Sixth in a series of 2015 season previews for college/junior college baseball programs in South Carolina. I've asked for responses from every school. I'll run all I receive. Some days, I may run more than one. I'll publicize all on Twitter (@palmettobase) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Palmetto-State-Baseball-Blog/92994136001)
Winthrop coach Tom Riginos submitted this season preview for the Eagles
After coming off their most successful Big South Tournament run since 2009 and a Big South Conference Southern Division title, Winthrop Head Coach Tom Riginos feels 2015 will be a special season for the Eagles.
The season kicks off on February 13 with a four-game series against nationally ranked Kent State at The Winthrop Ballpark.
“Since winning the Southern Division title and making that run in the conference tournament like we did, I think this team has a lot of confidence,” said Riginos. “I think sometimes you know when you have a special team and are going to have a special season, and I feel that right now with this team going into the season.”
Experience and depth will be key components for the Eagles success this season as the 2015 roster includes 22 returning players and 11 newcomers.
“We have a lot of guys coming back,” Riginos said. “We are excited about the depth and the experience we have. With the freshman and junior college transfers we’ve recruited and the returners getting better, I feel really good about the lineup we can put on the field.”
Riginos says that much of the off-season has been focused on improving base running and becoming more dynamic offensively. According to Riginos, “Running the bases was a point of emphasis in the fall and we will continue that into the season.”
The strength of this year’s team will be on the mound. Riginos has a staff of 17 pitchers, including returning starters Sam Kmiec, Joey Strain, Matt Crohan, Josh Strong and Zach Sightler. All are coming off strong 2014 seasons and projected to earn starting spots in the rotation or in the closer’s role.
“Any time you have a guy like Sam Kmiec, who pitched in the conference final, and Joey Strain who is going into his third year, you have reason for excitement,” adds Riginos.
Kmiec, a redshirt junior southpaw, pitched a team high 103.2 innings including seven in the conference tournament final. He compiled a 6-4 record while throwing a conference-high four complete games, and finishing with a 2.95 earned run average. Strain is being moved to the closer this year after he finished 2014 with a 6-3 record with 68.1 innings of work and a 4.38 earned run average.
Riley Arnone, a freshman left handed thrower out of Williamsport, MD, is expected to make an immediate impact on the pitching staff. According to Riginos, “Riley had a real good fall and is very mature for his age. He is a player that does all the little things.”
Sightler appeared in 22 games with 14 starts last season and compiled an earned run average of 3.44. Strong enters his senior year coming off a 2-5 season with three saves and a 3.01 earned run average.
Crohan had a 4.37 earned run average in his freshmen campaign that consisted of 17 appearances and five starts. Senior Travis Shelley also returns for the Eagles this year after posting a 4-1 record and staff’s lowest ERA of 2.54.
All 17 pitchers are healthy and competing for a role this season, according to Riginos. This includes seniors Michael Green and Austin Lawrence, Sophomores Kaden Hepler and Justin Pace, Michael Gilroy, Ryan Owens freshmen Zack Cook, Freddie Sultan, Carson Gregory and Sean Campbell.
The Eagles’ coach has five outfielders that he feels comfortable using and may call upon throughout the season. Senior John Menken is the projected starter in centerfield. He played in a team high 60 games last season, hitting .248 with nine triples, and 21 runs batted in. “John is projected to hit in the middle of the order and is pretty set in the outfield with his experience from last year.”
Riginos is expecting Jace Whitley, a redshirt junior from Locust, NC, to compete for the duties in right field. “We are looking for Jace to return to the form he showed during a very solid freshman year.” Because of his bat, Babe Thomas is projected to be in the lineup as either a catcher, designated hitter or in outfield. Tyler Asbill, a redshirt junior from Lexington, SC, and USC Sumter transfer Anthony Paulsen will also be competing for playing time in the outfield.
Riginos is looking for junior college transfer Roger Gonzalez to handle most of the catching duties with Thomas being available, also. Garrett Rast, a freshman from Rock Hill’s Northwestern High School, will also be available for catching duties this year.
“I feel like we’re going to have the best catching combination in the conference with Roger and Babe,” said Riginos. . “I think Gonzalez is going to be a great leader and is a very good defensive catcher. He is a switch hitter, as well, and is going to be a very tough out at the plate.”
The Eagles’ infield will be very versatile this season, with a blend of veterans and newcomers who can handle several different positions. Junior Kyle Edwards, who has been the starting shortstop for the past two years, will handle that position once again after starting 57 games in 2014. Senior Brad Kaczka is expected to handle the hot corner at third base after a solid season for the Eagles last year as a transfer from Monroe Community College. According to Riginos, “Brad probably had the best fall of anyone on the team.”
Rock Hill product Chad Smith, another senior, will be called upon for his experience and versatility in the infield. “Chad can play all over the infield,” Riginos says. “He has a lot of experience in our program as a fifth-year senior.”
Freshmen Jake Sullivan and Mitch Spires will compete for playing time in the infield with both being able to play a number of positions. Riginos says, “Mitch has the ability to play third and second base, and Jake has an opportunity to be a very good player for us.”
Riginos expects redshirt junior Mark Lowrie to compete for the duties at first base. “He has done a really good job of getting better every year,” said Riginos. “This is Mark’s year to step up and be a productive player for us.” Also expected to contribute at first base will be senior Clay Altman, who saw action in 39 games last year as a designated hitter and first baseman.
The 2015 schedule shapes up to be another challenging one for the Eagles, Winthrop will play 35 home games beginning with the opening four-game series with Kent State. Other non-conference home games will include three-game series against Toledo, Jacksonville, Maryland Eastern-Shore, and nationally ranked Kennesaw State.
The Eagles will also face The Citadel, USC Upstate, Davidson, East Tennessee and Charlotte at home in addition to Big South Conference series against Gardner-Webb, High Point, UNC Asheville and Presbyterian College.
Highlighting the road games will be contests against national powers North Carolina, Clemson and South Carolina.
The Big South Conference Championship tournament will be held May 19-23 at Gardner-Webb in Boiling Springs, N.C.