SPARTANBURG, S.C. – 2017 Southern Conference regular-season champion Mercer was picked to win the 2018 league title in the preseason media poll, while the Bears and 2017 tournament champion UNCG have been picked to win this year’s SoCon baseball crown by the league’s nine head coaches.
UNCG and Mercer each totaled 58 points in the coaches’ poll, with the Spartans receiving four first-place votes to the Bears’ three. UNCG and Mercer were selected to finish 1-2 in the 2017 coaches’ poll, being separated by just one point. With a record of 17-6 in league play, Mercer finished atop the regular-season standings, but it was UNCG (14-10 SoCon) that won four of five games at the SoCon Championship to claim its first tournament title in the league.
Mercer, which won its third straight regular-season title, was selected as the outright winner in the preseason media poll, totaling 119 points to UNCG’s 114. The Bears received eight first-place votes, while the Spartans totaled six. The 2018 Mercer squad is led by 2017 SoCon Coach of the Year Craig Gibson, who guided his team to a 39-17 record in his 14th season. The Bears return key starters in catcher JT Thomas and relief pitcher Robert Broom. Thomas, who was selected as the preseason player of the year by the coaches, is coming of a junior campaign in which he batted .357 with 62 RBIs and 131 total bases. In his sophomore year, Broom earned All-SoCon first-team honors after going 8-2 with an ERA of 2.04. The right-hander threw 61 2/3 innings, holding batters to just a .194 average.
UNCG, which posted a record of 36-24, leads the preseason All-SoCon team with seven total selections. Five Spartans were named to the preseason All-SoCon first team, including 2017 freshman of the year Caleb Webster (third base). Webster hit .383 in 51 games with 40 RBIs and was named to both the NCBWA First Team Freshman All-American and Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American squads.
Samford finished third in both the coaches’ poll and the media poll, receiving 43 and 82 votes, respectively. The Bulldogs, who were 33-26 last year (11-13 SoCon), received two first-place votes in the coaches’ poll. Samford has four preseason all-conference selections, including starting pitcher Cody Shelton. Shelton, a junior from Brentwood, Tennessee, had a 5-3 record, appearing in 15 games in 2017. The right-hander held opposing batters to a .236 average while striking out 59.
ETSU and Western Carolina tied for fourth in the coaches’ poll with 34 points, while Furman and Western Carolina claimed spots No. 4 and No. 5 in the media poll. ETSU, which posted a record of 30-29 (9-15 SoCon), was voted to finish No. 7 in the preseason media poll. The Bucs return a number of key starters including shortstop Chris Cook. Cook, who was selected to the preseason All-SoCon first team, hit .350 while leading ETSU in runs (62), hits (91), doubles (22), total bases (143) and stolen bases (19) in 2017. ETSU is under the direction of new head coach Joe Penucci.
Western Carolina finished second in the 2017 regular season, going 28-28 overall and 15-8 in conference. The Catamounts return a trio of seniors in Caleb Robinson (first base), Spencer Holcomb (catcher) and Cameron Blaquiere (shortstop), as well as left-hander Tristan Baker. Baker, a sophomore, went 12-12 with 29 strikeouts in his freshman campaign.
Furman, which is slated sixth in the coaches’ poll, is led by first baseman Brandon Elmy and outfielder Landon Kay. Elmy and Kay, who were named to the preseason first team and second team, respectively, led the Paladins to a record of 33-28 (14-10 SoCon), including a 13-2 stretch to end league play and finish the season tied for third.
Wofford (28-30, 13-11 SoCon) was selected to finish sixth in the media poll with 52 points and tied for seventh with VMI in the coaches’ poll with 28 points. The Terriers return outfielder McClain Bradley, who was named to the All-SoCon second team and preseason first-team after batting .323 with 48 runs scored, 35 RBIs and 17 stolen bases in 2017.
VMI (24-34, 7-17 SoCon), which was picked to finish eighth in the media poll, is led by preseason first-team selections Josh Winder (starting pitcher) and Matt Pita (outfield). Winder, who was a secont-team All-SoCon selection last year and is the preseason pitcher of the year this season, went 7-6 with a 3.59 ERA in 2017. Pita, a junior from Richmond, Virginia, hit .364 with 18 extra-base hits as a sophomore.
The Citadel (16-35, 7-17 SoCon), was selected to finish ninth in borth polls. The Bulldogs are now led by Citadel alum Tony Skole, who was the head coach at ETSU for the past 18 seasons.
The 2018 season opens for all nine league teams on Friday, Feb. 16. This season’s SoCon Baseball Championship will take place at Fluor Field in Greenville, South Carolina, from May 22-27.
2018 Preseason Southern Conference Coaches Poll
Place Team (1st-place votes) Points
T-1. UNCG (4) 58
T-1. Mercer (3) 58
3. Samford (2) 43
T-4. ETSU 34
T-4. Western Carolina 34
6. Furman 32
T-7. Wofford 28
T-7. VMI 28
9. The Citadel 9
2018 Preseason Southern Conference Media Poll
Place Team (1st-place votes) Points
1. Mercer (8) 119
2. UNCG (6) 114
3. Samford 82
4. Furman 79
5. Western Carolina 74
6. Wofford 52
7. ETSU 50
8. VMI 42
9. The Citadel 18