WILMINGTON – The great Roger Hornsby once said “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
In a little more than a week, UNC-Wilmington baseball begins its quest for another Colonial Athletic Association Championship (CAA) and NCAA Regional appearance. Coming off a 41-19 season, the Seahawks garnered national attention moving toward opening day with a pair of All-Americans returning to the lineup, while receiving a Top-25 ranking in the D1Baseball.com preseason poll.
Now in his 26th season as Head Coach, Mark Scalf shared optimism about this year’s club and its one day at a time approach, which has been a key component to the program’s success during his tenure.
Assistant Coaches Matt Williams and Robbie Monday, in addition to Associate Head Coach Randy Hood and Student-Assistant Josh Stott, have played a big part in keeping the Seahawks at a high level among so-called mid-major schools.
“We’ve put together another quality schedule with five or six teams in the Top 25 preseason and have a tough conference,” said Scalf, who has 840-624-1 record during his time as skipper. “The continuity on our staff has been extremely important. I can’t say enough about what our staff does.
“I think this group is similar to our last two teams as far as being disciplined, going about their business the right way, in the weight room, conditioning on the field in practice. There’s definitely a desire to go further than we did the last two years after making it to the regional final.”
Led by seven returning position starters, including junior All-Americans Nick Feight and Brian Mims, UNCW was picked by the league’s coaches to win the CAA title. Feight was selected as the preseason CAA Player of the Year after knocking in a school-record and nation-leading 91 runs as a sophomore. The third year player finished second in home runs, with 21, and total bases (175). He also placed fourth nationally with a .726 slugging average.
For Feight, consistency in the daily grind has been a key focus moving into his junior campaign. In addition, Gainesville, Virginia native will take over the full-time job behind the plate at catcher after his predecessor, Gavin Stupienski, was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“Sticking with my work ethic, having a pretty good routine of what I want to do each day is important,” said Feight. “Just try to stick with that, not try to do too much, be there for my teammates. Defensively, I’ve been working pretty hard at that.”
As a sophomore, Mims finished third nationally with 71 runs scored and seventh in hits (96). He joined Feight at Team USA’s National Team workouts last summer. Joining the dynamic duo, seniors Daniel Stack, Robbie Thorburn and sophomore Alex Royalty were also named to the preseason All-CAA team.
While UNCW is expected to put up big numbers at the plate, the Seahawks are not only excited about its depth one through nine and on the bench, but its pitching staff has the chance to be dynamic from front to back.
On the mound, Royalty is slated to be the number one starter after an impressive freshman year. The 6-foot, 2-inch right-hander made 15 starts for the Seahawks last season. He finished with an impressive 8-2 record, tied for second among conference freshmen with eight wins.
Joining Royalty on the starting staff are Josh Roberson and Logan Beehler. Roberson played in the Cape Cod League over the summer and early returns have shown increased velocity to go along with command of the strike zone.
Graduate Student Terence Connelly is eager to get back on the diamond at either of the corner infield positions following a red-shirt in 2016 after an unfortunate injury cut his senior year short. Connelly’s experience both in game action and the dugout provides UNCW with yet another veteran who understands the grind of a college baseball season.
“I cannot wait,” Connelly said. “I’ve been waiting since March 10 last year. I’m super excited and ready to get back after it with the boys to see what we can do.”
Senior outfielder Casey Golden, senior shortstop Kennard McDowell and junior right-hander Austin Magestro round out a talented group of returners hungry to keep UNC-Wilmington at the forefront of college baseball’s best. Magestro had 29 appearances out of the bullpen last season, with a 5-3 record and 2.59 ERA. In 48.2 innings, opponents were hitting just .167 off the righty.
Two local ball players are also looking to make an impact for the Seahawks this spring. Junior transfer Mason Berne hopes to provide a spark in the middle of the lineup after an impressive performance at Spartanburg Methodist last season.
As a sophomore, Berne finished sixth in the country with 22 home runs among National Junior College Athletic Association players. He hit .381 on his way to NJCAA Region X Player of the Year honors.
“The work ethic has been great. Every day you’re expected to do your best and give it your all,” Berne said. “Everybody here has bought in. I’m going to try and hop in and do my job. Changing my approach a little bit at the plate and all the coaches have been helping me out. It’s great to be able to come back home and play.”
The much anticipated return of Clark Cota has been a long time coming for the former Topsail High School standout. He spent much of his freshman year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Look for Cota to help solidify the back end of the bullpen alongside Magestro.
“I’m 100 percent and a full go,” Cota said. “The biggest thing for me was time. My arm feels just as good as it did in high school and I’m ready to rock. During the time off, I learned a lot from just watching. The biggest thing for me last year was to take in as much as possible, learn from the older guys and gaining that experience.”
Highlighted by a home-and-home series with reigning national champion Coastal Carolina, a trip to Ole Miss and 32 home games, UNC-Wilmington opens the season at Brooks Field on Friday, Feb. 17 against George Mason.
Brooks Field and UNCW will host the CAA Championship Tournament on May 25-28.