SALISBURY, Md. – No team at Salisbury University felt the whiplash of the COVID-19 pandemic more swiftly than the Sea Gull baseball team. On March 12, 2020, the 10th-ranked Sea Gulls completed a 9-7 come-from-behind victory over No. 11 Shenandoah. Barely minutes after right fielder Cameron Hyder caught the game's 27th and final out, SU learned that the rest of the season was canceled, and this high note would be it's last.
Flash-forward nearly 12 months and SU is ready to roll again. With a chip on their shoulder and unfinished business on the table, the ninth-ranked Sea Gulls (D3baseball.com/NCBWA, BaseballNews.com) are preseason favorites in the Coast-to-Coast Athletic Conference and return a massive amount of talent from last year's team that went 8-3 before the stoppage. Important in any season, that institutional memory will be especially vital during a 2021 slate where the specter of sudden change looms over every game and practice.
"Our veterans have been through the program, some of them back for their fifth year, and they're great leaders and teachers," said head coach Troy Brohawn, who enters his seventh season at the helm on the Peninsula. "They know what the expectations are from the coaching staff; a coach doesn't have to be at a drill necessarily all the time. It's great having the depth, it allows some of the younger guys to not have to put as much pressure on themselves coming into the program, trying to do too much."
If any team is built to withstand the impending oddities of 2021, it's Salisbury. The Sea Gulls under Brohawn have built a program and culture that leans heavily on four-year players, giving it an underlying chemistry that will be paramount during a season that may keep the team from establishing its traditional rhythm. If they can overcome that, SU has a real chance at making its first Division III World Series since 2015 and winning its first-ever national championship.
In the everyday lineup the Sea Gulls preach an "efficient" approach that wouldn't feel out of place next to the Whitey Herzog-era St. Louis Cardinals: smart situational hitting with gap-to-gap line drives and lots of speed coupled with outstanding defense. Salisbury returns seven everyday starters to high-octane lineup that hit .288 as a team with an impressive .855 OPS over 11 games.
"One thing that we recruit here is speed, especially here on turf. We want guys that can handle the bat, be consistent and put pressure on the defense, and I think that's what our offense is going to be like this year."
Anchoring the Sea Gull outfield is fifth-year center fielder and hair aficionado Justin Meekins, who slashed an impressive .371/.566/.543 with 12 RBIs, 15 runs scored and 11 stolen bases. Meekins was named first-team All-Capital Athletic Conference (CAC, now Coast-to-Coast Athletic Conference) in each of his first three full seasons and took advantage of the NCAA's eligibility grant to return for a fifth year at SU. Joining him in right field is Hyder, who hit .326 with a .918 OPS and swiped six bags.
The infield is captained by senior shortstop Jimmy Adkins, who batted .273 with a .944 OPS and 10 runs scored in his abbreviated 2020. With a 2019 first-team All-CAC nod already under his belt, and plans to return to the pitching rubber after playing one-way in 2020, Adkins enters 2021 as a C2C Player of the Year contender. Fifth-year third baseman Brandon Bonesteel led the team with three home runs and 13 RBIs and junior second baseman Stephen Rice's .342 batting average was second only to Meekins among Sea Gull regulars.
Sophomore catcher Jacob Ference saw action in six games as a freshman and enters 2021 as the team's top backstop. Finally, senior Christian Murphy found a role in the designated hitter slot in 2020, batting .290 with three doubles and 10 rib-eyes over eight games as DH.
The old adage "you can never have too much pitching" never rang truer than in 2021, when traditional weekend series are nonexistent and COVID-related schedule adjustments could force unexpectedly long layoffs between appearances.
"This season will not be a normal schedule where we can get a lot of guys different innings to start the season. We just reiterate to them, when you get the opportunity to get in the game, please take advantage of it."
The Sea Gulls bring back three top-line starters, starting with sophomore left-hander Jackson Balzan. As a freshman Balzan went 2-1 with a 4.15 ERA and 13.29 K/9 rate over four starts, holding his own against some of the top teams on Salisbury's schedule. With command of three pitches – an upper-80s fastball coupled with a plus-curveball and changeup – Balzan has a chance to become one of the top underclass arms in the game.
Right-hander Clayton Dwyer cashed in his fifth year to build off a year where he struck out 21 batters in 19.1 innings. Junior lefty Xavier Marmol, meanwhile, aims to return to a 2019 form (9-2, 3.00 ERA) that saw him pick up second-team All-CAC accolades as a freshman.
The Sea Gull bullpen features four key arms (southpaw Brock Hilligoss and right-handers Corey Burton, Brandon Epstein and Colt Stemkowski) that combined to eat up 17.2 innings in 2020. SU also adds four freshmen arms that are all expected to contribute from the get-go.
Salisbury perennially boasts one of the most difficult schedules in the country, and 2021 is no exception. The Sea Gulls' first four games pair them with Virginia Wesleyan and SUNY Cortland, always tough outs. Brohawn also has his radar on for early season contests against Rowan and Randolph-Macon. The back half of the schedule is loaded with series against local rivals Christopher Newport, Mary Washington, St. Mary's (Md.) and Southern Virginia.
"We love to play tough competition, especially early, it gives us a read on what our team is going to look like and what we need to work on."
Salisbury begins the season at Sea Gull Baseball Stadium on Wednesday, March 3, against Virginia Wesleyan at 2 p.m. Fans can watch home baseball games on the Sea Gull Sports Network all season long.