With the MLB lockout dragging on and with no end in sight, it would seem like a lot of hope is lost for baseball fans around the country. However, there is good news! NCAA baseball is right around the corner, with first pitches around the country being thrown today. Games kick off at noon, and a fun season of one of the fastest growing collegiate sports in America is underway.
As a UVA student, I wanted to share some thoughts and rankings on one of the better conferences in NCAA baseball: the ACC. The ACC has several top teams, and hopes to compete for multiple slots in the College World Series. So, how does ACC baseball look heading into the season?
The ACC is wide open this year. The conference has reduced the number of games played in the conference from 36, the total during the pandemic, back down to 30. While Florida State was voted the preseason champion, there are a fair number of teams that have a chance to win the conference; these include 2021 regular season champion Notre Dame and tournament champion Duke, College World Series Qualifiers North Carolina State and Virginia, Miami, Georgia Tech, and Louisville, who missed the tournament in 2021 for the first time in a decade.
So who’s who, and more importantly, who’s the best in this balanced conference?
Eagles fans, look away. This isn’t going to be pretty.
Boston College is projected by multiple sources to finish dead last in the ACC this year. Sure, the team has a stud at second base in Luke Gold, who was first team All-ACC last season, but there’s not much else going on here. The Eagles showed promise at the beginning of last year, but fell apart quickly and failed to even qualify for the conference tournament. Star players Cody Morrissette and Sal Frelick both left for professional baseball, and while right-handed pitcher Mason Pelio is back in the ranks, the loss of talent combined with the team’s abysmal 2021 record means that BC is likely not going very far this season.
The Tigers are an intriguing case. After finishing 16-20 in conference play and washing out of the tournament, Clemson is in a year in which they could strike big, or make no noise at all. The team is led by head coach Monte Lee, returning 1B Caden Grice, outfielder Dylan Brewer, 3B Bryar Hawkins and catcher Jonathan French. The team also has an intriguing pitching staff, led by Mack Anglin, and Nick Hoffmann, a closer expected to transition to the bullpen. Clemson definitely has some names to watch this season, but overall, the team’s offense is full of holes, and they should truly be middle of the road in 2022.
Fresh off of their first ever ACC Tournament win, the Blue Devils are returning with aspirations of Omaha. Head coach Chris Pollard will have his work cut out for him after last season ended in a disappointing finish, with the team crashing out in the super regional portion of the NCAA Tournament with 2 losses to Liberty.
Duke has an incredible recruiting class coming in, headlined by shortstop Alex Mooney. Despite multiple players having been lost to the MLB draft, the team still returns backstop Andrew Yu, outfielder R.J. Schrek, and first baseman Chris Crabtree. Ace Henry Williams will miss the season with Tommy John surgery, a huge blow, but Duke still has star pitchers in Marcus Johnson and Luke Fox. Overall, the Devils have an incredibly strong team that should once again qualify for the NCAA tournament, which will feel like a minimum for the program after last year.
Another exciting heavyweight, FSU comes in as the preseason favorite to win the conference. Despite losing double digit players to the draft, the team still returns a top 10 recruiting class that should give the team plenty to work with as they seek to make this preseason title worthwhile.
The Noles’ pitching staff is led by a pair of All-Americans in Parker Messick and Bryce Hubbart, arguably the best duo in the entire country. Aside from them, the team will also throw out a deadly gallery of arms, including Carson Montgomery, lefties Wyatt Crowell and Ross Dunn, and Jackson Baumeister. In the field, notable names include Logan Lacey in center field, AJ Shaver, first baseman Alex Toral, and catcher Colton Vincent. While the Seminoles do not have a high-powered offense, a lot of guys, including Toral, are incredible defenders who will support one of the best pitching staffs in the country incredibly well. If the pitching is sustainable, this team definitely has what it takes to get to Omaha, and maybe win it.
