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Around The ACC: Opening Weekend

Photo Credit: The Fayetteville Observer


By Micah Beutell


It is finally here, Opening Weekend in college baseball, and in my beloved Atlantic Coast Conference! The 2024 season provides a lot of optimism for the conference and many of its programs. With eight teams making the NCAA Field of 64 and two making it all the way to Omaha last year, there are reasons to believe this will be the norm in the ACC.


With opening weekend comes our first sample size for 2024. Some ball clubs are using it to just get their feet wet, and others are jumping head first into it. We have rematches of postseason games and early season MTE's to get our season started. It is time to dive into each matchup and the 2024 season.



#16 NC State vs VCU


The Wolfpack were dealt some devastating news last week with the loss of RHP Matt Willadsen, due to an elbow injury for an undisclosed amount of time. That means the Pack's Saturday starter position is open. It seems we can expect Sam Highfill to step into that role after a rocky 2023, but great 2022, season. Look out for transfer Shane Van Dam from Cortland, who will probably enter the rotation with that recent news and provide a lot of promise for an NC State pitching staff that needs a reliable arm.


This weekend marks the first chance we get to see some big time transfer additions for the Pack, and one name in particular I am most excited to see is Western Carolina transfer Brandon Butterworth. Butterworth was a key part of the WCU lineup last year and should provide a quality bat with sound defense to this NC State squad.


On the other side, we have a VCU program that returns arguably the best hitter in the A-10, with 3B Brandon Eike. Eike posted a .610 slugging percentage and 71 RBIs, which led the A-10 in 2023. This Rams squad has had a lot of competition for spots up and down the roster. With that comes a lot of unknown, but there is a lot of promise if this team clicks. Expect VCU to be working through their lineup this weekend, as they figure out their order and rotation.


Prediction: NC State sweeps



Pitt vs Maine in Port Charlotte, FL


Pitt lost five of its top six hitters last season but was very busy in the portal to replace them. New additions Luke Cantwell from FDU and Tyler Bischke from Kent State both hit double-digit HRs last season and will be key to the improvement of this Panthers squad.


Pitching is a question mark for this ball club, with Jack Sokol being the only returner from the rotation. Last year, Sokol posted a 7.54 ERA in 14 starts, which needs to improve for this ball club to contend in the ACC. That being said, I expect him to take a huge step forward, and with the addition of Ryan Andrade from Rhode Island and LHP Ryan Reed expected to move out of the bullpen, I think this Pitt rotation could be a sleepy good staff. The biggest concern is overall depth for this ball club, and I think this weekend's matchup with Maine in Florida will allow us to see how much of a problem it could possibly be.


On the other hand, Maine enters the season as the defending America East Champions. Though preseason polls project them at 2nd this season, they are led by Myles Stargent, who is getting a ton of preseason hype. The pitching staff is anchored by Noah Lewis, who posted fantastic numbers in 2023 with a 7-1 record and 4.32 ERA, while leading the team in IP, K, W, Opp Avg, and WHIP. Expect this Maine ballclub to come out wanting to make a statement.


Prediction: Pitt takes the series 2 of 3



#13 Virginia vs Hofstra


Virginia opens the season as a uninamous Top 15 team. The Hoos are a team that lost key contributors but still boast one of the best rosters in all of college baseball. The trio of Ethan Anderson, Griff O' Ferrall, and Casey Saucke should be a solid replacement to last year's Big 3 of Gelof, Teel, and O'Donnell.


I also expect Anthony Stephan and and Harrison Didawick to step up and have even better 2024 seasons. But, the biggest question mark for this Virginia ball club is still pitching. This staff offers more upside with guys who have very impressive stuff, but the results are not there yet to pronounce them better than last year. Brian O'Connor's teams always do a great job getting the most out of their pitchers, and I expect the group of Jay Woolfolk, Jack O'Connor, Brad Hodges, and Evan Blanco to propel this Virginia team back into the Omaha picture.


