Feb. 11, 2013

CBI ACC preview

ACC Preseason Coaches' Poll

Rivals UNC, NC State Dream Big

By Sean Ryan

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder

sean@collegebaseballinsider.com @collbaseball


Nine times since 1982, a team from Tobacco Road has traveled the Road to the Final Four and waltzed away a champion.


Once, way back in 1955, a team from Tobacco Road traveled the Road to Omaha and walked away a champion.


Although no ACC team since Wake Forest has won college baseball’s national championship, the Road to Omaha may go through Tobacco Road in 2013.


For the first time entering a season, rivals North Carolina and NC State are ranked in the Top 10. The Tar Heels are preseason No. 1 according to Baseball America and Perfect Game and are ranked no lower than fourth in the five primary polls. The Wolfpack checks in at No. 8 in the Baseball America poll and are ninth in two polls and 11th in two others.


“That’s exciting,” said Colin Moran (left), North Carolina’s junior third baseman, of his squad’s lofty rankings. “It adds a little bit more excitement going into the season.”


Added Carlos Rodon, NC State’s sensational sophomore pitcher: “It’s cool to have two schools right near each other in the Top 10. Hopefully we can play to that level.”


The Wolfpack certainly did in 2012.


After being picked third in the ACC’s Atlantic Division and seventh overall in the ACC, the Wolfpack hosted an NCAA Regional and captured a title before dropping two straight games at No. 1 Florida in the Super Regionals to end a 43-20 campaign.


About 45 minutes down Tobacco Road, North Carolina backed up its preseason Top-5 ranking by earning the No. 6 national seed for the NCAA Tourney. But, St. John’s shocked the Tar Heels twice and advanced to the next round. UNC stayed home after a stellar 46-16 season.


The conclusions of those seasons have lingering effects.


Carolina was coming off an Omaha trip – the program’s fifth in seven seasons – and led late on Day 2 of the Chapel Hill Regional when St. John’s Danny Bethea ripped a walkoff, three-run homer to stun the Tar Heels. The Red Storm beat North Carolina a second time the next day, ending the dream of back-to-back trips to the College World Series.


Moran said the feeling of disappointment and sour taste from last year will help this year’s team.


“It’s definitely extra motivation,” Moran said.


The Tar Heels were reminded just how difficult it is to return to Omaha.


“Absolutely, that was the No. 1 positive about getting knocked out early last year,” said Kent Emanuel (left), North Carolina’s junior ace. “We kind of took it for granted that we’re going back.”


This year’s team, he added, has learned to stay grounded, knowing a trip to the College World Series is not a given.


At NC State, the Wolfpack kept battling back against the No. 1 Gators in the second game of the Super Regional. State trailed by two in the eighth and rallied to tie; it trailed by one in the ninth and forced extra innings. Trailing by two in the 10th, the Wolfpack cut the lead in half and had the tying run at second when the game ended on a suspect called third strike.


NC State enters this season “very hungry,” according to sophomore Trea Turner (left), who will make the switch from third base to shortstop this year.


“Now we know we can win and how to win,” Turner said.


Added Rodon: “We know what it’s like to be in the postseason and be in a big spot.”




Since the end of last season, Emanuel has done everything possible to gain as much weight and muscle as he can. He’s been in the gym. He’s worked with a nutritionist. The 6-4 lefty said he’s the type of person who can eat whatever he wants.


“I always ate a lot, the big difference is that I ate more often,” Emanuel said of his diet that has helped him gain “11 or 12 pounds” since last season. That, and maybe a particular liking to Oreos. “I’m big on cookies.”


The result continues a trend he’s experienced each year since high school.


“I come back a little bigger and am throwing a little bit harder,” Emanuel said.


Not the best news for opposing hitters. As a freshman, Emanuel went 9-1 with a 2.33 ERA with 89 strikeouts and 23 walks in 104.1 innings. Last year, he was 8-4 with a 1.96 ERA and 100 strikeouts and 23 walks in 110 innings.


“He’s real tough,” Moran said of his teammate. “He can spot up his pitchers wherever he wants; he can just play with you at times because he has pinpoint control.”


Turner, from NC State, called Emanuel “the total package.”


“He’s a pitcher, not a thrower,” said Turner, acknowledging that Emanuel kept him off balance. “He knows what to do in situations.”


