-base percentage. Also impressive is the fact Redal finished last season with 16 walks and just 10 strikeouts.

REGIONAL CONTENDERS

Coastal Carolina, Liberty, Winthrop

If history is any indication, it’s safe to say the Big South at most will be a two-bid league this season. Coastal Carolina has absolutely dominated the conference postseason picture the past few seasons. But teams such as Liberty and Winthrop also could fight for regional bids. The Flames are expected to finish second in the Big South and could earn an at-large bid with a fantastic record. Winthrop is a very long shot to earn an at-large bid, but has more than enough talent and experience to earn the league’s automatic berth by winning the conference tournament.

QUICK HITS

• UNC Asheville decided to make a coaching change after finishing last season with a 9-42 record. It promoted assistant Tom Smith to head coach. Smith spent two seasons as an assistant for the Bulldogs. But before joining Asheville, Smith was one of the state’s best high school coaches. It’ll be interesting to see if Smith can have the same success at the college level.

• Coastal Carolina first baseman Adam Rice had shoulder surgery during fall workouts, but the injury wasn’t too serious. The Chanticleers expect Rice to be ready to roll by Opening Day against West Virginia.

• Coastal Carolina third baseman Scott Woodward had a fabulous freshman campaign and entered last season with high hopes. However, an injury only allowed Woodward 134 at bats. Finally back and healthy, the Chants obviously expect a huge campaign from the talented infielder.

• Liberty will be without the services of right-handed pitcher Mark Swanson this season because of an injury. Swanson made just seven appearances last season, but compiled an impressive 2.79 ERA in 38 2/3 innings. He also limited opposing teams to a .230 batting average. The Flames definitely could use his arm this season.

• Winthrop has several reasons to be excited about this season. The Eagles return 59 of 60 starts from last season. Also, they welcome back pitchers Dom Patterozzi and Cam Walters from injuries. Patterozzi made five starts last season before labrum surgery ended his campaign. He is fully recovered and will be ready opening weekend. Walters, meanwhile, had a bone chip and didn’t pitch last season. He had the chip removed and also will be ready to pitch opening weekend. Both pitchers will help the Eagles.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Jan 31, 2010