Preview: Diamond Hawks yet again facing elevated expectations

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Preview: Diamond Hawks yet again facing elevated expectations

Brian Mims will be one of two Seahawks returning to a team that is the perennial CAA favorite. He was named to multiple preseason All-America teams alongside Nick Feight.

Brian Mims will be one of two Seahawks returning to a team that is the perennial CAA favorite. He was named to multiple preseason All-America teams alongside Nick Feight.

Brian Mims will be one of two Seahawks returning to a team that is the perennial CAA favorite. He was named to multiple preseason All-America teams alongside Nick Feight.

Brian Mims will be one of two Seahawks returning to a team that is the perennial CAA favorite. He was named to multiple preseason All-America teams alongside Nick Feight.

Brandon Sans, Staff Writer

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When the UNC Wilmington men’s baseball team opens its season Friday, Feb. 17, against George Mason, it will begin one of the most anticipated seasons in program history.

After a record-setting season on offense a year ago, UNCW stands to find itself playing with a target on its back like the one it earned over the course of last season after amassing 41 wins and winning the Colonial Athletic Association’s regular season title.

UNCW enters the season nationally ranked by D1Baseball.com (No. 24) and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (No. 30). The Seahawks were the unanimous pick to win the CAA title.

“Being ranked and picked first, you certainly have a target on your back,” said UNCW coach Mark Scalf. “At the same time, our guys are excited about fulfilling the expectations as the year goes on.”

All eyes will be on returning CAA Player of the Year Nick Feight. The junior hit 21 home runs and led the nation with 91 RBI in his first year as a starter. While Feight lost valuable lineup protection in Gavin Stupienski, the Seahawk lineup around him will allow Feight to continue to play his game.

Some of that protection will come from junior Brian Mims who, alongside Feight, was named to multiple preseason All-America teams.

“I don’t think I’m going to change my approach,” said Feight. “I know I’ll have guys in front and behind me, that can protect me. I know we’ll be battling.”

Feight will be tasked with more of the catching duties this year which and a new-look pitching staff headlined by sophomore Alex Royalty. Royalty is expected to be followed in the initial weekend rotation by junior Josh Roberson and redshirt sophomore Logan Beehler.

“I think I’ll be ready to go this season, make more quality pitches with a lesser pitch count to go longer into games,” said Royalty. “Coach (Matt) Williams does a really good job teaching us how to pitch, teaching us the game.”

In 15 starts last season, Royalty posted an 8-2 record with a 4.71 ERA and 57 strikeouts behind the since-departed Ryan Foster.

UNCW stands to welcome back two highly-touted players to its club in infielder Terence Connelly and right-hander/outfielder Clark Cota, both of whom missed significant time dealing with elbow injuries. Connelly does not expect missed time to hinder any team chemistry as he integrates himself back into game action.

“I feel like I can come in and do what I know I can do in my role,” said Connelly. “I’ll just do whatever I can to help the team win.”

Meanwhile, Cota figures to factor more as one of UNCW’s primary bullpen arms rather than finding a way to work himself into a lineup that returns seven starters that led the conference in runs, runs per game, batting average, home runs, and other categories. Cota will likely serve time as the Seahawks closer, a role he will share with junior Austin Magestro.

The reliever broke out in a big way last season by giving UNCW a 2.59 ERA in 48.2 innings while limiting opponents to a .167 batting average. For his say, Magestro figures UNCW’s pitching staff has the talent to be considered in equal stature to its high-powered offense.

“I think we’re the best pitching staff we’ve had since I’ve been here at UNCW,” he said, “We’re going to come out this season and prove it.”

Reflecting on last year, Royalty acknowledges the success the team experienced while expressing disappointment regarding an ending that saw UNCW implode in its two postseason tournaments.

“I think we need to finish games on championship Sundays,” he Royalty. “We didn’t have that championship mentality towards the end so that’s what we’re going to apply this year. Finishing a series and finishing tournaments.”

No matter what bittersweet ending last year against South Carolina in the NCAA Regional has left in the mouth of the Seahawks, it is evident they look forward to potentially being the second straight mid-major to win a national title after Coastal Carolina, who UNCW will play twice this year, accomplished the feat in 2016.

“There’s definitely a desire to go further than where we went last year,” said Scalf. “This groups pushed each other and reminded one another why they work every day.”