UNC Asheville plays baseball in the Big South, the same conference that produced last year's national champion Coastal Carolina. It was a nice final moment in the Big South for CCU as immediately after they moved to the Sun Belt Conference. With the departure of the Chanticleers, the Bulldogs are one of 10 teams vying to fill the conspicuous absence at the top of the conference.
"For Coastal, obviously that was an unbelievable achievement and something we're proud of with them being a Big South team," said the Bulldogs' third-year head coach, Scott Friedholm. "It also gives credit to the type of league that the Big South is from a baseball standpoint."
Before arriving in the western North Carolina mountains, Friedholm spent four years at Chestnut Hill as Boston College's recruiting coordinator and pitching coach. There, Friedholm had the Eagle's staff consistently throwing strikes, tallying 352 K's in 2014.
Prior to his time with BC, Friedholm spent five years as the pitching coach at Navy. There he helped hone major league talents Mitch Harris and Oliver Drake. Both pitchers debuted in the majors in 2015, and when Harris broke through to the bigs he became the first Navy grad to do so since 1921.
Friedholm now leads the entire squad in Asheville, and his overall approach is clear. "Our emphasis is always first and foremost on pitching and defense. That's going to give us a chance to win or compete every single time we're on the field."
Offensively, the Bulldogs will turn to senior center fielder, Joe Tietjen. Tietjen made second team All-Big South last year and looks to improve upon that in 2017. He spent the summer of 2016 developing his skills in the New England Collegiate Baseball League as well as with the Chatham Anglers of the Cape Cod League, widely regarded as the top college summer circuit in the country.
“The nine-man lineup that coach comes up with — every guy will be ready. Every single guy was prepared this fall, and they’ve all played summer league ball," said Tietjen.
“Positionally we were pretty good, with guys like Joe, Kyle Carruthers, and Derek Smith. They’ve bought in and believe in what we’re trying to do here," said Friedholm. "When you take over a program – and the same was true when I was at Navy — a lot of times the last thing to come around is the pitching.”
Friedholm said several of his returning pitchers have made significant strides, including 6-8 redshirt sophomore Ryan Taft, junior Nick Boyles, and junior Jesse Juday. The coach also mentioned his freshmen throwing well this fall. They include left-hander Greg Gasparro of Pennington, N.J.
“Obviously you just don’t know how these younger guys are going to react when we play another team, but you hope that you get the right guys as far as competitors and athletes so that it doesn’t matter who you play, it’s still just a game of baseball."
Gasparro started the Bulldogs' opener and was sharp in a losing effort, pitching four scoreless innings before yielding to fellow freshman, Brandon Harris. Harris allowed one hit in two innings of work. The two worked in tandem again on Friday, as the Bulldogs defeated Dayton, 6-2, and moved to 2-3 on the season. Harris earned his first college win in the outing, while Tietjen drove in seven runs in a 12-6 victory. Three of those came on a fourth-inning home run, his first of his season.
A team premised on defense and pitching must implicitly be able to execute offensively to be successful. The Bulldogs have that covered as well.
"If we need to bunt, we can bunt. If we need to steal, we can run a little bit," said Friedholm. "I know we’re going to hit. I know we’re going to be able to steal some bases. But when it comes a time, if we had to do a safety [squeeze] or hit and run, or sacrifice bunt, we’re going to be able to do those things."
Tom Flynn is a freelance writer based in Frederick, Md. Follow him on Twitter at @tomflynn51.