By switching from one conference to another this year, the Charlotte 49ers may have made a league tournament championship tougher to achieve.
On the other hand, the 49ers’ hopes for their next NCAA tournament appearance may have improved.
Moving from the Northeast-rich Atlantic 10 Conference to the baseball-friendly climate of the southern-based Conference USA puts Charlotte in a league that has a greater baseball tradition and history in NCAA tournament play.
According to its RPI, C-USA, of which Charlotte was a member from 1995 to 2005, has been the No. 5 collegiate baseball conference in seven of the past eight seasons. At least one C-USA team has reached the College World Series in five of the past nine years.
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Last year Charlotte won the A-10 regular-season championship but fell in the tourney finals and failed to reach the NCAA tournament. This year, the team has lost three-fourths of last year’s position starters and two-thirds of its starting pitching rotation to either graduation or the Major League draft.
Loren Hibbs, starting his 22nd year as the 49ers’ head coach, will fill those holes with either holdovers from last year’s team, incoming freshmen and junior college transfers, or players who redshirted last season. The 49ers were scheduled to start the 2014 season this weekend with home games against Virginia Tech and Youngstown State.
Among the returning starters who are expected to be team leaders are junior infielder Brad Ellwood and catcher Brett Lang, a redshirt sophomore. Senior righthander Brock Hudgens is the only returning starting pitcher.
A preseason All-Conference USA pick, Ellwood was second on the team in batting (.343 batting average) and runs batted in (41) last year. Lang, who hit .289 with four homers and 40 RBI, was a Freshman All-American in 2013.
Hudgens earned All-Conference honors with a 7-1 record, a 2.77 earned run average and a team-best 77 strikeouts. Redshirt senior Corbin Shive, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, started 49 games (including 21 at first base) and made 10 pitching appearances in 2012.
Senior Grant Dunnegan (1B/OF) and junior Derek Gallello (IF) are also returning starters. Both drove in at least 20 runs last year.
Hibbs thinks Charlotte has a chance to be a greater threat physically. A few returnees and several key additions will present a different look for the 49ers in terms of size and strength. Sixteen of 34 players on the roster are at least 6 feet tall and weigh at least 200 pounds.
“We are definitely a lot more physical as a group,” said Ellwood. “We have a lot more bigger and athletic guys: Logan Sherer, Zach Jarrett, Ryan Butler, Des Roberts. We’ll have our other guys like (Brett) Lang and Corbin (Shive) back. I think that will be a huge plus for us.”
Sherer (P/IF) and Jarrett (IF) are both freshmen. Roberts, a redshirt junior, sat out last year after transferring from Garden City Community College. Butler, a righthanded pitcher, is also a community college transfer, as is infielder Mikal Hill, who played at Mallard Creek High School.
For only the second time in program history, Charlotte will be playing a 30-game conference schedule. In the 13-team C-USA, the schedule was determined by ranking each team based on its RPI over the past five seasons.
“Top to bottom, our schedule might be the toughest of everybody (in the conference),” said Hibbs. “But that’s OK, because with our nonconference schedule, we have a chance to be an at-large team in the NCAA tournament, and we haven’t had that option the last six to seven years (as an A-10 member).
“We won a lot of games and played at a really high level. But the reality was if we didn’t win our conference tournament, even though we may have been an NCAA-caliber team, we weren’t going to get there because of our RPI issues in the previous league we were in.”
The Charlotte men’s tennis team defeated Conference USA foe Alabama-Birmingham 5-0 on Feb. 9 as the 49ers improved to 2-1 overall. The doubles teams of Jack Williams/Alex Calott, Kamil Khalil/J. Massalle Ferrer and Forrest Edwards/Paul Cisti were victorious. Khalil, Massalle Ferrer, Calott and Cisti all won their singles matches.