The expectations are higher, plain and simple.
The 2014 College of Charleston baseball season saw the Cougars accomplish incredible feats on the conference and national stage. Charleston opened the season with a series win over No. 12 North Carolina, win their inaugural Colonial Athletic Association tournament, defeat No. 2 Florida in their NCAA tournament opener, proceed to sweep their NCAA regional bracket and fall a few runs short of their first ever College Baseball World Series. The Cougars concluded the season ranked No. 16 in the nation, which is the program’s second highest year-end national ranking.
Head coach Monte Lee will be the first to tell you that the Cougars need to look ahead and not behind, and the future looks just as bright. Charleston will open their campaign with a No. 25 national ranking and is nearly unanimously picked to repeat as CAA champions and head to another NCAA tournament.
“The biggest thing for us right now is to try to improve every single day,” Lee said. “We can’t look that far ahead. We need to take it day by day and stay within what we can control.”
A big part of the hype surrounding the Cougars in 2015 is the front-end of their pitching rotation. Sophomore right-hander Bailey Ober returns after garnering heavy national attention for his impressive freshman year performance. Ober led all NCAA freshman pitchers in ERA (1.52), which earned him an All-American and National Freshman Pitcher of the Year awards. He was also selected to work with USA Baseball over the summer.
“You try not to worry about expectations,” Ober said. “The past is the past, it’s a new year. I’m just going to try to do what I’m used to doing and that is playing my game. I’m not going to let anyone else dictate that.”
Ober’s counterpart, junior righty Taylor Clarke, gives Charleston an incredible one-two punch. Clarke was strong in 2014, ranking second in the CAA with 92 strikeouts and fourth in ERA (2.51). He earned a CAA all-conference team selection as well. Both Ober and Clarke finished with 10 wins, which led the CAA.
“We all need to do our part. Everything will fall into place, so you can’t worry about others. You can throw a great pitch, but the hitter could still hit it. You can’t worry about failing. We need to carry over what happened last year and try to be even better,” Ober said.
Two other returnees for the Cougars are junior right-hander Nathan Helvey and junior left-hander Eric Bauer. Helvey began last season as a starter, but found his niche as a late game reliever down the stretch. Helvey pitched a perfect eight inning in Charleston’s NCAA tournament victory over Long Beach State. Bauer won a national pitcher of the week award in May for his 10-inning relief appearance in the Cougars’ 23-inning win over William & Mary.
“I tell these guys to control what they can control, and that’s throwing strikes. You can’t go out into a baseball season and say you want to win 10 games, that’s not how this game works. These guys need to worry about executing and play pitch-by-pitch baseball, if you do that with a high level of focus, the results will come,” Lee said.
Ober will begin the season out of the bullpen as he continues to rehab an injury suffered during the winter. With Ober easing his way back into the starting rotation, Clarke will get the season opening start against No. 21 South Carolina on Feb. 13. Helvey and Bauer will start Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Charleston’s batting order took a hit with the departure of Gunnar Heidt, who was drafted by the Blue Jays in last spring’s MLB Draft, and since-graduated Brandon Murray, but the Cougars still return several big impact players in 2015.
Sophomore infielder Nick Pappas batted .269 in 51 starts last year, registering 12 doubles and five home runs for a .406 slugging percentage. Pappas had a big postseason for Charleston, most notably going 4-4 with two doubles and three runs scored in the CAA Championship game. He was named to the Freshman All-American team and the CAA All-Rookie team.
Behind Pappas will stand junior infielder Carl Wise, who is a prospect for a first-round MLB Draft selection this summer. Wise started all 63 games and led Charleston with 54 RBIs. He batted .295 with 67 hits, including 11 doubles and 14 games with multiple hits.
“We have a freshman All-American in Nick Pappas back. We have Carl Wise, who’s one of the best hitters in the CAA,” Lee said. “We are going to be able to have a player in every part of the field who has had legitimate time in the field. Losing dynamic athletes hurts, but I do think we have the pieces in place for a good hitting lineup.”
The pieces that Lee refers to include Blake Butler (second team All-CAA, .295 average), Champ Rowland (40 starts at shortstop), Morgan Phillips (51 starts, .269 average) and Bradley Jones (29 starts as a true freshman).
While the CAA schedule will be grueling as always, the Cougars have a difficult non-conference schedule as well. After starting the season at South Carolina, the Cougars will face the likes of Indiana, Virginia Tech and No. 28 Clemson. Within the CAA, William & Mary received votes in the Collegiate Baseball national rankings.
“We are going to compete against the highest level that we can. We are going to play high quality teams that are going to prepare our club for adverse atmospheres against great schools. I want my players to be challenged and that’s why we have a tough schedule. If we want to play at the end of the year, we need to play a schedule like this and have that experience that will help us,” Lee said.
Charleston will play a three-game series in Columbia, S.C. against the Gamecocks to open play. The Cougars return for their home opener on Feb. 20 vs. crosstown rival, The Citadel.