Hofstra, on the other hand, feels like a "get your feet wet" opening series for Virginia. The Pride are preseason 9th in a talented CAA, with a lot of question marks. One known positive is that they return four guys who hit better than .315 last season. Pitching is a major question mark, however, with the top of the rotation expected to be anchored by former back-end of the bullpen guy Michael O'Hanlon. This could be a rough series for the Pride, as they try to figure out their pitching staff against a loaded Virginia lineup.


Prediction: Virginia sweeps



#17 North Carolina vs Wagner


North Carolina, similar to in-state rival NC State, was hit with bad luck, as projected Friday starter Jake Knapp was diagnosed with a UCL tear that will sideline him for the season. But, the saving grace for this Tar Heels ball club, I think they still have three potential starters who will put them in the conversation of best rotation in the ACC.


Freshmen LHP Folger Boaz & RHP Jason Decaro come in highly touted, and both should be in any Freshman of the Year conversation. Transfer Shea Sprague from Elon comes with a 2.69 ERA and 7-3 record last season, and he could equally be in the conversation of Newcomer of the Year in the ACC.


Then you get to this lineup, that top to bottom is one of the best in the sport. Vance Honeycutt anchors it, with Hunter Stokely and Casey Cook both providing top-level talent. The North Carolina lineup does not provide an easy out anywhere, and when you discuss this series with Wagner, I expect the Tar Heels to be able to score a lot, providing their young arms a chance to attack and get comfortable with pitching at the collegiate level.


On the other side, Wagner comes in with some serious pitching questions. Last year, Wagner had a tough time closing out games. Alec Burnett posted a 7.47 ERA and needs to take a step forward to help guide this Seahawk team. They have two guys in the lineup that are very talented, 2B Chris Conniff, who hit .370 last year, and David Melfi, who is an All-NEC catcher. The unknowns on the mound, though, will probably be what dooms Wagner in this series, so I expect this series too falls into a "get your feet wet" type series for the Tar Heels.


Prediction: North Carolina sweeps



Florida State vs Butler


Florida State fans are desperate to restart their NCAA Tournament streak. Fortunately for them, Head Coach Link Jarrett has this FSU program headed in the right direction, and the expectation is a postseason berth again this season. One area that should take a huge step forward is the defense. Last year, the Noles were 12th in the ACC in fielding percentage, which is not common for Link Jarrett-coached teams. This weekend will be a great chance to see what highly touted freshman Cal Fisher brings to this team, as well as a pitching staff filled with a ton of hard throwing newcomers.


Butler is definitely rebuilding, and expectations for them are low. They are preseason 7th out of 8 programs in the Big East and last season posted a 12-43 record. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, opening the season with an FSU club that is hungry for a big season isn't the best way to right the ship. However, one really bright spot for this Butler team is reigning Freshman of the Year and preseason All-Big East OF Joey Urban. He is a Florida native, so this could be a great opportunity to come back and show out against a well-respected brand in his home state.


Prediction: Florida State sweeps



Miami vs NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology)


I had the pleasure to speak with a friend of my "Just Means Less ACC" podcast, Lucas Costello, who informed us that there is a TON of energy around this ball club. In the first year with former Miami star J.D. Arteaga as the head man, this ballclub is getting mixed reviews on what to expect.


D1 Baseball listed this team outside their projected Field of 64, which was quite shocking to me. The Hurricanes pitching staff is very talented with Gage Ziel, Rafe Schlesinger, and JUCO transfer Herick Hernandez, who are expected to be the weekend rotation. This lineup is very athletic, and Arteaga is instilling grit and swagger into this program.


Expect the Canes to battle and show a lot of toughness when things get rocky. I think this lineup is very underrated, and I believe this Miami team is a sleeper to make Omaha. This weekend will allow us a first chance to see all the new faces in the lineup and provide a lot of excitement for what should be an entertaining year in South Beach.


