The conference features 10 pitchers nominated for the Roger Clemons watch list for college baseball's pitcher of the year while 11 players have been named to the preseason All-American team.
GoJackets.com will take a look at the top six teams in the league with weekly previews prior to Georgia Tech's February 10th season opener with Georgia Southern. This week we will preview the North Carolina Tar Heels.
NORTH CAROLINA - Coach Mike Fox's Tar Heels enter the 2007 season following a record setting 54 wins and a second place finish in the college world series last season. The Tar Heels are ranked 5th in the 2007 preseason polls.
The Heels are led by preseason All-Americans, Chad Flack, Josh Horton and Andrew Carrigan. Carrigan is also on the preseason watch list for the Roger Clemens award. Carrigan was 4th in the NCAA in saves and led the ACC in that category. Flack had a school record 112 hits while finishing the season with a .384 batting average. Horton led the ACC with a .395 batting average.
Infield - North Carolina returns their entire starting infield from last year. Coach Fox used many different combinations last year and that should be true agan this year. Tim Federowicz and Chad Flack split time at first last year depending on whether a righty or lefty was pitching. Flack also spent some time at third. Federowicz hit .320 last year and also caught for the Heels. The second base position has three players returning who started at one time or another. Bryan Steed from Marist started a majority of the games and finished the season with a .265 average. Garrett Gore and Kyle Shelton also got some starts at second. Shelton also was used as a defensive replacement at third. Preseason All-American Josh Horton returns at shortstop. He started every game for the Heels last year at that position. When Flack wasn't playing first, he split the third base position with Reid Fronk. Fronk hit .292 last year.
Outfield - Only one starter is missing from last year's outfield and all the top reserves return. Left fielder Jay Cox is the only starter missing from last year's team. Cox led the team in HRs and RBIs and finished third in hitting with a .375 average. As was the case with the infield, Coach Fox used many combinations in the outfield. Seth Williams started the year in centerfield and finished the year as the starting rightfielder. Williams hit .298 last year. When Williams wasn't in right, Matt Spencer was the starter. Spencer hit .278 in that role last year. While he played in their fall classic, Spencer's name no longer appears on the roster. Once Williams was moved to right, Mike Cavasinni became the starting center fielder. Cavasinni was also used as a DH and hit for a .318 average. The left field position has several likely starters. Kyle Shelton played some there last year and Drew Poulk had a good fall. Freshman Dustin Ackley was also impressive in the fall games.
Battery - As was the case with Clemson, UNC will be looking to find answers to replacing key starters that left to sign pro contracts. Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard, considered to be two of the better pitchers in the ACC last year, both signed pro contracts. Miller led the team with a 13-2 record and was the 6th overall pick in the MLB draft. Bard had a 9-4 record last year with a 3.64 ERA. In addition to losing the two starters, Carolina also lost a key member of their bullpen. Jonathan Hovis compiled a 8-2 record last year as a reliever. He also led the team with a 1.17 ERA. UNC avoided the same fate as Clemson when Robert Woodard decided to return to school in lieu of signing a pro contract. Woodard compiled a 7-1 record last year and should be the ace of the staff this year. Luke Putknonen, and freshmen Jared Bard and Alex White will compete for the final two spots in the weekend rotation. The bullpen will be led by closer Andrew Carignan. Carignan is a preseason candidate for the Roger Clemens award. Matt Danford will assume Hovis' role as set up man. He compiled a 7-2 record last year. Matt Cox and Rob Wooten could be used as starters or relievers.
The catchers could be one of the strengths of the team this year. They return both Tim Federowicz and Benji Johnson. Both can be used in other positions when they're not catching. Federowicz hit .320 and Johnson .270 last year.
Losses - The Heels lose arguably the best Division 1 starter in Andrew Miller as well as their number two starter, Daniel Bard. Jonathan Hovis was the key ingredient in their staff last year as he led the team in ERA and helped the team hold leads until Carrigan could come in for the save. The loss of Jay Cox takes away their leading home run and RBI man. Cox is the only significant position player that they will lose, depending on the status of Matt Spencer.
Newcomers - Their fall series games showed that the experts were right in their rating the incoming class as high as they did. IN/OF Dustin Ackley, OF Drew Poulk and 3B Kyle Seager were three of the top performers in the fall series. The incoming freshman pitchers will be counted on to fill the void left by the departure of Miller, Bard and Hovis. Alex White, Jared Bard, and Colin Bates could shoulder most of that load.
Outlook - Look for UNC to challenge Clemson and Virginia for the top spot in the ACC this coming season. The key will be how their freshman pitchers perform and how Woodard adapts to being the ace of the staff. The strength of the team should be as it was last year. UNC was 3rd in the ACC in hitting with a .321 average. The return of every starter except Cox will give the team the hitting and fielding stability that they showed last year. The loss of Cox, however, will likely bring about a reduction in the home run and RBI category.