"That's OK," first-year head coach Billy Jones said about the prognostications, which also included a fourth-place prediction in the SoCon media poll. "I don't think we need that to light a fire under our club. We feel like we have good players here and we're just going to go out and play our game and let the chips fall where they may."
Of course, a lack of preseason love from the "experts" is nothing new for the Southern Conference's northern-most baseball program. In 2012, Appalachian State was picked to finish fifth and sixth in the SoCon's coaches and media preseason polls, respectively, but went on to win its first conference championship since 1987, receive its first NCAA postseason berth since 1986 and finish ranked in one of college baseball's major postseason polls for the first time in school history (No. 29 in the final Collegiate Baseball Newspaper rankings).
The Mountaineers went on to win its first two games at the 2012 NCAA Charlottesville Regional, defeating No. 23 Oklahoma and No. 15 Virginia, to advance to the regional's championship round and fell just three wins shy of advancing to the College World Series for the first time in program history. The postseason wins over OU and UVa were two of Appalachian's four triumphs over nationally ranked opponents in 2012 — the Apps put the college-baseball world on notice in February when it took 2-of-3 games at No. 7 LSU.
Appalachian State returns one of the nation's top double-play combinations and a deep and experienced bullpen to form the core of its 2013 club. However, the Mountaineers will also have to rely on an ultra-talented but relatively inexperienced group of underclassmen in order to replicate the success that in enjoyed a season ago.
Appalachian State is anchored by the veteran double-play combination of seniors Will Callaway at shortstop and Hector Crespo at second base. The duo has combined for 264 starts during their Appalachian careers and both are first-team preseason all-SoCon honorees.
Callaway, a third-team preseason all-America honoree, is a mainstay in the middle of the order for the Mountaineers that can hit for average (.320 last season and .311 for his career) and power (ranked among the SoCon and national leaders with 53 RBI last season) while also being a constant threat on the basepaths (swiped 23 bases in 2012, good for a tie for seventh in school history).
Crespo is the Mountaineers' catalyst offensively as a .308 career hitter that batted .319 in the leadoff spot last year. Crespo has also stolen 79 bases in his career, just six shy of the school record set by Will Shellman from 1991-94, and is on pace to also make a run at the program's all-time records for games played, at-bats and runs.
Callaway and Crespo also make up one of the nation's best defensive combos up the middle of the infield. The combined to be a part of 30-plus double plays and just 25 total errors in 59 games a season ago.
Appalachian also returns its starting third baseman, junior Noah Holmes. Holmes struggled at the plate a bit as a sophomore (.241 average) but came on strong late in the season (hit .385 with four RBI and three runs scored during Charlottesville Regional). He is as sure-handed at the hot corner as any player in the country with just 11 errors in 159 chances (.931 fielding percentage) in his first campaign as a full-time starter.
While he has the leg up based on his experience, Holmes will be challenged for playing time by true freshman Dillon Dobson and junior William Head.
Big, powerful sophomore Alex Leach will be called upon to fill the void at first base created by the graduation of two-year starter . Leach displayed mammoth power in limited opportunities as a freshman last season, finishing with a home run, two doubles and six RBI in only 19 at-bats.
In addition to Dobson and Head, sophomore Michael Pierson could also see playing time in a reserve role around the infield.
Perhaps the biggest void for the Mountaineers to fill around the diamond is at catcher, where graduated after making 198 starts and throwing out 48 would-be base-stealers during his career, including 13 last season. Combined with the loss of , who hit .357 as the Mountaineers' right fielder a year ago but was slated to take over behind the plate this season before being selected in the 14th round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the Atlanta Braves, Appalachian is left with no starting experience behind the plate in 2013.
Junior Josh Zumbrook, who has appeared in six games during his career, will get the first shot to fill the large shoes behind the dish but will be pushed for playing time by freshmen Alex Minton and Zach Hummel and senior Gabe Dimock.
Appalachian State took a big hit in its outfield late last season when center fielder Tyler Zupcic sustained a major knee and lower-leg injury while sliding into home plate and colliding with Oklahoma catcher Tanner Toal in the opening game of the Charlottesville Regional. Zupcic is still recovering from the injury and the senior will be out indefinitely to begin the season. Redshirting is a possibility for the preseason all-Southern Conference selection.
