The Southeastern Conference is to college baseball what the New England Patriots are to the NFL Playoffs. It seems more often than not, at least one team finds themselves in the championship hunt on a yearly basis. Coming off a Florida vs. LSU CWS finale, this year may be more of the same.
The SEC opens with eight teams in D1baseball’s preseason Top 25. Florida, Arkansas, LSU, Kentucky, Mississippi, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt are all legit contenders. That doesn’t even include Auburn, a team that appeared in the the NCAA regionals a year ago.
In college baseball, all roads lead to Omaha. There are 64 chances to make the final eight in the College World Series and the roadmap starts in the Southeastern United States.
Let’s take a look at why the SEC will be one of the more exciting conferences to watch this season.
Tristan Pompey and the Kentucky resurgence
What a difference a year makes.
Head coach Nick Mingione came into Lexington in 2017 and took over a Kentucky team that finished a respectable 34-23, but near the bottom for almost every offensive statistical category in the SEC. He challenged the team and they responded. The Wildcats led the SEC in batting average (.316), hits (706), doubles (148), slugging percentage (.489) and on base percentage (.416) while finished second in home runs (73) and RBI (446).
“I think having more discipline, knowing what each hitter’s zone is and what they can handle,” UK junior Tristan Pompey told NCAA.com about the Wildcats big 2017. “Having that plan at the plate, a clear, consistent plan that you can stick with in every at bat is crucial.”
While the new offensive plan helped, there was no denying Mingione and his coaching staff’s presence in the locker room was immediately felt.
”For sure,” Pompey said of Mingione’s personality. “When he first came into the locker room he was super positive, smiley and this upbeat guy. We didn’t think it would last long, we thought he was putting it on for show. But every day, all the coaching staff acted the same way. From day one to the end of the season. That energy rubbed off on us.”
While Kentucky lost three big bats — Evan White, Zach Reks and Riley Mahan — to the MLB Draft, they have some nice returning firepower. Tristan Pompey should be one of the most exciting players in college baseball. The outfielder can hit for average (.361), bomb for power (18 doubles and 10 home runs) and run the bases (nine stolen bases) while playing all three sports in the outfield. He had a quiet summer in Cape Cod which should fuel the fire heading into the season.
“Obviously I struggled,” Pompey said of the Cape Cod League. “But I learned that you can’t put too much pressure on yourself. You got to go out there everyday, erase yesterday, erase the 0-for-4, and go out with a new mindset ready to work all over again.”
Now 2018 sees a new challenge with a lineup that will look different from last year’s Super Regional run. Pompey believes his coaches have the right people to fill the void.
“I feel really confident,” Pompey said. “Our coaching staff instills a certain plan in us. Just because we are missing some of those big players, we got some new players that can fill their spots pretty well. It will be cool to see how we mesh as a team and where everyone fits.”
If Pompey isn’t the player to watch on Kentucky -- you literally can’t miss Seth Hjelle. The righty is redefining the idea of big presence on the mound, listed at 6-foot-11. That’s taller than Baseball Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. And that’s just flat out big.
Hjelle had a breakout sophomore campaign, leading the Wildcats with 11 wins behind a 3.89 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning en route to 2017 SEC Pitcher of the Year honors.
“We hit against him all the time,” Pompey said. “It’s just a different eye sight that you have to look at, throwing off the mound he’s seven feet tall. It’s almost like playing cricket, everything is straight down hill. The first time you play him it’s different. Watching him dominate from the outfield. His mindset when he’s on the mound is fierce.”
Last season’s run was defined by a newfound offense and a cup cap. While they hope the offense remains the same, it may be time for a new good luck charm.
“Ooh, I don’t know if the cup cap will be back on opening day,” Pompey said. “I think we’ll have to make something new for this year’s squad. We’ll see what they come up with.”
A returner-heavy Arkansas team is put to an early SEC test
The Razorbacks had a memoriable 2015 season, reaching Omaha on the heels of Andrew Benintendi’s Golden Spikes season. The following year wasn’t as kind, as injuries and a tough stretch ended the campaign with a 26-29 record.
The good news for Razorbacks fans in 2017 was Arkansas improved from a 26-win team in 2016 to a 45-win team in 2017. The good news in Fayetteville this year is a lot of the pieces of that turnaround are back, making them a force to contend for the SEC.
There may not be a more fun name in the SEC than Jax Biggers. The shortstop is one of the best in the game coming off a season in which he led Arkansas starters in both batting average (.338) and on base percentage (.423). Starting outfielders Dominic Fletcher and Eric Cole return with Fletcher’s big bat expected to fill some of the void left after slugger Chad Spanberger was drafted by the Colorado Rockies. Luke Bonfield can play outfield as well, but will spend more time at DH, allowing freshman Heston Kjerstad to shine as the lone newcomer to the lineup. Catcher Grant Koch, who’s 13 home runs were second to Spanberger’s team-best 20, should help in the power department as well.
Blaine Knight, last season’s Opening Day starter for the Hogs, is coming off a strong sophomore campaign that may just be touching the surface of his abilities. Kacey Murphy made 10 starts in 19 appearances last year, and should make some noise in the rotation as well. Many expect big things from Isaiah Campbell as he joins the rotation full time in his sophomore campaign. Relievers Jake Reindl (2.31 ERA) and Matt Cronin (2.00 ERA) return to back up a very strong staff.
Arkansas wastes no time getting put to the test once their SEC schedule opens. They open SEC play at Baum Stadium against Kentucky and then head to Gainesville the following weekend. This Arkansas vs. Florida matchup could be a foreshadowing of a changing of the guard. The last time the two faced, Arkansas beat UF ace Brady Singer 16-0 in the SEC semifinals.
A Zack(h) Attack should power a new-look LSU
LSU lost a lot of big pieces from last season’s national runner-up squad. Alex Lange, Jared Poche’, Greg Deichmann, Kramer Robertson, and Cole Freeman are some of the familiar faces that won’t be at Alex Box Stadium. Even breakout freshman pitcher Eric Walker will miss the 2018 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
As always, there’s still plenty of star power in Baton Rouge. It will be fun to see how quickly this team puts it together.
Antoine Duplantis built on an All-SEC Freshman Team campaign with another big year, especially in the tournament where he was the Tigers best hitter. Speaking of sensational freshman years, how about Zach Watson? Watson is coming off a huge debut, leading the team with a .317 average and finishing second with nine home runs. He really started feeling it in the postseason, earning CWS All-Tournament Team honors behind a program record-setting power surge in the regionals.