Georgia Tech made it all the way to the regional final of their bracket in the 2021 NCAA tournament, but they were unable to beat Vanderbilt, being sent home short of a trip to Omaha. The Yellow Jackets are anchored by star backstop Kevin Parada, who is a top prospect for the 2022 MLB Draft, along with outfielder Tres Gonzalez and infielder/DH Drew Compton. However, the Jackets’ biggest problem is with their run of the mill pitching staff, one that is without notable names and must take a major step ahead for the team to have any chance of making it back to the tournament. Considering the team is the favorite for the Coastal Division, the stakes are high. Do they have what it takes?
The Cardinals failed to make the tournament last year, a failure for the program. They also lost number 1 overall pick Henry Davis in the draft, along with 6 other players, showing the work the program had to do to get back to competition level. Returning position players for Louisville include shortstop Christian Knapczyk, utility player Cameron Masterman, and outfielder Levi Usher. Luke Seed and Tate Kuehner headline the returning pitchers. An exciting freshman class is also up for the Cardinals, ranked #6 in the country by website Perfect Game. Pitcher Will Koger and infielder Will Cook are among the best of the players expected to make an immediate impact.
The Louisville program and head coach Dan McDonnell have chips on their shoulders after the disaster of last season. Can the Cardinals get back to form?
Projected to finish third in the Coastal Division, there’s a lot to think about the Hurricanes in 2022. Shortstop Yohandy Morales, who has drawn some comparisons to Carlos Correa, is a top prospect for the 2023 MLB Draft and leads a young, talented hitting squad. Other talents on the roster include sophomore right fielder CJ Kayfus, second year catcher Carlos Perez, and Vanderbilt transfer Maxwell Romero Jr., who is expected to have an immediate impact. The pitching staff, anchored by lefty closer Carson Palmquist, also has Alejandro Rosario and Jake Garland as starters, with an experienced bullpen that compliments Palmquist well. Miami has the talent to make a splash, but the inexperience outside of the pen might be what ends up costing them. Don’t be surprised to see a huge run coming out of Coral Gables, however.
The Tarheels will field a middle of the pack team in 2022, and the squad does not have soaring expectations. Scott Forbes is in only his second season as UNC’s head coach, and while outfielder and draft prospect Angel Zarate is back after an impressive 2021 campaign, there’s not much else to talk about for one of the worst offensive teams in the conference last year, relying heavily on pitching and defense to make an NCAA tournament run that ended with losses to UCLA and Texas Tech.
The team will rely heavily on underclassmen and transfers to produce offense, including JUCO arrival Alberto Osuna at DH. Fifth year senior Gage Gillian headlines an experienced pitching staff that is full of upperclassmen, but the rotation has to be decided, with lefties Will Sandy, Caden O’Brien, and Shawn Rapp all possibilities to take on big starting roles. This Tarheels team is full of questions, and unless the rotation is solved and the offense gets going, I wouldn’t expect much noise to come out of Chapel Hill this year.
North Carolina State
Getting screwed over by the NCAA and forfeiting their spot in the CWS to Vanderbilt because of COVID rules last year, the Wolfpack still returns a menacing squad looking to capture their first baseball national title. Despite losing 7 starters to the MLB Draft, NC State returns talented options in outfielder Devonte Brown, lefty pitcher Trey Cooper (who has yet to make his college debut due to an injury suffered in high school), righty Sam Highfill, and many other solid playmakers. Some of the newcomers expected to make an impact in a highly ranked recruiting class are names such as 6’6” righty Logan Adams, backstop Jacob Cozart, and shortstop Payton Green. The Wolfpack have immense talent, and head coach Elliott Avent, who has been in Raleigh since 1997, hopes this is the year his team finally gets over the hump, and without any extra variables.
According to a Reddit aggregate of a variety of pollsters, Notre Dame is supposedly the best team in the ACC this year, despite being voted to finish third in the ACC Atlantic Division standings. Head Coach Link Jarrett led the Fighting Irish to their first regular season title since 2006 last year, and the team hopes to make a huge push after a narrow loss to eventual national champion Mississippi State in the NCAA Super Regionals last year to just miss a trip to Omaha.
