MYRTLE BEACH — As his Coastal Carolina baseball team went through drills early in its first official preseason practice Saturday, coach Gary Gilmore settled into a seat behind home plate and joked that he’s still making name tags to keep all the newcomers straight.
Running through the roster, he suggested there’s only one sure thing as far as position players go at this point. Junior Jacob May will man centerfield and the rest will be sorted out over the next few weeks before the Chanticleers’ Feb. 15 season opener.
“Everybody else is untested to a certain degree,” Gilmore said. “Even though we have some guys returning, where they ended last year and where they’re at right now has not significantly distanced them from other guys in the pack. It’s as much competition as we’ve had since I’ve been at this school.”
And with new assistant coaches this season in former Coastal player Matt Schilling and former Notre Dame assistant Joe Hastings, the Chants are starting anew in myriad ways. Only one player – senior relief pitcher Ryan Connolly – remains from the program’s 2010 run to the NCAA Super Regionals, only four remain from the 2011 roster and when it all shakes out, Coastal could potentially start newcomers at seven of the eight non-pitching positions.
“It’s crazy. This is my fourth year here. My first year was in 2010 with the team that played South Carolina in the Super Regional, so we’ve had a lot to live up to and from year to year it’s crazy to see the amount of players that come in and out,” Connolly said. “This year I think there’s only four of us – including staff – left from 2010. It’s [pitching coach Drew] Thomas, coach Gilmore, me and [trainer Barry Lippman] left out of the entire staff and everything.”
The standard hasn’t changed for the program, though. Not as long as Gilmore – the architect of Coastal’s rise over the last decade-plus – is still around.
Coming off a 42-19 campaign and having reached the NCAA tournament in 11 of the last 12 seasons while claiming six-straight Big South Conference regular-season and tournament championships, there is plenty of optimism in the potential of this retooled roster – Collegiate Baseball ranked the Chants No. 38 in its preseason poll – but until they prove it on the field, that potential remains pared with uncertainty.
“We’re two-deep about everywhere,” Gilmore said. “The thing for me is waiting to see are we two-deep with very average guys or are we two-deep with very good guys? And only time’s going to tell that.”
May is the one player the Chants feel pretty sure about. The junior centerfielder finished the 2011 season on a torrid pace, hitting .320 over the final 22 games with 12 stolen bases and 24 runs scored in that span. He finished with .306 average overall to go with 13 extra-base hits and 27 steals, and his steady bat, speed and surging confidence will be key to what this team can do offensively.
“I started to relax. I think I was putting too much pressure on myself and then toward the end of the year, I realized it’s still just a game,” May said. “I talked to my dad and my parents, and they said to relax and have fun. It all started kind of clicking then. ... I think I’ve matured as a baseball player.”
Aside from May and senior designated hitter Alex Buccilli (.313 average, 43 RBI last season), redshirt-sophomore catcher Will Remillard is more or less locked into the lineup as well. He is untested, having sat out last season after transferring from Temple, but Connolly said the pitchers have had plenty of opportunity to get comfortable with him and vice versa as he caught bullpen sessions last year.
Sophomore Brian Pruett and senior Justin Creel return in the middle infield after making a combined 115 starts last year, but both had their struggles at the plate and are competing with two talented newcomers. Freshman shortstop Nick Oberg is from the same high school as former Coastal standout shortstop Taylor Motter and could get a similar chance to make an immediate impact, while Jake Kane – a junior college pickup from Texas – is in the mix at second base.
Zach Remillard – Will’s younger brother – is one of the Chants’ top incoming freshmen and in the mix for the third base job. A 38th-round draft pick by the Houston Astros last summer, he is competing with sophomore Chris Suseck (16 starts, .235 average in 2012).
Freshmen Connor Owings and Troy Lewis are competing at first base, junior transfer Colin Hering and sophomore newcomer Dylan Harvey are in the mix in right field, and freshman Anthony Marks is challenging sophomore Luke Willis (.160 average in 50 at-bats last year) in left. Senior outfielder Ted Blackman, who made 49 starts last year, is recovering from hip surgery and Gilmore is unsure when he’ll be cleared to return to full action.
“These 10 or 11 intrasquads we have will pretty much determine who’s going to get the first opportunity,” Gilmore said. “No one’s done bad; no one’s done just so phenomenally exceptional that we completely have lineups made. [We do] somewhat in theory a little bit here or there, but the bottom line is we need to see some people play.”
On the mound, meanwhile, the Chants are stocked with experience.
Junior right-hander Tyler Herb (9-2, 2.61 ERA last year) and sophomore lefty Ben Smith (2-2, 3.16) project as the top of Coastal’s weekend rotation, while redshirt-freshman righty Tyler Poole (a 38th-round draft pick in 2011) is finally healthy after setbacks with his knee and looking to regain his stature as a top prospect and freshman righty Alex Cunningham has drawn early praise in his bid for a spot in the rotation.
Junior lefty Austin Wallace (5-1, 2.90) and sophomore righty Patrick Corbett (2-2, 3.54) could also be used as starters or settle into roles within Coastal’s deep bullpen – one which boasts senior submariners Aaron Burke, who is the reigning Big South Co-Pitcher of the Year after going 10-5 with a 1.58 ERA and Connolly (5-2, 2.10) along with sophomore lefty Austin Kerr (1-0, 0.95).
“This team compared to the last two years is an incredible step up,” Connolly said. “This is the first team, I think, since 2010 that’s had that chemistry, that team chemistry. Everyone’s really getting along well together and plays well together. Everyone wants to be out here. You can really see that this year. If coach Gilmore gives us a day off, you’ll see people out on the field still getting work in and you just haven’t seen that the last couple years.”
Gilmore seconded that notion.
“[The young players] just need opportunities. I think every time we give them one, they’ll get better, and I think this team’s going to get better,” Gilmore said. “I truly don’t think there’s any shot of us being close to our potential early on. I think we’re going to be a team that learns to play together every day, and the great part about it is their makeup, who they are and the way they come to the park every day. It’s very similar and as good as the 2010 team. ...
“It’s fun to come out here as a coach, to be honest with you. It’s very fun when they’re all in it to get it done.”
The Coastal baseball program is holding its Step Up to the Plate dinner and silent auction on Jan. 31 at the Chesapeake House. Proceeds benefit Mike Pruitt’s Foundation and the Grand Strand Miracle League, which each provide assistance to children in Horry County who want to play baseball. The event begins at 6 p.m. and costs $125 per person or $200 per couple. For more information, contact Chris Carter at email@example.com.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.