By Matthew Johnson, Sports Editor
As annual as the unofficial start of the summer movie season beginning after Memorial Day, the NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament, known as the College World Series, beginning May 29, will be calling the very best of collegiate baseball to its auburn diamonds and cornfields in Omaha.
Seemingly a Nebraska trademark, the boys of summer will be vying for amateur immortality under the blazing midwest sun. Unfortunately, while UNCG also has typically held a tradition around the end of their baseball season, it has been for all the wrong reasons in comparison to the lucky 64 teams traveling to the College World Series. As annual as the tournament has been held, the Spartans will again miss the trip to Omaha, and have failed to compete in the final game of the Southern Conference (SoCon) Tournament Championship since 1998.
This year’s Southern Conference champion, Mercer, received an automatic bid to the tournament after soundly bulldozing their conference counterparts to a 35-21 overall regular season record. The Bears, who were actually defeated two-out-of-three times in an April series against UNCG, defeated the Citadel, VMI and Samford en route to an opening round duel against nationally- ranked top seed Florida State.
Back in Greensboro, the Spartans postseason conference tournament was as uneventful and disappointing as the recently released Hot Pursuit. Opening against fourth-seeded VMI, the Keydets broke the hearts of many a Spartan in cruel fashion with a game-clinching eighth-inning home run, breaking a 5-5 tie.
In UNCG’s elimination contest, the Spartans were upset by the lowest ranking seed in the tournament, the number eight Citadel, to the score of 8-4. After an up-and-down 23-27 record and an early SoCon exit, the Spartans can only sit back, clear out their lockers and contemplate another season without a deep playoff run.
On paper, the Spartans’ .460 win percentage is an improvement from their .429 percentage of last year’s squad, which went 21-49. Link Jarrett’s team did also field one of the most dominant pitchers in recent UNC-Greensboro history. Ryan Clark, who left the first game of the tournament with a no-decision and 12 strikeouts, was the Spartans best pitcher throughout the season.
While the 7-6 regular season record may not impress many, numbers never lie, but they certainly can be misleading, as the likely future MLB draft pick struck out 94 batters and had an opposing batting average which was just a little north of the Mendoza Line (.235).
At the dish, Eric Kalbfleisch finished top-five in the conference in batting with an all-conference worthy .348. With their graduating outfielder, Tyler Long and two other Spartans, who reached the necessary at-bat total to qualify for the SoCon statistics, were also able to land batting averages of at least .300 on the year. However, with only one regular season SoCon title since the Clinton administration (the first Clinton in 1998), and three regular season finishes in the past four years at the cellar of the conference (within three places of last place), there is little hope that UNCG baseball will drastically improve come the 2015-16 season.
Predicted in February by the conference’s coaches poll to finish fourth, the Spartans did live up to the winter prognosis. Yet, while the season was technically an improvement, there have been little signs of the Spartans making a deep postseason run, and certainly not winning the regular season conference crown these past few years.
With both Kalbfleisch and Long leaving, the team will also be losing ace reliever Tyler Frazier and batter Aaron Wright who was one of four Spartans to bat .300. These past three seasons have not been kind to the Spartans, and I do not see the tide changing anytime soon.
Ryan Clark, the workhorse of the rotation could technically declare for the Major League Baseball Draft with the completion of his junior year. Though the starter has not made a decision yet, losing Clark would certainly cripple an already shaky rotation. The baseball team this season, like in previous years, showed traits of brilliance, which were then overtaken by not only fits of error and inconsistency, but simply better competition. Western Carolina in the past has been the conference leader of the clubhouse for the previous two seasons, and teams such as Mercer, Samford and Furman have had deep postseason runs.
While the dominance of college teams teeters and splits like a Mariano Rivera cutter due to recruiting classes and conference realignment, I see little reason for the Spartans to improve much next seasons.
Going 24-31 in 2012-13 and 21-28 in 2013-14, these are teams which mostly featured players that are no longer around. But, with top recruits in the region flocking to SoCon teams likely based on these team’s ability to routinely compete against their surrounding competition, the very best of recruits are likely not looking at UNCG due to their sub-.500 records.. And for this reason, the likely only constant in the future of UNCG baseball, will be their inconsistency.