The Irish lost a stud in two-time All-American Niko Kavadas, but still return a powerful squad that returns John Michael Bertrand, Will Mercer, and Aidan Tyrell on the mound, along with Seton Hall transfer Ryan McLinskey. The lineup has some big names, such as outfielders Ryan Cole and Spencer Myers, first baseman Carter Putz, and third baseman Jack Brannigan. Notre Dame has a powerful squad that will have to live up to its status as potentially the best team in the ACC, and they most certainly have the team to do it. There’s a good chance they finally get to Omaha for the first time in 20 years this season.
Coming off of a disappointing 16-17 conference season last year, the Panthers have some talented pieces that could make 2022 a lot more watchable. Catcher Tatem Levins, a victim of the folding of the LaSalle University baseball team, is the best player on the roster, having slashed .318/.416/.503 in 119 career games. Youngstown transfer and second baseman Jeffrey Wehler, outfielder Ron Washington Jr., and first baseman Bryce Hulett will fill out the lineup. The pitching staff, led by Matt Gilbertson, will include a rotation filled out mostly by a variety of transfers, along with a questionable bullpen. The Panthers have some young talent that will put up numbers, but the staff is too shaky, and it might be a bit longer before the Three Rivers can do serious damage in the ACC.
Coming off of a shocking CWS run last year, head coach Brian O’Connor returns a squad still full of talent, despite the losses of key players such as pitcher Andrew Abbott and infielder Zac Gelof. Catcher Kyle Teel will be a big name to watch in the lineup, as well as the third base competition between Casey Saucke and Jake Gelof. Last year’s postseason legend, Devin Ortiz returns as DH. On the pitching side, lefty Nate Savino will look to become the Cavaliers’ new ace (trust me, he’s good), and he’ll get assistance from Brandon Neeck, Matt Wyatt, and Jake Berry. The bullpen will have to endure the loss of Dippin’ Dots enjoyer Stephen Schoch, leaving questions on how the team will manage a reshuffled staff in general.
With a team mostly filled with underclassmen, it will have to be seen if the Cavaliers have what it takes to go on another strong run and return to Omaha. Can they do that, and possibly go even further?
The Hokies were mediocre last season, finishing with a 16-20 conference record and failing to go very far in the ACC tournament. Tech is projected to finish in the bottom of the Atlantic Division, despite having one of the best players in the nation in outfielder Gavin Cross. Cross is projected to be a high pick in the 2022 draft, but there’s not much else to speak of. Tanner Schobel, Jack Hurley, and freshman Carson DeMartini are some other bats that will fill out the lineup. Included in the staff are sophomores Griffin Green, Brady Kirtner, and Christian Worley, alongside lefty Grant Umberger. Unfortunately, nobody on the pitching staff is up to the task of pushing the Hokies over the brink, negating one of the best hitters in the nation and determining a disappointing season in Blacksburg.
Wake Forest was straight up bad in 2021. Their 10-22 conference record is an indication of it. The top contributors for the Demon Deacons last year have mostly moved out of Winston-Salem, with Bobby Seymour and Shane Muntz getting drafted, while Chris Lanzilli transferred to Arkansas. Wake will rely heavily on freshmen and transfers, including sophomore infielder Brock Wilken, second baseman Zach Sehgal from Stanford, and freshman shortstop Danny Corona. Righty Rhett Lowder is the only returning weekend starter for the Deacs, but there is still a large stable of returners for the staff, including Reed Mascolo and lefty Brennan Oxford. Freshman LHP Josh Hartle is expected to make immediate waves.
Although there is some good talent in Winston-Salem, the fact a team that relies on power hitting lost a lot of key contributors is not a good sign. Lacking necessary experience and with a lot of transfers and young guys, it’s hard to see the Demon Deacons going very far in 2022. They’ll probably be at the bottom of the field again.
I have Notre Dame winning the Atlantic and also the regular season title. Being a homer, I also think that Virginia will take the Coastal crown in a dogfight with Georgia Tech. However, I do believe that FSU’s powerful pitching staff will get it done to win the tournament.
ND, UVA, FSU, Duke, GT, Miami, and NC State will all return to the NCAA Tournament in 2022. UNC will not return, and I think Louisville will storm back to take their place.