Hokies Baseball Preview: UNC Asheville
First Pitch for the 2022 Hokies baseball season will be on Friday vs the Bulldogs from UNC Ashville
Game 1: Friday, 2pm, ACCNX
Game 2: Saturday, 2pm, no scheduled broadcast
Game 3: Sunday, 1pm, ACCNX
The Hokies enter the season with plenty of star power, but loads of questions after an offseason that saw the Hokies lose their top four pitchers and two starting infielders. But after a promising summer and fall, the Hokies are poised to break through as a surprise team yet again out of the ACC. First up, a series with UNC Asheville out of the Big South conference.
A Look at the Bulldogs
Believe it or not, these teams do have a history, the Hokies are 2-0 against Asheville, their last matchup a 21-4 (!) win in 2009. History aside, Asheville is not to be overlooked, as they bring star power themselves. The Bulldogs saw an incredibly underwhelming 2021 that had them go 15-33 overall, finishing third in the Big South.
But going into 2022, the Bulldogs have seventh-year head coach Scott Friedholm, who's seemed to finally find a contingent worth mentioning in the Big South. The underlying theme of his roster: experience. It starts with fifth-year third basemen Brandon Lankford, followed by utility junior Dominic Freeberger, both of whom are more than expected to do the heavy lifting offensively, especially in the home runs category. Alongside veteran switch-hitters Grayson Preslar (LF), Sebastian Dunn (MIF), and run-producers Chris Troost (IF), and Easton Jones, the only new products are JUCO transfer and speed/power threat Kevin Cantrine (RF), and true freshman Cam Johnson (UT). With a couple of additions, and loads of experience, the presence at the plate is clearly their strong suit.
As for the pitching staff, the Bulldogs are similar to their counterparts in the fact that the talent can be top-heavy at times. In a pitching contingent that was second to last in the conference last year with a 6.55 ERA, the highlight guys to look out for are bullpen anchor and Bulldogs' career saves leader Kole Harris, and third-year sophomore Jacob Edwards, whose shown some flashes of command with an upper 80s fastball from the left side. Otherwise, there's potential to see in second-year freshman Ryan Douglas, and Dawson Salter, who throws mid-80s from the right side with great off-speed stuff, keeping hitters off balance.
So with a strong suit at the plate, a depleted pitching staff being the weakness of the Hokies plays right into the Bulldogs' advantage. With that being said, there aren't many new names in the pitching staff for Virginia Tech, but plenty of reason to trust a revised roster who's shown bright spots going into the season for fifth-year head coach John Szefc. Names to look out for are veterans Jonah Hurney and Griffin Green, both dipping into the 90s, followed by Ryan Okuda, Ryan Kennedy and Jackson Ritchey, who all had excellent run management in the Hokies' inter-squad scrimmage series this past week. For a squad who was third in the ACC in wild pitches last year, pitching command and run management has shown massive improvements in the little innings of live action we've seen in Blacksburg so far.
But of course - following a 19-7 start to the 2021 season- run production was the marquee trait of a star-studded list of position players for the Hokies. Coming into 2022, freshman All-American Gavin Cross is projected to be the fifth overall pick in this coming MLB amateur draft, according to D1baseball.com. With ability to hit to all fields, Gavin Cross is a serious five-tool threat from the left side of the plate, projected to start in right field. Having led the team with a .345/.415/.621 slash line, and being top ten in the ACC in home runs, runs, and slugging percentage (not to mention leading the ACC in stolen bases).
Gavin Cross is the perfect threat to a right-hand heavy Bulldogs' pitching staff, but he's not the only position player to worry about. Added to that list is Nick Biddison who provides tremendous value to the squad as a pure utility player, with ability to play anywhere except shortstop and on the mound. Coming off of a lackluster 2021 due to injury, Biddison's range and high level plate discipline will add a ton to the on base percentage of an already productive Hokies offense. Tanner Schobel is a prospective two-hole hitter finishing at .279 last year, with great leather as a middle infielder. On top of that talent, Jack Hurley and Warren Holzemer are expected to do some damage, with Holzemer showing gold-glove level defense in the handful of scrimmage outtings he saw this past fall and early spring.
The Hokies will start sophomore righty Griffin Green on Friday and then senior lefty Ryan Okuda on Saturday. Sunday will most likely be a bullpen day for the Hokies with a quick turnaround this week. This will be the first career start for Green, who did his work out of the bullpen last season. For Okuda, he'll look to build on a 2021 season where he was the main weekday starter. Last season, Okuda notched 50 K's in 40.2 innings and finished with a 2-3 starting record.
The Big Picture
Going into this series, both squads have reasons for high hopes, with serious talent on both sides. Without many novel names on either roster, it's hard to reimagine the ability of each squad, so look for both coaches to implement new strategies coming into their season openers, especially in the likes of the Hokies' pitching.
It's always key to start off the season strong, but the Hokies will need every win they can get this season with a competitive non-conference schedule and the always vigorous ACC conference slate. The Hokies have a clear advantage in talent, so anything less than a clean sweep over the weekend may be viewed as a disappointment. But the Hokies still have loads of questions to answer about their pitching rotation, especially in regards to starters. We'll get our first good look at a pitching staff that may be the difference between the Hokies making an NCAA Tournament and being bottom of the barrel in the ACC.