College baseball: Which surprise team can be this year's Coastal Carolina?
With March Madness just around the corner, basketball fans already are frantically searching for the next Cinderella, the surprise team that will bust millions of brackets.
Some college baseball teams would be glad to take on the Cinderella role in Omaha come the College World Series in June.
Last year it was Coastal Carolina of the Big South conference that surprised everyone, taking home the first national title in program history. That ended a seven-year run of Power 5 champions.
Here are three mid-majors who could pull a Coastal Carolina this year:
Coastal Carolina’s 2016 championship marked the end of its Big South tenure. The Chanticleers are now in the Sun Belt, where they figure to be part of a two-team race at the top of the conference. Louisiana seeks a fourth straight Sun Belt title and a long-awaited return to the College World Series.
The Ragin’ Cajuns are off to a 1-2 start but have pitched well, allowing three runs or fewer in each outing. The staff is led by lefty ace Gunner Leger (four innings, two earned runs in an opening day loss), Wyatt Marks (five innings, zero runs) and Nick Lee (1-0, six innings, zero runs).
Louisiana is waiting for its offense to awaken. Top power hitter Steven Sensley is 0-for-5 to start the year after coming off the bench the first two games and the team is averaging less than a run a game.
Sensley, splitting his time at designated hitter and outfield, finished with six home runs, seven doubles and 23 RBIs as a freshman in 2016.
The Ragin’ Cajuns finished 41-19 last season and made it to the regional final in the NCAA tournament before being eliminated by Arizona. Louisiana's last appearance in the CWS came in 2000.
The Seahawks are off to a 3-0 start and are feeling good after pulling off a two-run rally in the bottom of the ninth to down Appalachian State 6-5 Sunday. Casey Golden knocked home the winning run in an 11-hit parade that saw eight of the nine starters reach base at least once. Golden has been the offensive catalyst for the Seahawks, already picking up two home runs and four RBIs on six hits.
Golden is joined by D1baseball.com preseason All-Americans Nick Feight and Brian Mims in a prolific offense. Both have three RBIs and a double in three games.
Pitching likely will dictate just how far UNCW will go this season. The Seahawks look to improve on last year’s team ERA of 4.48 despite the loss of 2016 wins leader Ryan Foster.
In Foster’s place, sophomore Alex Royalty (8-2, 4.71 ERA in 2016) will take on a larger role, along with redshirt sophomore Logan Beehler and junior Josh Roberson.
UNCW was ousted in last year’s regional final on their side of the bracket by South Carolina. The Seahawks have never made it to the CWS.
It was a terrific 2016 season for the Pirates, who came one win short of clinching their first ticket to the CWS in program history. After ECU won Game 1 of the Super Regional against Texas Tech, the Red Raiders outscored the Pirates 14-1 over the next two games to move onto Omaha.
This year's start wasn't as promising. The Pirates (1-3) were swept by No. 8 Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi, to open the season.
Three Pirates hit home runs in the opening series with the Rebels, including senior designated hitter Luke Bolka (5-for-11, two RBIs) and sophomore outfielder Dwanya Williams-Sutton (3-for-12, two runs). Both figure to be important pieces in the lineup after combining for 26 extra base hits last season.
While ECU has a reliable closer on hand in Joe Ingle (3.1 innings, one hit, four strikeouts), the relievers in front of him were responsible for 10 runs against Ole Miss. If the Pirates can solidify the bridge to Ingle, they can be a scary out this postseason. The Pirates are expected to battle it out with Houston (3-1) and Tulane (1-3) for American Athletic Conference supremacy.