Now lets talk about this gritty NJIT team. The Highlanders got off to a great start in 2023 but then suffered one of the worst cases of the injury bug in the sport. Though this led to an unfortunate spiral from their hot start, it allowed a lot of guys the chance to step up and get game experience. The return of Albert Choi, who hit .377 before injury, provides a real threat at the plate for this lineup. Paired with one of the deepest pitching staffs in the America East, that could mean a special season for NJIT. The Canes can definitely not afford to sleep on this Highlanders team, and this has the potential to be an underrated series this weekend.


Prediction: Miami sweeps



Notre Dame at Rice


Notre Dame is just two years removed from a trip to Omaha. Unfortunately, 2023 was a very rough first season for Head Coach Shawn Stiffler and company. The Irish lost a lot from last year's team but did a fantastic job in the portal finding upperclassmen to fill those vacated spots. The middle of their lineup features quality bats, with Jack Penney and Estevan Moreno, plus a trio of transfers who hit a combined 49 homers last year.


If the Irish can find that recipe of how to mix and match their quality arms, this team could be a dark horse in the ACC. Many expect little from the Irish, and you can also count me as someone with low expectations. However, I want to be very clear I believe this program is headed in the right direction, and there is reason to believe this team could burst onto the scene in the ACC. This weekend's road trip to Rice is a great way to make that a reality.


Similar to Notre Dame, Rice is greeted with low expectations for 2024. Picked to finish near the bottom of the American does not seem to sit well with this Rice fan base. The Owls are a program that I want to see return to its past success.


As a kid, I loved watching the Rice Owls in Omaha. The Owls have one the nicest ballparks in the sport and should boast a great atmosphere this weekend when the Irish come to town. Rice has a lot of team speed, which can make them pesky if they get on base. They also have an ace pitcher in Parker Smith spearheading the rotation. I expect Rice to battle and make every out a tough one when at the plate. Watch out for this series, as this is one that can really help Notre Dame's RPI if they are battling for an at-Large spot come May.


Prediction: Notre Dame takes the series 2 of 3.



#14 Clemson vs Xavier


Welcome back, high expectations in Clemson, SC. The Tigers have been featured in many experts' Omaha 8 (including mine), and for great reason. Head Coach Erik Bakich always gets the most out of his team, and you can expect this team to achieve its max potential again this season.


The Tigers will be anchored by phenom Cam Cannarella. He was reported to be suspended the first two games of this season due to an incident in regional play last year, but it was subsequently confirmed there was no suspension for that. What that means is this weekend gets even more exciting, because nothing is better than having the best players on the field.


This is a great first test for Clemson, as Xavier was the Big East Tournament Champions last season. I expect we get to see a lot of a rotation that seems to still be in the works. However, when I say "in the works," I mean because they have so much talent. Bakich and staff did a great job in the portal, bringing in a ton of talent to replace the likes of Caden Grice & Billy Amick. Expect this weekend to provide even more excitement around Clemson baseball.


Xavier is going to be a scrappy group, and expect this ball club to come in confident. The Musketeers are led by a group of All-Big East preseason players, 1B Matt McCormick, 2B Jared Cushing, 3B Grant Stephenson, and SP Luke Hoskins. This Xavier lineup is deep, and they are going to be sound defensively. They are going to test this Clemson team, and don't be surprised if they take a game from a Top-10 Clemson ball club.


Prediction: Clemson sweeps



Georgia Tech vs Radford


Heads or Tails. That summarizes this Georgia Tech ball club, because there is a 50% chance you see a tournament quality team and 50% chance you see a frustrating group. This Yellow Jacket team has so much potential. I firmly believe it's capable of being a Field of 64 team, and all it will take is consistency on the mound. The upside is there, and I expect the back end to be deep, with Ben King returning as one of the best bullpen arms in the country.


