HIGH POINT, N.C. - The UNC Asheville baseball team opens play in the 2012 Big South Conference Tournament on Tuesday at approximately 4:30 p.m. when the sixth-seeded Bulldogs face third-seeded Liberty at Willard Stadium. Tuesday's game and the entire tournament will be video-streamed at www.uncabulldogs.com under the multi-media link.
The double-elimination tournament starts on Tuesday with four games. An Asheville win, and the Bulldogs play the winner of the High Point-Campbell game on Wednesday around 7 p.m. A loss sends the Dogs into the losers' bracket and they'll face the loser of the High Point-Campbell game Wednesday around Noon.
Asheville (25-28) faces a tough task against a Flames' (38-18) squad that owns a victory over UNC Chapel Hill and Virginia this season. However, the Bulldogs did take two-of-three against Liberty last month at Greenwood Field. The men of Tom Smith won 7-6 in 13 innings and 2-0 before falling in the finale, 16-6.
Just making the tournament is special for Asheville. Tom Smith's club was picked to finish in 11th and last place in the Big South Preseason poll. The Bulldogs ended up finishing in a three-way tie for fourth place with Gardner-Webb and Radford but fell to the sixth seed due to tie-breakers. Asheville went 12-12 in league play and the 12 wins are the second highest in school. The 25 overall victories is the highest number of wins for the program since the 2008 team won a school-record 28 games. The tie for fourth marks the highest finish for Asheville since the 2003 team also finished fourth.
"We've had a solid year but our goal wasn't just to make the tournament but to win the tourney," commented Smith. "Our guys feel like they should have won a few more games but I'm proud of the way we've battled the whole year and grinding out some big wins.
"We're going to have to be at our best with Liberty," added Smith. "This is a team that's won 38 games and won a big series at Radford this weekend. We won two really close games with Liberty last month. I'm sure Tuesday's game will be another close one."
Asheville plans to start sophomore right-hander Dean Roland on the mound Tuesday. Roland is 5-5 on the season with a 3.74 ERA. He leads the Bulldogs and is tied for second in the league in innings pitched with 91.1. His 14 starts have him in an eight-way tie for first in the league. His seven pick-offs leads the Big South.
At the plate, the Bulldogs are being led by junior Billy Creighton with a .310 average, followed by Cody Buch (.308), Patrick Koontz (.308), Jordan Lurie (.303) and Thomas Bess (.301).
This will be the seventh time Liberty and UNC Asheville have squared off in the Big South Conference Tournament and first time they've ever met in the first round. The Bulldogs are 2-5 all-time against the Flames but the two wins were pretty special. They both occurred in 2006 with Asheville winning 4-1 in the semifinals and a dramatic 16-11 victory in the championship game giving the Bulldog program their only Big South title. Asheville was down 10-0 in that game before rallying to win. The five losses have all come (1999, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008) in elimination games.
The Bulldogs shouldn't mind being the #6 seed. Asheville has been the #6 seed three times and advanced to the championship game twice while being the sixth seed. They were #6 in 1991 and pulled off three upsets to reach the title game before falling to top-seeded Coastal Carolina twice. In 2006, Asheville was the sixth seed and went 4-1 to claim the tournament championship and trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Asheville improved from 15 victories in 2011 to 25 victories in 2012. The big reason was the Bulldogs pitching. Asheville's ERA went from 6.38 last season to 4.81 this year. Opponents hit .312 a year ago and just .283 this season.
This is UNC Asheville's first neutral game of the year. The Bulldogs did play at High Point this season and swept a three-game series with the Panthers back in April.
Asheville went 12-15 in enemy territory this season. That's the most road wins since the 2007 season when the Bulldogs won 13. Asheville enters the tournament win wins in six of its last eight road contests.
Freshman outfielder Thomas Bess enters the tournament on a nine-game hitting streak and reached base in 18 consecutive games.
The Bulldogs had been 0-24 this year when trailing after eight innings but ended that streak in dramatic fashion on Saturday. Trailing Gardner-Webb 6-0 entering the bottom of the ninth, Asheville staged a furious comeback and scored seven runs to win 7-6. It is believed to be the biggest comeback in school history when trailing after eight innings.
Asheville is 7-5 in one-run games and 5-3 in two-run affairs in 2012.