CONWAY — Longtime Coastal Carolina baseball coach Gary Gilmore says he's never been through a preseason quite like this.
The Chanticleers were already facing several obstacles with serious injuries to key personnel, and the process of plugging those holes hasn't been aided by the winter weather that's hit the area in recent weeks.
Nonetheless, the Chants are planning for the season to start Saturday afternoon their original opener against Pittsburgh at Francis Marion's Sparrow Stadium in Florence was canceled due to the winter storm that ripped the area earlier this week and they'll find out soon enough just how ready they are at this point.
"With the conditions we're dealing with, they're as ready to play as we can get them," Gilmore said Thursday. "We missed four days of practice a week or so ago and at least two this week. If we actually play tomorrow, it [could be after] three straight days not on the field. I've never had that happen before. We'll see how we react."
Regardless of the weather, the Chants figured to be in for some early challenges this season after losing four of their top six hitters from 2013. Centerfielder Jacob May and catcher Will Remillard were drafted and signed with Major League organizations, and two productive seniors in outfielder Alex Buccilli and designated hitter Ted Blackman finished their collegiate careers.
Those four accounted for 15 of Coastal's 21 home runs last season and 47.5 percent (121 of 255) of the RBIs for a team that finished 37-23 and reached the NCAA Regionals for the 12th time in the last 13 years.
Add to that the temporary loss of senior second baseman Jake Kane who hit .287 with 23 RBIs last season and is expected to miss at least this weekend's games with a bad ankle sprain and the Chants have a considerable amount of offensive production to account for with new starters.
"I think [like] every year other than one or two in my whole career there are probably four or five solid pieces that will be in the lineup almost every day all season long barring injuries. Other than that, there will be some mixing or matching," Gilmore said. " We've been moving all these chess pieces around the entire spring, trying to figure out the catching issues and solve them and being able to cover ourselves [at various spots]. I tip my hat to my staff, the players, they all embraced it and made the best of it. Until we get out there and see people in other uniforms, I don't know where we truly are with some of that."
The Chants will be looking for big seasons from senior right fielder Colin Hering, who is the top returning hitter after batting .297 with three homers and 24 RBIs last year, and sophomore third baseman Zach Remillard. A defensive standout at the hot corner, the hope is that Remillard will take a leap offensively after batting .221 with three homers and 21 RBIs last year.
Sophomore first baseman Connor Owings and sophomore centerfielder Anthony Marks project to play larger roles while opening the season as starters, sophomore Nick Oberg slides over from shortstop to second base for the time being with Kane out, and junior college transfers Reid Moman in left and Holden Cammack at catcher and touted freshman newcomer Michael Paez at shortstop round out the defense. Another freshman, Conway High School slugger G.K. Young, will open the year at designated hitter.
Promising junior college pickup Reid Mathews, meanwhile, is out for the year with a hand injury.
"[Our strength is] defense and pitching. We built this program around that," Remillard said. "[But] I think our offense is going to be stronger this year than it may have been in the [recent] past and overall our team camaraderie is great."
Added Hering: "The pitchers have looked really good. Coach [Drew Thomas] has done a great job with them. But also our hitters have done a good job against that. We've hit well."
As for that pitching staff, junior left-hander Ben Smith will start the opener after a breakout sophomore season in which he went 5-4 with a 2.23 earned-run average and a team-high 83 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings. Gilmore has said he thinks Smith can be one of the top pitchers in the country.
Senior righty Tyler Herb is back to full strength after battling shoulder woes last season and will look to reclaim the form he had two years ago when he went 9-2 with a 2.61 ERA.
Freshman lefty Dalton Moats, who was a 33rd-round draft pick of the Kansas City Royals last summer before opting to come to Coastal, gets the first shot at rounding out the weekend rotation.
And the Chants return a bevy of proven bullpen options, including junior lefty Austin Kerr (2.55 ERA in 35 1/3 innings last year) and sophomore righties Seth Lamando (4.15 ERA in a swing role last season) and converted starter Tyler Poole (6-2, 3.86).
The pitching staff should be strong throughout despite losing two key options in sophomore Alex Cunningham and junior Patrick Corbett, who are both expected to miss most or all of the season due to injury
If the weather cooperates, Gilmore and his staff will get a better chance to evaluate their team this weekend with three games scheduled against Pittsburgh the final two slated to be played at TicketReturn.com Field at Pelicans Ballpark as the team begins a second-straight season off campus while awaiting construction of a new stadium.
"We haven't had enough time on the field in decent weather conditions to become extremely proficient at some of the timing things," Gilmore lamented. "It's not just us it's everybody [but] it's been a challenge."
Nonetheless, the players are ready.
"I think everyone's been anxiously awaiting this for a while now," Remillard said. "We're as ready as we can be."
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.