SPARTANBURG, S.C. – 2016 Southern Conference regular-season runner-up UNCG has been picked to win this year’s SoCon baseball crown by the league’s nine head coaches, while two-time defending regular-season champion Mercer was the conference media’s preseason favorite.
UNCG edged Mercer in the coaches’ poll by the slimmest of margins, as the difference between first and second was just one point for the second straight season. The Spartans, who sat atop the league standings for much of the 2016 season before the Bears’ late push, earned five first-place votes and 58 points to enter the campaign as the favorite for the fourth time since entering the league in 1998 and the first time since 2004. UNCG went 38-21 overall last season and 15-9 in league play as skipper Link Jarrett was named the SoCon Coach of the Year by both his peers and the media. The Spartans return eight position starters and two starting pitchers, as well as ace reliever Andrew Wantz, who led the league with a 2.97 ERA and shared SoCon Pitcher of the Year honors from the league’s media last season.
Mercer had a more comfortable margin in the preseason media poll, accumulating 131 points on the strength of eight first-place votes. That put the Bears seven points ahead of second-place Western Carolina, the reigning SoCon tournament champion, which had 124 points and four first-place votes. Mercer, which went 38-23 overall and 16-8 in the SoCon last year to win its second straight regular-season title, returns seven position starters and four starting pitchers but must replace two-time SoCon Player of the Year Kyle Lewis, who was drafted 11th overall by the Seattle Mariners over the summer after winning the Golden Spikes Award and national player of the year honors from the ABCA, Baseball America and the TD Ameritrade College Home Run Derby in 2016.
The Bears advanced to the title game of the SoCon tournament, but Western Carolina, which finished tied with UNCG in the runner-up spot in the regular season and went 31-31 overall on the year, downed Mercer twice in a pair of must-win games on the final day of the tournament to claim its 10th tournament title and the league’s automatic NCAA bid.
Western Carolina finished third in the coaches’ poll with 53 points and the remaining first-place vote, while UNCG finished third in the media poll with 115 points and three first-place votes.
Furman, which went 29-30 overall and 14-10 in the league last year, was picked fourth in both preseason polls. Now under the direction of new head coach Brett Harker, the Paladins return SoCon Pitcher of the Year Will Gaddis, who also earned that award for this preseason. Furman earned the remaining first-place vote in the media poll.
The fifth, sixth and seventh picks were the same in both polls, with Samford (35-26, 13-11 SoCon), ETSU (27-30, 13-11) and Wofford (30-28, 12-12) filling those spots, in that order. ETSU boasts the preseason SoCon Player of the Year in junior catcher Hagen Owenby, who won the 2016 TD Ameritrade College Home Run Derby.
VMI (21-35, 4-20) and The Citadel (17-42, 6-18) were picked eighth and ninth, respectively, in the coaches’ poll, while their order was reversed in the media poll.
The 2017 season opens for all nine league teams on Friday, Feb. 17. This season’s SoCon Baseball Championship will take place at Fluor Field in Greenville, South Carolina, from May 23-28.
2017 Preseason Southern Conference Coaches Poll
Place Team (1st-place votes) Points
1. UNCG (5) 58
2. Mercer (3) 57
3. Western Carolina (1) 53
4. Furman 40
5. Samford 34
6. ETSU 33
7. Wofford 20
8. VMI 17
9. The Citadel 12
2017 Preseason Southern Conference Media Poll
Place Team (1st-place votes) Points
1. Mercer (8) 131
2. Western Carolina (4) 124
3. UNCG (3) 115
4. Furman (1) 84
5. Samford 83
6. ETSU 82
7. Wofford 46
8. The Citadel 32
9. VMI 23