This time last year the Hoos were loaded, widely regarded as an ACC favorite, and lead by the future #2 draft pick. This year, the Cavalier baseball team has a few new holes to fill and questions to answer; just how Coach O'Connor and staff like it.
Sure, it is fun to be in the top ten every year, but the UVa baseball program loves to upset the applecart and beat teams that didn't thin they would be beaten. No better way to start a year than to do it at Coastal Carolina against three different teams. Both Coastal Carolina and JMU were featured last year in the NCAA tournament.
Starting off the weekend against the Cavaliers will be a familiar foe, the Eagles of Boston College. The Hoos and Eagles won't play each other in ACC play so this will be an out of conference game for both teams. The Cavs will send their ace Branden Kline to the mound while the Eagles will counter with their own ace, Sophomore RHP Eric Stevens. Stevens had a 2-1 record and a 4.38 ERA last year in 27 appearances. In the field, BC has nearly as many holes to fill as the Cavaliers. Their most recognizable name will be their Senior SS Anthony Melchionda. Melchionda has been their mainstay at third for the past two seasons but has switched to shortstop for this year. He batted .304 with 34 RBIs and will be the biggest reason for any Boston College success this year.
On Saturday the Hoos will play the host Chanticleers. This is the game I am most looking forward to as we will get our first look at the big lefty Scott Silverstein. Scott has battled injury his entire career at UVa but was a highly touted prospect out of high school. If the Cavaliers have a big year this year I think Silverstein will be one of the biggest reasons. Coastal Carolina is always the best team in the Big South and this year is no different. Most pundits have pegged them as the favorites to win the conference and the lone representative in the NCAA tournament. Lucky for Hoos, Coastal will hold their ace til Saturday. The biggest prospect in the conference and the preseason pitcher of the year, RHP Josh Conway had a great year last year going 8-2 with a 2.69 ERA. Similar to BC and UVa, Coastal also has to replace a lot of talent, but in the field they will be lead by Senior OF Daniel Bowman. Bowman batted .277 with 12 HRs last year and has 40 career home runs.
In the Hoos finale on Sunday they will play inner-state rival James Madison. The Dukes were the lone representative in the NCAA tournament last year and are picked to repeat that feat in 2012. Neither the Dukes nor the Hoos will know who JMU is sending to the mound until Saturday at the earliest. (Will's note: doesn't sound like a whole lot of depth does it?). Whit Mayberry will be on the mound for UVa and looks to build off that great finish to the season he had last year. In the field JMU returns five starters and are led by Junior OF Johnny Bladel. Picked as a preseason ALL-CAA Outfielder, Bladel batted .360 with 41 RBIs and 69 runs scored.
This will be a big weekend for the Hoos, who will not play another worthy opponent (in my mind) til mid March when they travel to Tallahassee to take on the highly ranked Seminoles. Having said that, I think the Hoos will come out of the weekend with a good feeling but not as good as they hope for. Too much inexperience at the catcher position and in the outfield leads to a few growing pains.
My official prediction: UVa takes down the Eagles and Coastal Carolina but stumble on Sunday against the experienced Dukes. Make sure to follow @STLUVaBaseball on twitter as I will be providing updates on the games and as my favorite UVa basketball player/athlete/male/person of all time says with a broken hand (tear, so so many tears) says, GO HOOS!