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Start of ACC Baseball Serves As Reminder Winter Will Soon Give Way To Spring
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Even as snow covered a large portion of the Atlantic Coast Conference footprint, there remained the ever-present reminder that spring time awaits on the other side of the storm.
One only needed to check the calendar. Valentine’s Day is also Opening Day, the official start to the collegiate baseball season. And as far as the ACC is concerned, that is always the start of something good.
The winter storms earlier this week left a number of ACC programs scrambling. But postponements, cancellations and game site changes haven’t deterred the optimism and excitement that has come to accompany this time of year.
Six ACC teams are ranked among the nation’s top 25 in every major poll. Virginia is ranked No. 1 by Baseball America and Perfect Game. Florida State and NC State join the Cavaliers as consensus top 10 teams. Ten ACC players have been tabbed as preseason All-Americans, including NC State junior pitcher Carlos Rodon, who carries a 19-3 career record in the 2014 season, and a nation-leading four players from Virginia.
The ACC also enters the season with the nation’s three top active coaches in terms of winning percentage in North Carolina’s Mike Fox (.747), Florida State’s Mike Martin (.743) and Virginia’s Brian O’Connor (.740). Five coaches – Martin (1,770), Miami’s Jim Morris (1,391), Clemson’s Jack Leggett (1,264), Fox (1,233) and Georgia Tech’s Danny Hall (1,062) – own at least 1,000 wins. Leggett became the latest ACC coach to join the Hall of Fame ranks on Jan. 3 of this year, when he was honored by the American Baseball Coaches Association.
Virginia was picked as the ACC preseason favorite in a preseason vote of the league’s head coaches, as well as the likely winner of the Coastal Division. Twenty-two letterwinners, including eight position starters, return to form one of the most experienced and versatile rosters in the nation.
"We've been hurt sometimes in the past when we've felt like we've had a pretty good club, and all of the sudden you have a couple injuries,” O’Connor said. “That's where depth comes into play. Now you feel like if somebody's out for an extended period of time, you're hopefully not going to miss a beat."
Florida State received the nod as the Atlantic Division favorite, but Martin – after seeing six different ACC teams claim the conference championship over the past eight seasons – has learned not to place a lot of stock in early prognostications.
“I don't know what is going to happen,” the Seminoles’ veteran coach said. “This team is very intelligent. We have great leadership … but we know we’ve just got to stay grounded; we can't look at ourselves as anything other than a blue-collar team, a team that has to carry its lunch pail to work and get after it on a daily basis.”
Boston College’s Mike Gambino is another coach who isn’t preseason poll-watching. The Eagles finished 12-40 in 2013 and have been ticketed for a seventh-place showing in the Atlantic Division this season. But Gambino noted that four of his team’s wins last season came in their last 11 games, and four of the games they lost during that same stretch were by two runs or less – including two in extra innings.
“That gives a ton of momentum to build into this year," Gambino said. "I think we are going to be better in every facet of the game. Going into last year, the coaching staff knew we were going to struggle early and be a good team at the end, we just didn't know how quickly that transition would come. It took longer than we would have liked. We got there, and we are more experienced and we are deeper this season.”
The additions of Notre Dame and Pitt gives the conference an all-time high of 14 baseball teams, and 10 will qualify for the 2014 ACC Baseball Championship, set for May 20-25 at Greensboro’s NewBridge Bank Park. Notre Dame is led by fourth-year head coach Mik Aoki, who is no stranger to ACC baseball after coaching Boston College to its first NCAA Regional appearance in 42 years in 2009 and seeing six of his players selected in the Major League Draft following his final season with the Eagles in 2010.
“It's an exciting time to be here at Notre Dame as we transition to the ACC," Aoki said. "We have gone from a solid baseball conference in the Big East to arguably the best in the country in the ACC. It will be fun for our fans as they get to see new schools, colors and uniforms – not to mention some of the best college baseball talent in the nation.”
Postseason will find the ACC looking to build on an impressive run that has seen the conference place 57 teams in the NCAA Tournament since 2006 while sending an NCAA-high 17 teams to the College World Series during that span.
Fans will have more opportunities to see conference teams in action this year than ever before, as a record 144 baseball games -- 40 more than the previous high – are scheduled to be broadcast, including all 15 games of the ACC Baseball Championship.