Emanuel, from Woodstock, Ga., leads a rotation that returns Benton Moss (7-2, 1.94 ERA) and Hobbs Johnson (7-1, 1.56) and figures to be as strong as any in the ACC. The Tar Heels will look to replace relievers Michael Morin and R.C. Orlan.  


“Our pitching staff is always so deep, the competition for innings is such a driver,” Emanuel said.


Moran, Baseball America’s 2011 Freshman of the Year and Perfect Game’s Freshman Hitter of the Year, headlines the Tar Heels’ attack at the plate. The smooth-hitting lefty hit .365 with three homers and 35 RBI in 41 games – he missed 21 games with a broken hand sustained punching a door in a March loss to NC State. No other UNC regular batted above .300 last year.


Emanuel described Moran the hitter as “pure.”

“He’s one of the best hitters in the country,” Emanuel said of his close friend, against whom he has a tough time not smiling or laughing when he enters the box. “I’ve seen him do just about everything with every kind of pitch.”


Rodon added: “He’s a good hitter; he’s got a great approach.”




Like Carolina, State has an ace lefty and a brilliant infielder leading the way.


Rodon (left) and Turner describe each other as intense competitors, whether it’s on or off the field. The roommates compete at just about everything, from iPhone games to pool or ping pong, according to Turner. Rodon said Turner has the edge in Call of Duty, while the pitcher gets the better of the hitter in MLB The Show.


“He wants to win at everything,” Turner said of Rodon. “I think that’s what makes him great on the mound.”


Rodon, Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year and Louisville Slugger’s Freshman Pitcher of the Year in 2012,   didn’t lose as a freshman, going 9-0 with a 1.57 ERA and 135 strikeouts and 41 walks in 114.2 innings. Opponents hit a flimsy .176 during his freshman campaign.


“It’s his demeanor on the mound,” Turner said, adding that his low-to-mid 90s fastball is “obviously intimidating.”


Rodon, who said he worked on his change and pickoff move in the off-season, has a big fan in Emanuel.


“He just has unbelievable stuff,” Emanuel said. “I don’t know how else to say it. He’s so far ahead of his age in what’s in his arsenal. The sky’s the limit for him.”


In addition to Rodon, from Holly Springs, N.C., the Wolfpack returns the bulk of its staff.


Fellow starters Ethan Ogburn (5-4, 3.38), Anthony Tzamtzis (5-5, 4.38) and Logan Jernigan (5-1, 5.71) provide the Wolfpack with an experienced rotation. And the bullpen, led by closer Chris Overman, brings back Vance Williams, Travis Orwig, Dillon Frye and Danny Healey. 


It’s a bit shocking Turner wasn’t recruited heavily out of high school in Lake Worth, Fla. All he did as a freshman was hit .336 with five homers, 43 RBI and a nation’s best 57 stolen bases (in 61 attempts) – he stole more bases than more than half of Division I’s teams. He also ranked sixth in the nation with 72 runs.


“Trea is a true competitor,” Rodon said. “He’s such a gamer; he works so hard every day. It’s so unbelievable how much he’s grown.”


Emanuel admires Turner’s “killer speed.”


“I remember sitting there Saturday and Sunday and watching him run,” Emanuel said. “He stole a stupid amount of bases.”




It’s the first Saturday of February, and the start of the college baseball season is less than two weeks away. NC State is prepping to intrasquad, and Rodon will be on the mound at some point, possibly facing his buddy Turner.


The sophomore stars each reminisce about their freshmen years with modesty. One just wanted to play and contribute to a winning team; the other simply trying to throw strikes and win for the team.


“Last year means nothing, but we can take a couple things and use them,” Rodon said.


Three days later, North Carolina has finished a scrimmage, and Emanuel and Moran – who like Rodon and Turner starred as freshmen – sound like seasoned vets.


They appreciate the preseason accolades. But they know the challenges that lie ahead.   


“We all know that everything changes once the season starts,” Emanuel said. “When we go out and play, we want to act like we’re the best team in the nation.”


Added Moran: “The bar was set with those past teams. The expectation is to go to Omaha.”


Time will tell if a team – or teams – from Tobacco Road will be making that trip.


(photos courtesy of UNC & NCSU Media Relations)