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College Baseball: Great expectations for Catawba

By Mike London

mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Expectations are higher than the walls at Newman Park as Catawba starts a new baseball season.
Catawba went 47-15 in 2015, and the Indians were the runner-up in the NCAA Division II World Series to national champion Tampa. Polls say Catawba enters this season as the favorite in the Southeast Region as well as the South Atlantic Conference. On top of that, there’s a lofty preseason No. 2 national ranking (behind Tampa).
“You’d always rather be the king of the hill than the underdog, but we know that No. 2 ranking is based on last year,” Catawba coach Jim Gantt said. “We lost a whole lot and we’re taking on, by far, the toughest schedule we’ve ever had. We could go down to Florida and come back as No 102.”
Catawba leaves early Thursday for three games in the Sunshine State where the weather projects to be friendly and the competition promises to be unfriendly. Opening day is Friday night against Barry in Miami Shores.
“It’ll be a challenge,” Gantt said. “We haven’t been able to get on the field much, and those Florida teams have been practicing in good weather. It’s too early for us to be very good, but we’ll see.”
Catawba’s first eight games will be on the road. The home opener at Newman Park isn’t until Feb. 20.
Catawba isn’t missing quantity from last year’s run, but it is missing quality.
Gone is Chicago Cubs draft pick Craig Brooks, the best all-round ballplayer in Division II a year ago. He was a 9-1 pitcher, a sure-handed third baseman and a .300 hitter with some power.
Also gone are center fielder/leadoff man Blake Houston, slugger/catcher T.J. Wharton and reliever Ryan McClintock.
McClintock was 6-0 and pitched in 35 of Catawba’s 62 games. Wharton (10 homers, 58 RBIs) protected all-world No. 3 hitter Will Albertson in the lineup. Houston put up unreal numbers and got on base 47 percent of the time. He led Division II in walks and his 79 runs scored tied him for second.
“Blake was our motor, the guy who made us go,” Gantt said. “All four of those guys mattered a lot. Great leaders and great players.”
Still, the cupboard is hardly bare. Albertson, who was drafted late by the New York Yankees last June, was a superhero with a bat in his hands after transferring from Campbell.
No one in SAC history had even put up an offensive season like Albertson did. His .467 batting average led the nation. His 26 homers and 91 RBIs were league records.
“It’s unrealistic to expect Will to put up numbers like that again because teams simply aren’t going to let him put up those numbers,” Gantt said. “A key part of our season is going to come down to the guy hitting behind Will. If that guy struggles, then we might struggle.”
On opening day, the guy batting cleanup behind Albertson probably is going to be Malachi Hanes. Hanes is a junior with limited career at-bats but limitless potential. A lefty hitter, he has home-run power and fine speed. He hasn’t put it all together yet, but he’s going to get a chance to make it happen.
Catawba’s offense gets a big lift from two Division I transfers.
Jake Kimble, a senior who has ben playing at Liberty, will take over as the shortstop and leadoff man, with last season’s starting shortstop Dylan Richardson (49 RBIs, .340 batting average) sliding over to second base.
Kimble’s best Liberty season came as a freshman when he started 34 games at third base for the Flames. He won a game against Duke with a squeeze bunt. He had three RBIs in a Big South tournament game against Coastal Carolina and he produced three hits in a regional game against Clemson.
Also joining the Indians is Zac Almond, a hard-hitting catcher who started three games last season at UNC Greensboro as a freshman. The plan is for Almond and Albertson to split catching duties. Whoever isn’t catching is almost certain to be in the lineup as a corner outfielder or as the designated hitter.
Three sophomores are returning starters — first baseman Chance Bowden (50 RBIs), right fielder Luke Setzer (.290, 31 RBIs) and lefty-hitting infielder Kyle Smith (30 RBIs), who will open the season as the starting third baseman.
Bowden and Setzer also bring exceptional defense to the table.
Emmitt Carden, who has terrific speed, gets the first chance to replace Houston in center field.
When Catawba needs extra offense, Gantt will plug Austin Stilley into the lineup. The lefty swinger came though with big hits late last season. Sam Laws showed immense power in the fall and could get chances as the DH.
“We’ve got more speed in the lineup,” Gantt said. “And we’ve got a good mix of left-handed and right-handed hitters.”
As far as pitching, Shaefer Shepard, a preseason all-region pick, is ready to take over as the staff ace. Shepard was 11-4 last season with 80 strikeouts.
There’s less certainty behind Shepard, but Gantt said lefties Russ Weiker (4-2) and Sean Grant (2-2) followed up heroic efforts in last year’s regional and World Series with excellent work during the fall.
Gantt added that Avery Bowles, freshman Riley Myers, Will Beeson and Michael Elwell (who missed most of last season with an injury) have all looked good.
Bryan Blanton (2-2, two saves) figures to head a deep bullpen committee.
“We’ve got a lot of pitching depth, and that’s going to help us,” Gantt said. “We don’t have a Brooks-like guy, but we should be able to match-up late, get guys out and win our share.”
Catawba winning its “share” should happen again. Gantt, the SAC Coach of the Year seven times, has coached 16 straight teams to at least 30 wins. He wasn’t inducted into two Halls of Fame (American Legion and Catawba) last year for nothing.
•••
Rowan players on the roster include Setzer and pitcher Connor Johnson (East Rowan), Bowden and Myers (Salisbury), outfielder Harrison Baucom and infielder Jeremy Simpson (West Rowan) and pitcher/DH Heath Mitchem (Carson). … Houston and Wharton are part of a coaching staff that includes Michael Lowman, Kevin Hamilton and Sandy Moore. …
Gantt said Saturday’s First Pitch Dinner, despite weather issues, was “an unbelievable success.” Catawba baseball got a check for $25,000. “Marty Brennaman was great and a lot of good people did everything that needed to be done to make it work,” Gantt said. “The money raised will help every baseball player have a better experience at Catawba.”

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