by John Vittas
Call it the tournament of elite mascots. The Caravelle Regional Tournament in Myrtle Beach features the Hilltoppers, Golden Griffins, Monarchs, Chanticleers and Terrapins. I mean, really, find me a weakness.
But while you may think the tournament depth ends with the mascot discussion, think again. All five of these teams are likely to be winning clubs and all have a legitimate chance at reaching the NCAA Tournament. In fact, Canisius is a heavy favorite to win the MAAC, while Coastal Carolina and Old Dominion are already considered bubble teams. So Western Kentucky should be an easy win, right? Not exactly. The Hilltoppers batted .307 in conference play last year (.291 overall) and return six of their nine starters.
So while Maryland’s overall season schedule may be weaker than last year’s, their first seven games are against surprisingly talented rosters (UCF, South Alabama and Arkansas next weekend are just as good, if not better).
Here are this weekend’s starting pitching matchups:
Friday – 11am – RHP Mike Shawaryn (Maryland) vs. LHP John Harman (WKU)
Saturday – 10am – LHP Jake Drossner (Maryland) vs. RHP Brandon Bielecki (Canisius)
5pm – Tayler Stiles (Maryland) vs. LHP Joey Benitez (ODU)
Sunday – 1pm – Bobby Ruse (Maryland) vs. TBD
Maryland’s weekend rotation is stout, and their bullpen could be even better. But many of their opponents this weekend posted better offensive numbers than the Terps did in 2014.
Instead of doing the typical team-by-team breakdown, I figured we’d rank the programs and then the players.
1. Maryland (40-23) – The Terrapins won their first Regional Championship in program history, coming within one win of the College World Series.
2. Old Dominion (36-26) – The Monarchs were the only team in the Caravelle Resort Tournament besides the Terps to make the NCAA Tournament. Ironically, they were in the same region and were knocked out in consecutive games by Maryland and Campbell.
3. Canisius (40-14) – One of the best teams in the country to not make the NCAA Tournament last year, the Griffs were upset by Siena in the conference tournament.
4. Western Kentucky (29-28) – middle of the pack in a very tough Sun Belt conference last year. They’ve moved on to Conference USA.
5. Coastal Carolina (24-33) – The Chants faired much better in conference play, but weren’t as relevant as they usually are.
Coaches (based on track record)
1. Gary Gilmore (20th Season at Coastal Carolina) – over a thousand career wins (top 50 in CBB history)
– 8-time Big South Coach of the Year
– 19 Big South titles in 19 years (10 regular season, 9 tournaments)
2. Mike McRae (10th Season at Canisius) – 3-time MAAC Coach of the Year
– .622 winning pct over last 6 years, .713 over the last two
– 2-time MAAC Champion
3. John Szefc (3rd Season at Maryland) – broke school record in wins (40 in 2014)
– most wins by any Maryland coach over a 2-year span
– has reached the NCAA Tournament with 5 different schools
4. Chris Finwood (4th Season at Old Dominion) – took team to Regionals in 2014
– 6 years as HC at Western Kentucky, also on staff at VMI, VCU and Auburn
5. Matt Myers (8th Season at Western Kentucky, 4th as head coach) – assistant in SEC at Auburn and Tennessee
1. Canisius – Griffs return 5 MAAC first teamers from 2014 including National Player of the Year candidate 3B Connor Panas. They batted .307 as a team last year.
2. Western Kentucky – The Hilltoppers return six of nine starters including power threat Ryan Church.
3. Maryland – Talented freshman bats join an experienced group that caught fire down the stretch in 2014.
4. Old Dominion – Monarchs return their top four hitters, including outfielder Nick Walker, who was the only freshman to make the First Team All-Conference USA squad.
5. Coastal Carolina – Chants struggled to provide power in a down year for the program in 2014. They do return their leading hitter in utility man Connor Owings, the brother of Diamondbacks SS Chris Owings.
1. Maryland – Sophomore Mike Shawaryn anchors a staff full of draft prospects. Jake Drossner, Tayler Stiles and Bobby Ruse round out a stiff starting unit. The back-end of the bullpen is proven and a bevy of power-throwing freshman round out an impressively deep staff.
2. Coastal Carolina – Andrew Beckwith and Tyler Poole provide a tough late-inning tandem and starters Chase Adkins and Austin Kerr return for another season.
3. Western Kentucky – With a lot of innings available, the roles for the Hilltoppers are uncertain. However, an influx of transfer talent should aid the losses to the rotation. Sophomore Ryan Thurston finished as hot as anyone in 2014, allowing just three runs over his final 28 innings.
4. Canisius – The Griffs only had a handful of reliable arms last year and losing bonafide ace Rohn Pierce won’t help. They are anchored by a legitimate weekend starter in Alex Godzak.
5. Old Dominion – One of the best staffs around in 2014, ODU was decimated by attrition. They lose six of their top seven arms, so this year’s staff is a major question mark.
While it’s hard to rank defenses, especially before the season, we’ll give Old Dominion the edge. The Monarchs finished in the top 10 percent in the country in fielding percentage last year and finished third in the nation with 68 double plays, a school record.
Top 10 Players to Watch
1. Connor Panas (3B – Canisius)
Panas is a straight stud. The senior Canadian is on the Golden Spikes Watch List after putting up a .362 average with 6 HRs and 51 RBIs last year. Named a Preseason First Team All-American by Louisville Slugger, Panas won the MAAC Player of the Year award for his 2014 performance. He also became just the second baseball player in conference history to win the MAAC Student-Athlete of the Year Award.
2. Anderson Miller (OF – Western Kentucky)
Miller led the team with a .335 average and 40 runs scored in 2014, earning an appearance in the Cape Cod League last summer. Despite being a left-handed hitter, Miller hit .394 against southpaws last year.
3. Brandon Lowe (2B – Maryland)
After missing a year with a knee injury, Lowe finished second in the ACC with a .348 average last year. He also played most of the season with a torn ligament in his thumb. With Lowe finally healthy, the Terps could have an All-American caliber bat at the top of the order.
4. Ryan Church (1B – Western Kentucky)
A JUCO transfer last year, Church provides serious pop at first base. He had a pair of multi-home run games last year and batted .371 with RISP.
5. Mike Shawaryn (RHP – Maryland)
The Terps’ ace earned wins against six ranked teams last year, including against South Carolina on their home field in the NCAA Tournament. He broke the school record in wins with 11, so what can he do for an encore?
6. Alex Godzak (P – Canisius)
Godzak finished 10-3 with a 2.63 ERA in 2014 and will lead a Canisius staff that could struggle with depth.
7. Nick Walker (OF – Old Dominion)
The only freshman to make First Team All-Conference USA, Walker led the team in batting average, stolen bases and walks.
8. Connor Owings (UT – Coastal Carolina)
The brother of Diamondbacks shortstop Chris Owings, Connor batted .326 to lead the Chanticleers in 2014. He also led the team in 10 other categories.
9. PJ Higgins (INF – Old Dominion)
Higgins was the only Monarch to start all 60 games last year, which included a 39-game string of reaching base.
10. Anthony Massicci (SS – Canisius)
Massicci led the MAAC in hitting as a sophomore last year, walking a staggering 42 times in the process. He is a career .379 hitter and hit .540 in the seventh inning or later in 2014.