Despite being without Zupcic for at least part of the campaign, the outfield looks to be a strength for Appalachian once again in 2013.
Preston Troutman, who hit .295 while serving as the Mountaineers' primary left fielder in 2012, will swing over to right field in 2013 to replace Tewell. Troutman's strong arm (nine outfield assists in two seasons) should be an asset as he moves from left to right.
Brandon Burris, who was Appalachian State's leading hitter with a .358 average in 38 games (24 starts) last season, will get the everyday nod in left field. In addition to the lofty average, Burris displayed some pop (eight doubles and 16 RBI in 95 at-bats) and great speed (seven steals in seven attempts) as a freshman.
True freshman Jaylin Davis will man the center field position vacated by Zupcic. Davis had a terrific fall and preseason for the Mountaineers and his talent and athleticism is expected to allow the Mountaineers to not suffer much of a dropoff from Zupcic at the plate or in the field.
Junior John Kincaid and freshman Preston Tiller could also see action in the outfield for the Mountaineers this season.
Last season, designated hitter put together perhaps the most prolific offensive campaign in Appalachian State history a season ago, hitting .339 with a school-record 17 him runs and 66 RBI en route to being named all-America and District Player of the Year. This season, Jones is expected to fill the DH slot on more of a platoon basis with freshmen Dobson, Tiller and Minton all challenging for at-bats in the role.
Due to graduation and a role change, Appalachian State must replace its entire weekend rotation this season.
The Friday and Saturday slots in the rotation, which were held by MLB draftees (11-0, 3.81 ERA, 93 K, SoCon Pitcher of the Year in 2012) and (7-3, 3.49 ERA, 69 K) last year are expected to be filled by sophomores Jamie Nunn and Jeffrey Springs in 2013.
Nunn, a right-hander, made six mid-week starts and 23 overall appearances as a freshman last season, en route to a 5-2 record, 4.24 ERA, 45 strikeouts in 4.62 innings and freshman all-America accolades.
Southpaw Springs made five starts and 12 appearances and compiled a 2-1 record and 4.80 ERA as a rookie. He is coming off a terrific summer for the Pineville Pioneers of the Southern Collegiate Baseball League, when he struck out 24 in 27.1 IP and was named the league's No. 2 pro prospect.
After perhaps the most impressive fall and preseason for any Mountaineer pitcher, junior transfer Sam Agnew-Wieland will fill the third spot in the weekend rotation. The right-hander went 7-3 with a 2.36 ERA, .213 opponents' batting average and 96 strikeouts in 84 innings for Middle Georgia College last season, a year after going 2-1 with a 3.23 ERA and 34 Ks in 30.2 IP at Georgia State as a freshman.
Junior left-hander Chad Farmer has earned the primary mid-week starting role. Farmer has made 36 appearances in his first two collegiate seasons (all but two out in relief) and has struck out 53 in 49 innings of work.
One of the biggest keys to the Mountaineers' success last season was the ability of flame-thrower to close out games. However, after shattering the school record with 16 saves, Hyatt was selected by Atlanta Braves in the 13th round of last June's MLB Draft and Appalachian was left to find another candidate to slide a line of dominant closers that dates back six seasons.
In the fall, Jones decided that senior Rob Marcello was best-suited to move into the closer role. Marcello was 6-5 with a 5.31 ERA as Appalachian's No. 3 starter last season but Jones felt that working out of the bullpen best suited the southpaw both now and in the future as a professional.
In front of Marcello, three more seniors — right-handers Tyler Moore and Josh Wilson and lefty Ryne Frankoff — will likely serve as the main setup men. The experienced trio has combined to make 88 appearances with 78 strikeouts in 111 innings in their careers. Frankoff was particularly impressive as a junior as he battled back from a serious early-season illness to make 19 appearance out of the bullpen down the stretch, going 2-1 with a 2.95 ERA and just 16 hits allowed to go along with 22 strikeouts in 18.1 innings.
Other hurlers expected to make a contribution out of the 'pen this year include senior left-handers Tyler Jackson and Zach Joyce and a plethora of youngsters that includes freshmen Blake Burkett, Rob Howard, Caleb McCann, Clyde Tate and Amos Wilmoth.