We know the Yellow Jackets will hit, and even with the loss of all four guys who hit double-digit HRs last season, the offense will not be lacking in the A-T-L. This will be a great chance to see how the rotation shapes out, and if Georgia Tech will be able to continue to hit at the rate they have in recent years.


Radford, on the other hand, is a brand new team. The Highlanders feature 30 new faces on the roster, and this team most definitely got better from last year's disappointing season. Radford will be aggressive, as they feature a ton of speed, which should also translate to quality defense. Their ace, Dylan Howard, has high-end stuff, and I think this team is a sleeper in the Big South. Don't be surprised if they battle Georgia Tech all weekend long. Yellow Jackets fans, do not sleep on this Radford team. They can and will catch you if you do.


Prediction: Georgia Tech sweeps



Virginia Tech at Charlotte


This might be the only series an ACC team enters this weekend as the underdog, and for what it is worth, I don't put the blame on Virginia Tech for that. The Hokies are looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2023 season. Anchored by Chris Cannizzaro and Carson DeMartini, you can expect this lineup to be dangerous.


Virginia Tech also features the best infield in the conference. CBC field writer Monty Taylor provides a great breakdown on this infield in this video. Griffin Stieg is the presumed Friday night starter, and I expect him and Richmond transfer Jeremy Neff to spearhead a strong Virginia Tech rotation. This is a great early test for this Hokies team. A series win here welcomes them back to the Field of 64 conversation, which I believe should include them.


Watch out for this Charlotte 49ers team, too. With 29 newcomers after a 2023 season that featured a Regional Final appearance, expect some growing pains for this team. Charlotte scheduled a great non-conference home slate that features this series with Virginia Tech, plus Maryland and West Virginia.


Cameron Hansen will lead this rotation, and they have an iron man behind the plate in catcher Kaden Hopson. Charlotte did a great job reloading, and the biggest question mark for me is how this team looks opening weekend. I believe they are a Field of 64 caliber team, but will they have it this weekend?


Prediction: Virginia Tech takes the series 2 out of 3.



#1 Wake Forest vs Fordham (Fri), Illinois (Sat), Akron (Sun)


I am going to keep this section short and sweet. Wake Forest should dominate this first weekend of games. The best rotation in college baseball, with arguably the best position player as well, means the roster at the top end is way ahead of these three foes this weekend.


Fordham is an average A-10 team, and I feel for them if they face Chase Burns. Illinois has a questionable pitching staff, which doesn't play well at the hitter-friendly confines of the (David F.) "Couch" ball park. Akron is preseason last in the MAC, and their ace Spencer Atkins most likely will not throw this game against Wake. It is a good RPI play to get in games against multiple teams over one weekend. This one, however, should be a clean sweep for Wake.


Prediction: Wake Forest sweeps the weekend



Boston College vs Ohio State (Fri), #20 Kansas State (Sat), and Cal (Sun) in Scottsdale, AZ


Let us enter the new era of Boston College baseball. I think BC did a fantastic job with the hire of Todd Interdonato from Wofford. He preaches fundamentals, and you can expect his teams to be aggressive. He is a proven winner, and I believe it will carry over to Boston College.


That being said, this team has a lot of key pieces to replace from last year's Regional Finalist team. Pitching has a lot of question marks, though John West provides at least one proven arm. Barry Walsh in centerfield is a huge returner for BC, and I expect the lineup to be strong once again. Kudos to BC for having such a strong opening weekend slate. We will learn a lot about this team by the end of this weekend.


The MLB Desert Invitational features some great ball clubs. In my opinion, Ohio State is the best draw for this BC team. The Buckeyes have a strong outfield, but there is a ton of question marks in the pitching department. The closer from last year's team, Landon Beidelschies, should get the start, but we don't know what to expect entering a new role.


Kansas State, on the other hand, is the best team in this invitational. Tyler Ruhl should get the start here, and this Wildcats team will be aggressive. They have a chip on their shoulder after being inexplicably left out of the tournament by the selection committee last year. If Kansas State leads late, you can expect closer Tyson Neighbors to seal the deal for the Wildcats.


