CONWAY – With Coastal Carolina making the NCAA tournament this season for the first time since winning the NCAA title, comparisons to the 2016 national championship team are inevitable, especially considering the vestiges that remain from the championship team including the coaching staff and a number of players.
There are some differences, but there are certainly some similarities.
As accomplished as the 2016 team was, this year's version of the Chanticleers has already achieved something that team did not: it is hosting an NCAA regional. The 2016 team began its postseason run at N.C. State. The Chants begin their run this season at Springs Brooks Stadium beginning Friday.
Practice day media availability ahead of tomorrow's matchup with LIU. pic.twitter.com/wcv6GSiBJV— Coastal Baseball (@CoastalBaseball) June 1, 2018
While the offenses are comparable and the pitching staffs are vastly different, perhaps the most important similarity is the sense of fraternity that exists in the clubhouse.
"The team atmosphere and camaraderie as brothers [are similar]," senior pitcher Zack Hopeck said. "Us older guys were around the 2016 team and we were younger guys back then so we know what it's like, and we're just trying to spread that same feeling and same brotherhood and atmosphere at Coastal, reestablishing that tradition of, 'Hey, I've got your back, I know you've got my back, let's go do it,' and at the end of the day we all love each other, we're all brothers."
There was even more player carryover from the national championship to last year's team, but the team didn't quite bond the way the 2016 team did and the way the 2018 team has.
CCU head coach Gary Gilmore said it was difficult to balance the lingering euphoria of the 2016 season with players who were new to the program last year.
"We had great people in our locker room last year, it was just really a weird dynamic in that you had several World Series stars and just trying to balance that against a lot of new faces," Gilmore said. "You've got 50 percent of the team that won a national championship and 50 percent of the team is trying to figure out how to belong in the locker room.
". . . The leaders we lost the year before, I spent more time with them, nurturing that part. I assumed that some of these guys had paid enough attention to what those guys did that it would naturally start feeding off itself, and it just doesn't. You have to work at it."
This year's seniors including Seth Lancaster, Kevin Woodall Jr., Matt Beaird and Hopeck are providing a leadership and nurturing that resembles what was provided by the 2016 seniors including Connor Owings, Zach Remillard, Anthony Marks and Mike Morrison.
"I learned from Seth and Woody and all those older guys what it means to be a Chant, what it means to be selfless and relentless," said Zach Biermann, a junior and the Sun Belt Conference tournament MVP who joined the team this season from Polk State College. "Those guys come every day ready to teach the younger guys, the guys that haven't been here, just about the game and how to be a man, most importantly. How to take care of your business and go from there."
The offenses are similar with power and depth.
In 2016, the Chanticleers led the nation in home runs with 96 in its 73 games for an average of 1.32 homers per game. This season the Chants have 77 homers in 59 games to rank ninth in the country with a nearly identical average of 1.31 per game.
Coastal ranks in the top 10 in the nation in seven offensive categories including being sixth with 8.0 runs scored per game. The 2016 team averaged 7.1 runs per game, but that average came down with some lower scores in the final 14 games from the regional through the World Series.
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In 2016, the home run production came from Owings, Remillard, G.K. Young and Michael Paez, who each had between 15 and 19 homers. This season, Lancaster and Woodall Jr. are tied for seventh in the nation with 19 home runs apiece, and Biermann has 12.
The depth of the batting order is also similar. Hitters in the fifth and sixth spots in the order, Kieton Rivers and Lee Sponseller, have combined for 25 doubles, five triples, 10 home runs and 84 RBI, and Sponseller has hit three grand slams. Freshman center fielder Parker Chavers leads the team with a .316 batting average, and Keaton Weisz and Beaird, who hit four doubles in the Sun Belt tournament's four games, have on-base percentages between .309 and .323.
Coastal has relied more on its offensive explosiveness this season and has not played small ball nearly as much, as the 2016 team had 78 sacrifice bunts and this year's team has 37.
"That whole lineup is very intriguing, it's very similar to the '16 team in so many ways in the fact that if you happen to go through the gauntlet and nothing happens, you take a deep breath and relax for one moment and then Sponseller, Chavers, Rivers, Weisz, Beaird, those guys get you, then Cory Wood is one of the toughest outs in college baseball when you roll the lineup over," Gilmore said. "It's a good and competitive lineup."
The pitching staff is much younger and less experienced this season, particularly in the bullpen. Much of that has to do with injuries, as senior Bobby Holmes and juniors Austin Kitchen and Scott Kobos have been lost for the season.
Holmes and Kitchen contributed to the 2016 title on a staff that included experienced upperclassmen in Morrison, Andrew Beckwith and Alex Cunningham.
The Chants have some experience in the rotation with Hopeck, junior Jason Bilous and sophomore Anthony Veneziano, but the starting pitching has generally been inconsistent and there are several freshmen that are relied upon for important innings once you get past sophomore Jay Causey and junior Matt Eardensohn, who have been the most reliable relievers all season.
"We had a veteran, older pitching staff [in 2016]. We had all these guys that were real dudes for us," Gilmore said. "We don't really have that kind of experience. I think we have ability. Jason Bilous is that guy, he can frustrate you at times, but he can also go out there and completely dominate a game for six or seven innings. For us to win a regional he's going to have to step out there, Veneziano is going to have to step out there.
"These guys have that type of ability to carry us for several innings and give us a chance to match up our offense against somebody else's real good guy. If they do we'll be a handful. If they don't we'll be fighting it."
The lack of experience on the mound is reflected in an earned-run average that is more than a half a run more this year, at 3.93 compared to 3.40 in 2016.
Gilmore has also recognized similar turning points to the seasons.
Coastal went to Georgia Tech in late April 2016 having won 11 of its past 12 games and lost three straight games, including the first game 9-1. The Chants won 13 of their next 14 games through the Big South Conference tournament to solidify a spot in a regional.
This season, the Chants went to Louisiana-Lafayette for a three-game series from May 4-6 riding a five-game winning streak and lost the first two games by a combined score of 17-7. They won the fourth game 10-3 and have now won 11 of their past 12 games.
"We had a similar turn of events in 2016 when we went to Georgia Tech and got swept, and people had to decide, 'Are we going to step up or are we just going to be one of those other teams Coastal has that goes to a regional but is not really there ready to win,' " Gilmore said. "Those guys banded together. It didn't take but a little bit to push them over the edge.
"I honestly think kind of getting it handed to us at Lafayette about a month or so ago, after two games you sit back and go, 'Huh, wow, I'm not really sure where we're at,' because we weren't competitive. From that experience on I think we grew in a lot of ways. We grew a lot inside that locker room." ___
This article is written by Alan Blondin from The Sun News and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.