Experts aren’t expecting much from Carolinas schools on the national scene this season, but college baseball fans still will have plenty to watch on area fields over the next few months.
Just a few years after the Carolinas featured a half-dozen teams in the national Top 25, most polls list only two schools – N.C. State and Coastal Carolina – among the leaders in 2016.
Louisville, defending national champion Virginia and Miami are expected to rule the ACC, where North Carolina, N.C. State and Clemson have been powers in recent seasons. The SEC, which South Carolina dominated at the start of the decade, will be led by Florida, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, according to most polls.
And East Carolina, which won the American Athletic Conference last season, is not figured as a contender in a league where Houston is expected to rule this spring.
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But fans in the Carolinas will have a chance to see players analysts believe could be professional standouts in years to come. The season begins Friday for most Division I schools across the nation.
Players to watch
Three Carolinas players – Wake Forest infielder-pitcher Will Craig, Catawba catcher Will Albertson and Clemson catcher Chris Okey – are among nominees for the 2016 Golden Spikes Award, which is USA Baseball’s version of the Heisman Trophy.
Past winners of that award include Buster Posey (2008), Stephen Strasburg (2009) and Bryce Harper (2010).
Several other local collegians are expected to be picked in early rounds of the Major League Draft this year or next.
Wake Forest slugger: Craig, a junior from Johnson City, Tenn., was ACC Player of the Year in 2015.
“There isn’t anything Will can’t do on the baseball field,” Wake Forest coach Tom Walter says. “He hits for power to all fields, possesses great strike discipline and has the best two-strike approach on the team.”
Many college baseball followers would be surprised to know that a potential high draft pick is playing just 50 miles up Interstate 85 from Charlotte.
Big hit at Catawba: Albertson, a senior from Randleman, had two good seasons at Campbell before moving to Division II baseball at Catawba last year. He put together video game statistics, hitting .467 (the best in Division II) with 91 RBIs (second in the country). In a 17-day stretch in March, Albertson went 38 of 48 at the plate.
He was a key to Catawba’s push to the Division II College World Series title game, where the Indians lost to Tampa. Albertson was drafted last June by the New York Yankees but decided to return to college for his senior year.
“I had a blast playing for coach (Jim) Gantt,” Albertson told reporters last June. “And I’m looking forward to winning more games for Catawba.”
Tigers catcher a top prospect: Clemson’s Okey, a junior from Mount Dora, Fla., is ranked by Baseball America as the No. 25 prospect in the June draft. He was a first-team All-American last season.
“I’ve been excited since the last game of last season,” Okey said recently. “I’m ready to get rolling, and the other guys are, too.”
Two other potential big-leaguers:
▪ Winthrop junior pitcher Matt Crohan held opponents to a collective .180 batting average last season and could become the Eagles’ highest pro draft pick in June.
▪ Former Providence High standout Tommy Dejuneas, a sophomore relief pitcher at N.C. State, compiled a 1.82 earned run average and six saves in 2015.