Under The Radar: UNC Wilmington

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WILMINGTON, N.C. — Heading into the season, we tabbed UNC Wilmington as the team to beat in the Colonial Athletic Association thanks largely to its high-powered offense. The Seahawks scored double-digit runs in each of their first six games, then their offense cooled off a bit, and their pitching staff got lit up in a three-game series sweep at the hands of North Florida two weeks ago.

But since then, Wilmington has gotten back on track, scoring 10-plus runs in five of its last six games — all of them victories. After earning a big midweek win against NC State on Tuesday, the Seahawks opened CAA play with a home series against Elon, and they clinched that series with a 12-3 win Saturday.

After 21 games, Wilmington is 15-6 overall, and its offense looks as explosive as expected. Heading into the weekend, UNCW ranked third in the nation in scoring (9.2 runs per game). The Seahawks grew from that taste of adversity down at North Florida.

“I think we did learn a little bit about the character of the players and how they came back from there and went back to work,” UNCW coach Mark Scalf said. “They want to be successful, and they understand that we made some mistakes down there, and some mistakes that can be cleaned up. They’ve tried to do that, and for the most part we’ve cleaned up a lot of it.”

Wilmington has a very nice blend of speed and power, with a burner at the top of the lineup in Steven Linkous and another toward the bottom in Robbie Thorburn. In between, veteran lefthanded run producer Gavin Stupienski, emerging sophomore Nick Feight and athletic outfielder Casey Golden form a dangerous heart of the order. And sophomore Brian Mims has become a very nice catalyst in the No. 2 hole.

Feight and Stupienski did much of the heavy lifting Saturday. Scalf said Stupienski, the team’s most accomplished hitter, had not looked as comfortable in the box a week or so ago, but he worked hard to get back to driving the ball to all fields in practice, and he had three hits to three different parts of the park on Saturday: a single up the middle, a two-run double down the left-field line and a solo homer to right-center.

“A big thing for me is my rhythm and timing, trying to get that right. Kind of fell off there for a little bit, but I think I’m getting more comfortable as the games go on, which is good,” Stupienski said.

UNC Wilmington's Gavin Stupienski (Aaron Fitt)UNC Wilmington’s Gavin Stupienski (Aaron Fitt)

The fourth-year junior catcher/DH is hitting .383/.474/.654 with five homers and 22 RBIs on the year — outstanding numbers, but not as loud as fellow catcher Feight. The sophomore has his own two-run double to left on Saturday, and capped his day with an opposite-field solo homer in the ninth, right after Stupienski went deep. Feight, who played just 11 games as a freshman last year, is now batting .375/.418/.788 with eight homers and 37 RBIs. He ranked third in the nation in RBIs heading into the weekend.

“He’s created a good rhythm in the box and he has balance in the box, and Nick sees the ball well,” Scalf said. “He’s gained a lot of confidence along the way. Part of that came last summer, he kind of built on that last fall, and it’s carried into the spring. The more he plays, the better Nick’s gonna be. He’s a competitor, he doesn’t like making outs. He’s a pretty intelligent baseball player, so he finds a way to make an adjustment when he needs to make an adjustment.”

Wilmington’s versatile, powerful and athletic offense is its greatest strength, but the top two spots in the weekend rotation are in very good shape, too. Ryan Foster improved to 5-0, 1.50 in Friday’s win, and freshman righthander Alex Royalty followed with a strong outing Saturday, allowing two runs on three hits and no walks over six innings, striking out four. He improved to 5-1, 4.11 on the season.

UNC Wilmington righthander Alex Royalty (Aaron Fitt)UNC Wilmington righthander Alex Royalty (Aaron Fitt)

At scout day in the fall, Royalty impressed me with his feel for pitching with three quality offerings, and Saturday he showed similar stuff and command over a longer outing against a conference opponent. He pitched at 88-90 mph and effectively mixed in a solid 75-78 curveball with good depth and a decent 80-83 changeup that got better as his outing progressed.

“I was pleased to see him attack the zone with all his pitches today,” Scalf said. “He wasn’t afraid to throw his breaking ball, wasn’t afraid to throw his changeup. Tried to attack with his fastball to both sides of the plate, and for the most part he was able to locate the baseball where he wanted to off his fastball. Location was a little shaky early with his changeup, but by the third inning he had a much better feel for it. It’s fun to watch guys grow up, and I think Alex is working in the right direction.”

The Seahawks are working in the right direction, too. I wrote in the fall that the Seahawks look like a team that has a real chance to make their first super regional, and six weeks into the season, they certainly have the look of a dangerous mid-major contender.

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