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Kendall Rogers | | April 17, 2015

Ready for primetime

Radford 4-17 Junior Michael Boyle, 2.21 ERA, anchors a strong Highlander rotation.

Radford head coach Joe Raccuia isn’t one to mince his words.

He’s pretty blunt about the history of the Big South Conference, at least from a baseball perspective.

In the past, comparing his program to Coastal Carolina has been like comparing a middle-of-the-road NFL franchise to the New England Patriots. Sure, the Highlanders have made significant improvements throughout the past few seasons, notching a school-record 33 victories last season. That’s nice and all, but compare that to the Chanticleers, who have won the Big South title 10 times and been to the NCAA postseason 11 times since 2000. The difference is night and day, but Raccuia and the Highlanders are sitting pretty at 23-12 overall and with a No. 33 RPI (higher than Coastal’s 40), and they hope to challenge the league hierarchy this weekend after already taking a series from Liberty earlier this season.

“We haven’t discussed too much about how we want to close things here in conference play, but our guys know what Coastal Carolina is all about. They’re like the New England Patriots of this conference,” Raccuia said. “You look at teams over the past 15 years that are mid-majors, and is there anyone that’s been better? I don’t think so. They’ve been that good.

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“This is all normal to them,” he continued. “For us, though, it’s uncharted waters, but we’re having a lot of fun with it.”

Though the Highlanders being in this situation at this point in the season is somewhat of a surprise, especially considering some of the losses they accrued earlier in the year, this team was expected to do some good things before the season. Liberty and Coastal Carolina were picked ahead of the Highlanders in the Big South preview, and High Point was a spot ahead of them, too; something Raccuia said made sense. He likes what HPU brings to the table.

Despite the higher expectations and hefty crop of experienced returning players, the Highlanders have had to work hard to get to this point. It wasn’t long ago they were swept on the road by Auburn, only to turn around two weekends later and drop two of three at College of Charleston.

Raccuia, in his eighth year at Radford, strongly believes his team was better than it showed those two weekends, but that lack of practice time could’ve been a riding factor in the slow start.

Things have been full speed ahead since taking a home series from Liberty to begin Big South play, and the Highlanders have seen their RPI continue to impress with consistent weekend after consistent weekend, most recently going on a 12-game win streak before dropping the series finale to Winthrop last weekend.

“I looked at this team coming into the year, and definitely thought we had the pitching to do something pretty special, and I thought our offense would have some power potential with the return of Josh Gardiner and guys like that,” he said. “We have some blemishes, but it feels like this team has been significantly better since we’ve been able to get into a routine.”

Two big reasons why the Highlanders entered the year with bigger and better goals were the returns of junior lefthander Michael Boyle and junior righthander Dylan Nelson. Boyle and Nelson entered the season as two of the more heralded prospects in the Big South, and have yet to disappoint despite Nelson dealing with a nagging foot injury at times.

Boyle, a 6-foot-1, 170-pounder, is a consistent force for the Highlanders. He has tallied 61 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 61 innings, while carrying a 2.21 ERA. Stuff-wise, Boyle continues to be his standard upper-80s, lower-90s with his fastball, while his changeup has been a very good offering at times. Meanwhile, Nelson has an unimpressive 3.91 ERA, but looked good last weekend in a win against Winthrop, striking out four, not walking anyone and allowing just two runs on six hits in 5.1 innings. Nelson, as with Boyle, has a very solid arm, sitting 90-93 mph with his sinking fastball, while also showing feel for an average slider and changeup.

“Michael has been really good for us. It’s basically six to seven innings each start, and he’s done. His fastball-changeup combo is just really good,” Raccuia said. “Dylan had a broken bone in his foot for a few weeks, so he’s just kind of getting back into form. We’re finally able to get him out to 105-110 pitches, and he’s been good. His fastball has been live, and I feel like he’s the type of arm that gives us a chance no matter who we’re playing.”

Radford’s offense isn’t going to overwhelm anyone, but it doesn’t have to with this pitching staff. Gardiner (.396/.479/.537), a senior second baseman, is a scary guy in the lineup with 13 doubles, two homers, 17 RBIs and 18 stolen bases, but the biggest surprise for this team thus far has been the bullpen.

Sophomore lefthander Kyle Palmer has evolved into a consistent arm out of the pen with a 1.98 ERA in 13.2 innings. Daniel Bridgeman (0.63, 14.1 IP) and Ryan Meisinger (2.14, 21 IP, 8 saves) have been very consistent, with Meisinger tallying 36 strikeouts and just four walks, while teams are hitting him at just a .208 clip.

“Palmer is definitely a little bit of a surprise. He’s a young guy who is 84-85 mph with his fastball, but I’m telling you, that pitch looks more like 89 because of the way it comes at you,” Raccuia said. “Bridgeman is a really nice setup guy, and Meisinger could start or close. He’s a really physical guy who has a good fastball on a downhill plane.”

With just enough offense and a solid, stable pitching staff, the Highlanders head to the Palmetto State this weekend looking to make a statement against the model program for the Big South -- Coastal Carolina.

It’s not the season, but it’s a watershed moment in waiting. Should Radford take care of the Chanticleers, it would have series wins against Liberty and Coastal -- two teams that it will be fighting until the bitter end for potential at-large berths in the NCAA postseason.

The Chants and Highlanders are tied atop the Big South overall standings, and Radford, for now, has the slight edge in the RPI department.

Perhaps Raccuia’s club is ready for the statement it needs.

“You know, this is an older group that I thought could do some good things this year,” he said. “We’ve got a chance to win some really quality games down the stretch, including this weekend, and we might need ’em. After all, who out there wants three Big South teams in the tournament come June? This weekend should be fun.”

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