That brings us to Cal, a feisty group which features seven guys with three years of starting experience. They do have two potential First Round picks, Caleb Lomativa at catcher and Rodney Green Jr. in centerfield. Similar to Ohio State, pitching will be a question mark for this Bears team. With this being the last game of the weekend, depending on how things break for the Bears, we could see some inexperienced arms called on to throw.


Prediction: BC takes 2 of 3 and drops one to Kansas State.



Louisville vs Indiana St (Fri), USF (Sat), and UConn (Sun) in Tampa, FL


I am going to get this out in the open. I am all-in on Louisville bouncing back this season. I love this roster, and there is a buzz around this ball club that is looking to bounce back. The outfield is loaded with talent, and Logan Beard is due for a breakout season. In my opinion, the rotation is Top 3 in the ACC, and the bullpen has a lot of upside. This team is going to run, and I trust in close ballgames, this team will find ways to win. This weekend is an opportunity for the Cardinals to prove themselves.


The USF Invitational is a good one. Indiana State, who made the Super Regionals last year, lost its entire weekend rotation from 2023. However, they return a lot in the everyday starting lineup, which proves to be what is supporting their preseason MVC favorite position in the polls.


Jared Spencer is a top level arm for the Sycamores who may start, or may fill the closer role. Either way, I think there is a good chance Louisville sees him this weekend. The host of the invitational, USF is the least touted team in this, but they are no easy out. They return eight position players who started 35 or more games last year. Pitching last year was the Bulls' crux and depending on the improvement, could be the difference on Saturday.


Finally, UConn is a fringe Top 25 team, with the Preseason Big East Player and Pitcher of the Year on its roster. The question is how UConn will shape their rotation. If Louisville sees the back end of the rotation, I see a potential advantage for the Cardinals. Unfortunately, all these games, minus the ones that feature USF, will not be available to stream, so I look forward to box score diving into this one.


Prediction: Louisville takes 2 of 3 and (I really don't know who beats them, but for the sake of this article) loses to UConn.



#15 Duke vs #25 Indiana (Fri), George Mason (Sat), and #22 Coastal Carolina (Sun) in Conway, SC


Duke decided they wanted to go off the high-dive to start the season, with all three weekend opponents having won an NCAA tournament game last season. Talk about a challenge!


Duke features an elite rotation and bullpen, which should mean very little scoring from opponents. The question behind this team is how strong it is offensively. I love the transfers they brought in, especially Zac Morris from VMI. Freshman Kyle Johnson is many experts' prediction to be ACC Freshman of the Year, so I look forward to seeing his collegiate debut. There is so much to like about this Blue Devils squad, and we will know right away if this team is an Omaha contender.


Baseball at the Beach, or "Kickin' Chicken Classic" as I call it, is loaded, as we mentioned. Lexington Regional finalist Indiana opens the weekend. Like many teams, pitching is the question mark, but I expect Brayden Risedorph to get the nod on Friday. The Hoosiers outfield is loaded, and the lineup has no easy outs. It will be interesting to see if they can have success against Santucci and Duke.


George Mason is the easiest of the three opponents, but that isn't meant to be an insult. South Trimble gives them speed on the base paths, but I do think Duke can score on them. And, I do not know if the Patriots will be able to have success against Duke's arms.


Finally, the game of the weekend, and rematch of last year's Conway Regional Finals. Coastal has a loaded lineup that can get hits from everywhere. Pitching has always been their biggest crux, and projected starter Trever Hinkel from Cal State Fullerton has a lot to prove after his 8.83 ERA last season. This is must-watch TV, and thankfully, Coastal Carolina has decided to broadcast all the games of this weekend's clash. Make sure to tune in because you are getting a teaser of postseason baseball on Opening Weekend.


Prediction: Duke sweeps the Kickin' Chicken Classic


*****




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