BASEBALL PREVIEW: Red Hawks ready to go in ’18

BASEBALL PREVIEW: Red Hawks ready to go in ’18

HICKORY, N.C. — The Catawba Valley Community College baseball team kicks off its 2018 season on Thursday with high hopes and expectations.

The Red Hawks, ranked No. 17 in the preseason National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division II poll, return 16 sophomores from a 2017 squad that went 31-25 overall and 16-10 in conference games.

"We're ready to go," said fourth-year CVCC head baseball coach Paul Rozzelle. "You practice so much and play against each other so much that it's nice to play somebody in a different uniform. We've got some questions where we are going to be at offensively. I like what our pitchers have done up to this point, but you need to kind of go play. You need to go see them in action in a game and start to figure out your identity."

Catawba Valley enters 2018 with some uncertainty in some areas, but also confidence in others.

"Right now, we pretty much know we are going to get some good outings from guys on the mound, and we are going to play pretty solid defense," Rozzelle said. "Now, we've got to figure out how to score some runs. It's going to be interesting to see how we do that, but I think we are going to be fine."

Despite having only 16 sophomores, leadership is possibly the Catawba Valley baseball team's greatest attribute.

"I think the sophomores are pretty good in terms of leadership coming back," he said. "The captains — Graham Mitchell, Julian Smith, Hunter Isaacs and Daniel Brinegar — have done a great job. Other returners like Harry Hatcher, Jimmy Marcelli and Cory Watt may not be captains, but they definitely have a pretty good role with our team. They've done a really good job in terms of the culture here of what we want going forward."

Rozzelle believes a talented freshman class will also mix in well with his returning sophomores to provide a solid base for his team.

"We think we've got some guys who can come in and do some really nice things, but you've got to see it," Rozzelle said of his freshmen.  "They are going to get their first bite of it here soon."

Brinegar returns to anchor the catching corps for the Red Hawks after playing behind Gold Glove winner and current Appalachian State baseball player Riley Smith last year.

"(Brinegar) didn't make an error last year and competes his tail off," Rozzelle said. "He's a ball player. That's what he is. He is kind of gritty and grimy. He leads that (catching) group."

Freshmen Drew Latham and Willie Gordon and former South Caldwell product Brett Macchia could also see playing time behind the plate.

"We have a bunch of other guys behind (Brinegar) who we like really, really well," Rozzelle said of his catchers.

The infield is possibly one of the strongest assets for the CVCC baseball team and it includes returners Graham Mitchell at third base, All-Region X defensive team second baseman Jimmy Marcelli and first baseman David Graves, who will also play outfield.

"A lot of times you don't get to return so many guys coming back," Rozzelle said. "If you look around that infield, you are going to have a lot of familiar faces, which is really nice because those guys know what to expect and know what to do. We are really excited about that. We kind of have high hopes for that infield unit all year."

Freshmen Garrison Burress and R.J. Conner will also help play a role in the middle of the infield for the Red Hawks.

CVCC's outfield will feature a new look after losing its first National Player of the Year in Chandler Jenkins, who is now at East Carolina University, to graduation.

Cory Watt returns at centerfield for the Red Hawks, while freshmen Cody Payne (Clover, S.C.) and Rod Munoz (Apopka, Fla.) and Motlow State transfer D'Marcus Gillory will also factor in to the outfield equation.

"Our outfield is going to be very different," Rozzelle said. "We've got a bunch of speed-type guys. We can cover some ground out there. We are going to have a chance to run baseballs down. We've got a chance to be pretty good defensively all the way around in terms of when balls go in air, we have a chance to catch it. That's always going to help."

Captains Hunter Isaacs and Julian Smith — an N.C. State signee — lead a group of extremely talented, veteran pitchers for CVCC this spring.

Third-year Catawba Valley pitching coach Kris Harvey has been pleased with what he's seen from his group on the mound.

"It's been nice for this group to have some older guys," Harvey said. "We have a couple of third-year sophomores. It's nice to have that leadership on the staff. We have a lot of depth. There's a lot of roles that can be filled and guys can kind of figure out where they are going to fit at. We should be very good at the top, very good at the back and we'll figure out where guys are going to fit at in the middle."

The 2018 Catawba Valley baseball schedule will also feature the addition of more mid-week doubleheaders — something Rozzelle is especially excited about.

"One thing it benefits for the most part is hitters and being able to get consistent at bats throughout the year," Rozzelle said. "Ending on Sunday and not playing again until the next Saturday or Sunday, that's tough. Now, they're going to be able to play Saturday and Sunday and then turn around and get four to eight more at bats off live pitching in a game-type situation on a Tuesday or Wednesday. You can't really beat that."

Harvey believes Red Hawk pitchers should also benefit from the midweek games.

"It just makes it easier for us to be on a routine," Harvey said. "Your bullpen guys don't have to wait. If they have a bad Saturday or Sunday, we've got a shot to get them back out in the midweek and really set up for our conference tournament play. More guys are going to have a chance to start. When we get into conference tournament and regionals, we have five or six guys who have started. That will make it hopefully a little bit easier when we get there."

The Red Hawks host the Piedmont International JV squad in their season opener on Thursday at 3 p.m. for a doubleheader at Henkel-Alley Field — a doubleheader originally scheduled for Saturday.

Despite the 2018 season opener being moved up two days due to inclement weather, Rozzelle believes his team is ready to compete and start what he hopes will be another successful season.

"Moving up is not a bad thing at all," Rozzelle said. "Our guys are ready to go. The only thing it does is maybe cut down bullpen time leading up to a Thursday start as opposed to a Saturday. They are on limited pitch count any way.

"They are excited," he added. "They are ready to go. We are ready to go. As we get into the season, every coach wants to know what they have. You can practice all you want to and intrasquad all you want to, but until you go out there and play against outside competition then you know what you've got."