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College baseball: Who could be this year's Coastal Carolina?

Those outside the college baseball world saw Coastal Carolina as a Cinderella story in 2016. That’s only partially true. Including 2016, the Chants have qualified for 15 NCAA regionals and two super regionals in program history.

Their title was the culmination of a slow, relentless march to the top under head coach Gary Gilmore, who enters his 22nd season at CCU. The NCAA’s DI baseball postseason is undoubtedly more grueling than any other college sport — last year, Coastal had to play an additional 18 games to capture the national title.

This year, a handful of mid-majors have the opportunity to make a similar run and will draw upon the Chants’ 2016 season as inspiration.

With the season starting Friday, we take a look at ranked teams from ASN's family of conferences with the best shot at replicating CCU's improbable trip to college baseball supremacy.

Who do you think has the best chance? Cast your vote below.

LOUISIANA | SUN BELT

The three-time defending Sun Belt tournament champs will have to beat the Chants this year to make it four. CCU departed the Big South for the Sun Belt following the 2016 season and will battle the Ragin’ Cajuns for league supremacy.

Louisiana, which made its only CWS appearance in 2000, went 43-21 in 2016 and ended their campaign by falling twice to Arizona after winning the first two games of their regional. CCU beat Arizona in the CWS championship series.

This year the squad will be well prepared for the postseason after a regular season slate that includes road games against Texas and LSU. Both of those will give Louisiana the feel of a super regional, a round they made for two years before falling in last year’s regional.

Louisiana returns relief pitcher Dylan Moore, who was 6-1 last year with a miserly 0.91 ERA out of the pen. He fanned 59 batters in 49 innings and was named a preseason first-team All-American by the National Collegiate Baseball Writer’s Association (NCBWA).

The team also returns slugger Joe Robbins and last year’s Sun Belt Conference Freshman of Year Nick Lee, who posted a 7-1 record and was named a Louisville Slugger first-team freshman All-American. Junior college transfer Handsome Monica is expected to have an immediate impact at catcher.

“The better your conference gets, the better you get,” head coach Tony Robichaux told Baseball America of CCU joining the Sun Belt. “At the end of the day, you can’t sharpen knives with Kleenex. There’s only one way to get better, and that’s to play better people.”

EAST CAROLINA | AMERICAN

Like CCU, East Carolina is no stranger to the regionals, having qualified for 28 since the format was introduced to the NCAA tournament in 1975. But the Pirates have never reached the CWS. They were within a run last year before falling to No. 5 national seed Texas Tech.

Much of that squad returns, including Friday's starter, Evan Kruczynski. Last year, Kruczynski went 8-1 with a 2.01 ERA. In the pen, ECU returns Joe Ingle who was recently named to NCBWA watch list for Stopper of the Year.

The Pirates starting infield returns intact, and freshman Spencer Brickhouse (DH) and Bryant Packard (RF) will add power to the ECU lineup right away.

ECU, which is No. 9 and No. 10 in preseason polls, also returns sophomore outfielder Dwanya Williams-Sutton. He hit .360 with 20 extra-base hits and 27 RBIs last season and joins Kruczynski and Ingle as a preseason All-American.

RICE | CONFERENCE USA

The Owls have been to the CWS seven times and won the 2003 national championship. But they haven't been back since 2008. This could be the year they return.

Junior right-hander Glenn Otto leads the Owls and was named to the preseason watch list for the Golden Spikes Award, given to the best amateur baseball player in the country. Last year, Florida Atlantic claimed the regular season Conference USA title and Southern Mississippi won the conference tournament, snapping the Owls run of two decades of winning one of the two league honors.

Otto went 9-2 last year with a 2.26 ERA and eight saves as a lefty reliever. He will be frequently called on in 2017 as the Owls’ Achilles is an inexperienced starting staff. Shortstop Ford Proctor may be Rice’s best all-around player, last year batting .336 and driving in 41 runs at the plate while registering 172 assists and 98 putouts in the field.

COASTAL CAROLINA | SUN BELT

The Chants are as likely as any team to duplicate their 2016 run to the College World Series. The team returns CWS Most Outstanding Player Andrew Beckwith on the hill. He’s a preseason All-American and also on the Golden Spikes watch list. Last year he went 15-1 with a scant 1.85 ERA and his presence alone will make CCU a team to be reckoned with.

As importantly, Beckwith is comfortable with the short rest requirements of the postseason placed on a squad's Friday starter. Bobby Holmes, another key veteran of the CWS, returns as a quality returner in CCU's pen.

Centerfielder Billy Cooke will be the catalyst for CCU's offense in 2017. He batted .324 in 2016 and stole 27 bases to lead the team. He added 13 assists from center to keep opposing baserunners honest. The team lost its four top power hitters from 2016 and will look to junior Kevin Woodall to replace some of their production. Woodall hit only .207 in limited action last year but had three hits in the Series final against Arizona. He also hit .320 as a freshman.

CCU's biggest test this year may be in-conference. Just as the Chants will make the Sun Belt stronger, they’ll also face more formidable conference foes in the likes of Louisiana and South Alabama.

DALLAS BAPTIST | MISSOURI VALLEY

Like CCU, Dallas Baptist isn't well recognized outside the college baseball world as a perennial power. But DBU has appeared in five regionals in the last six years, including three in a row.

In 2011 they advanced to the Santa Clara Super Regional before exiting. They’ve miraculously moved from an NAIA power in the early 2000s to an NCAA DI power without enduring a single losing season in the process.

Up the middle, DBU returns shortstop Camden Duzenack, a four-year starter. Freshman Ray Gaither is the rare combination of third baseman and pitcher and will contribute both on the hill and in the hot corner. He’s projected as the conference’s Freshman of the Year by Baseball America.

The bullpen looks strong again for the Patriots as they return juniors Seth Elledge (1.61 ERA) and Dalton Higgin (9-4, 3.79) in relief.


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