A first ever Sun Belt Tournament title, a top 25 national ranking, and a near berth into the NCAA Super Regionals. Those were just a few of the accomplishments that highlighted FAU baseball’s 2013 campaign, which was among the best in school history.
A cast of experienced upperclassmen helped lead the club to a 42 win season. Outfielders Nathan Pittman and Corey Keller, and first baseman Mark Nelson provided the power with their bats, while closer Hugh Adams collected both FAU and Sun Belt Conference saves records.
But all those players are moving onto the next chapter of their careers, leaving FAU with several holes at different positions.
The Owls must adequately fill those voids in order to keep up arguably the most successful sports program on campus. And, if they do, there’s the question of how the Owls will fare in their new home –– Conference USA.
Last year, the Sun Belt’s collective strength of schedule was ranked fifth in all of college baseball, and FAU, South Alabama, Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette all took turns looking like eventual conference champs.
The difference with Conference USA is that one team, Rice University, has won five conference championships in the last eight years.
Owls head coach John McCormack was quick to take notice.
“This league, their baseball history, what they’ve accomplished on a national stage, it’s impressive,” McCormack said.
As impressive as the new conference is, FAU already made its own splash in last season’s Regional Tournament, taking top seeded UNC to the brink of elimination on national television, and becoming the top trending topic on Twitter in the process.
McCormack knows FAU won’t be flying under the radar any longer.
“I’ve spoken to a few [Conference USA] coaches that told me teams are now looking out for us,” he said.
And it seems his returning players don’t want to be overlooked, either.
“We’ve got a good collection coming back,” senior pitcher Austin Gomber said. “Guys like Levi Meyer, Tyler Rocklein. I mean we lost Adams and Sylvestri in the bullpen. But with myself, Jeremy Strawn and Kevin Alexander holding down the pitching rotation, it will be fun playing a new group of competition.”
A few of FAU’s younger players, like sophomore infielder Brendon Sanger, will just be happy to take the field on a regular basis.
“I’m looking forward to just going out and playing every day, and trying to bring home a conference championship,” Sanger said.
Although Conference USA’s competition is steep and unfamiliar, some media pundits don’t see the Owls stumbling.
“It’s a pretty good league,” said Aaron Fitt, national college baseball writer for Baseball America. “With the exception of Rice, an elite program, I don’t feel like any of these teams are so far above FAU that they’ll struggle to compete.”
Above all else, C-USA will present a chance for FAU to achieve a rare mark, one that both the upperclassmen and younger players would like to leave with.
“I’m really looking forward to trying to win our second conference title in a new conference,” Gomber said. “Not many people can say they have championships in two different conferences.”
“That would be sweet.”
McCormack believes in his squad and their potential for next season, but also realizes there will be new, potentially daunting challenges ahead.
“They’ve got their work cut out for them,” he said.