Diamond Hawks exude quiet confidence heading into season opener

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Coming off a memorable 41-18 season as Colonial Athletic Association Champions, the UNCW baseball team is just a few days away from the start of the 2016 season.

UNCW opens the season against Western Carolina on Friday.
UNCW opens the season against Western Carolina on Friday.

While the experiences remain vivid for those who played in the electric atmosphere during their 2015 trip to the NCAA Regional contests in Baton Rouge against LSU and Tulane, the Seahawks understand it’s a new year and a new team. They also know it will take the entire 32-man roster to put the ball club in its best position to succeed.

Consistency is one of the most talked about words in baseball, from offseason weight lifting and workouts to the day-to-day grind at the ballpark. Keeping the same mindset is not always easy through the ups and downs of a long season, considering the failure rate at the plate to go along with the team aspect of the game in the field.

Baseball is a game of confidence, and the wisdom gained from playing at the highest level against some of the top teams in the country has UNCW primed for another year as a leading mid-major program.

When talking Seahawks baseball it all starts with the tradition and stability longtime Coach Mark Scalf has brought to the table. Now in his 25th season, Scalf sits one win away from 800 to go along with seven NCAA Regional appearances and four CAA titles.

Mark Scalf.
Mark Scalf.

“This time of the year is always an exciting time for the coaching staff and players,” said Scalf. “It’s been fun piecing together this team. The players early on in the fall jumped on board very similar to last year’s team, showing up with energy every day, wanting to get better, trying to make progress.”

Offseason practices and inter-squads over the past few weeks have helped Scalf and his staff get a good feel for his team from a position player standpoint. Six starters return from the 2015 season finale, including the one, two and three hitters from last year’s LSU Regional.

North Brunswick High School alum Steven Linkous has developed into one of the premiere leadoff hitters in the conference. The first-team All-CAA outfielder started all 59 games for UNCW last season. He finished with a career-high .315 batting average, while leading team in runs (62), triples (4) and stolen bases (30). Linkous set UNCW’s junior record in stolen bases and led both the team and CAA in swiped bags.

Atop the order, Linkous has been working to improve as a two-strike hitter moving into his senior season. He’s at full strength after a finger injury over the summer during his time with the Wilmington Sharks and will be a solid defensive player in left field.

“I’m trying to keep the same mindset from last year,” Linkous said. “Over the fall I really worked on being better with two strikes. I felt like I struck out a lot last year. My main goal at the plate is trying to get on base so my teammates can move me around and do whatever I can to help get the team a win.”

Junior catcher Gavin Stupienski and senior third baseman Terence Connelly bring back solid bats to the lineup after hitting .344 last year. Shortstop Kenard McDowell and center fielder Casey Golden also return as a core part of UNCW’s defense up the middle.

With one of their top starters back atop the rotation, Ryan Foster is penciled in at No. 1, but the rest of the staff remains a work in progress after losing a few key contributors.

“As far as going into this season I’m feeling good and ready to go,” said Foster. “There are a lot of new guys, but I’ve learned so much from the guys who came before me starting with Matt Batts, Jordan Ramsey, Nick Munroe and Evan Phillips. I try to take the things I’ve learned from those guys and help pass it on along with my experiences to this younger group.”

UNCW practices its 1st and 3rd situational defense.
UNCW practices its 1st and 3rd situational defense.

Foster was an NCAA All-Regional selection at Baton Rouge. He tied a career-high with 16 appearances, while setting career-high with 16 starts. He finished with a 7-1 record and tossed UNCW’s lone complete game in regional play with an opening win over Tulane.

“I’ve made a few changes this offseason mechanically and from a mental standpoint have kind of taken over that leadership role,” Foster said. “I feel like with that comes a lot of confidence, also a lot of responsibility, but I feel like I’m in a good place to handle it.”

Senior Jared Gessell is expected to settle into the closer’s role after recording five saves last year, while middle relievers Whitman Barnes and Austin Magestro look to build off successful rookie seasons.  Sophomore transfers Zack Burke and Gunner Deal could also be two key back-end pitchers adding depth to UNCW’s staff, along with left-handers Clay Lockamon and newcomer Brandon Mulier.

“We have a lot of options, but don’t know exactly how it’s going to fit until we start playing outside competition,” Scalf added. “That’s the whole question mark for college baseball coaches. They can compete against one another and get a feel for it there, but for some the mindset becomes tougher when you put a different colored jersey on the opponent. We’ve got to go through the first few weeks of the season and try to figure it all out.”

UNCW opens the regular season during Buffalo Wild Wings Battle at the Beach opening weekend Feb. 19-21. The Seahawks face Western Carolina at 4 p.m. on Feb. 19, with a 4 p.m. matchup against St. Johns on Feb. 20. They close the weekend against Richmond on Feb. 21.