The N.C. State baseball team began its first practice for the 2017 season Friday afternoon. The team broke up into two and had a scrimmage, with the red defeating the black 7-2.
For the players and coaches who kept in touch in the offseason, it seemed more like a midseason practice than the first team practice of the season.
With a few weeks till the first series of the year, here are five things to watch.
After losing leaders such as designated hitter Chance Sheppard, first baseman Preston Palmeiro and closing pitcher Will Gilbert, the team has reloaded with 11 freshmen. While head coach Elliott Avent highlighted catcher Brad Debo and infielder Will Wilson as players who could see some action early on in the season, he said all the freshmen are pushing to earn some playing time.
“There are several guys who have shown that they are capable of starting as freshmen,” Avent said. “There have been several freshmen who have been able to step up to play over the years, and right now we’ve got a bunch of young guys screaming for their time”
While the team has a 45-16 record in home games the last two seasons, the team has failed to show similar results on the road, going 15-23. But Avent was focused on the high level of the competition the Wolfpack faced away from home.
“We go to East Carolina, Coastal Carolina. The schedule we play, between competition, is so good.” Avent said. “We have played very well on the road, but the level of competition we play is excellent.”
The team will get an early chance to shake the road woes, as the Wolfpack opens the season at Hawaii for a three-game series.
Strength of ACC
In most polls, including the D1 Baseball preseason poll, the Pack is ranked sixth in the country. While that would be considered at top program in a conference for most teams, the ACC has seven schools ranked in the top 25, with Florida State leading the way at No. 3.
N.C. State is expected to finish fourth or fifth in the conference, something that didn’t worry junior shortstop Joe Dunand.
“Every team brings their A game, and that’s exciting.” Dunand said. “You want to play against the best, you want to compete against the best, and beating the great teams is a really great feeling.”
Depth of bullpen
Former Wolfpack reliever Will Gilbert and current junior reliever Tommy DeJuneas anchored the bullpen during the 2016 season, with both pitchers earning six saves during the year. Avent said Gilbert would be hard to replace.
“What (Will) Gilbert did for this ball club last season, for his entire career for this school, I don’t think you can simply replace that,” Avent said. “Personally, I thought Gilbert was the MVP of our team last season. We can’t just replace that presence, but we are counting on a few guys to step up and help fill the role he played for us”
The Wolfpack fell to TCU 9-8 in 2015 after blowing an 8-1 lead in the last two innings and giving up the game winner in the 10th to end its season. Last season, the team lost in the regional to the Coastal Carolina, the team that would go on to win the College World Series.
Many of the players have used the losses as motivation for the upcoming season.
“Initially, we thought we let (Coastal) get away,” redshirt senior pitcher Johnny Piedmonte said. “But it was a good thing for us, and it pushed us in the offseason to get better as a team.”
Overall, the team has a solid roster with major league-caliber players such as Dunand and junior outfielder Brock Deatherage in leadership roles. In addition to having a solid mix of experience and youth, the players seem committed to shaking off the ends of the last two seasons and coming away with an appearance in this year’s College World Series.