Restocked, deeper pitching staff, stars such as Honeycutt have expectations high for UNC baseball

By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — They say that you can never have enough pitching. With an influx of newcomers, reigning ACC champion North Carolina will have plenty to bolster a talented roster.

The Tar Heels lost some veterans but many players who were key parts of last season’s incredible second-half run return, including sensational center fielder Vance Honeycutt, third baseman Mac Horvath and pitcher Max Carlson.

The Tar Heels have restocked a pitching staff that lost seven-game winner Brandon Schaeffer and closer Davis Palermo, with 12 pitchers among the program’s 19 newcomers.

“Our pitchers did a phenomenal job last year, but we still were never comfortable with our pitching depth from top to bottom,” said Coach Scott Forbes, entering his third season as head coach after 19 as an assistant. “And we’re more comfortable with it and haven’t played a single game. I feel like we have more options and a deeper level of talent on the mound.”

There’s plenty of optimism for UNC, which won 16 of its last 18 regular-season games on its way to winning an ACC title before finishing 42–22 after a Super Regional loss to Arkansas. Carolina’s season-opening three-game home series with Seton Hall starts with a 4 p.m. game Friday, Feb. 17.

The Tar Heels, ranked No. 17 in Baseball America’s preseason ranking and No. 11 in the Collegiate Baseball poll, have high expectations.

“We want those expectations, and we were talking about the other day that you want to coach somewhere where you have those expectations,” Forbes said. “When you coach at the University of North Carolina, every sport has those expectations. We had those expectations last year — everybody else just didn’t.”

Honeycutt’s breakout season in the outfield (after spending his entire high school career as a shortstop), changed the way he was pitched toward the end of the season and has ramped up the hype around him.

“It’s something that you like to see,” Honeycutt said of the attention. “It can make you feel good. But, at the end of the day, you’re focused on one thing, and that’s just getting better every single day. You just go out there every single day during the year and just get a win for the team.”

The Preseason ACC Player of the Year and All-America, both according to Perfect Game, Honeycutt’s versatile skills commanded national attention during his freshman season by combining dazzling defensive play with speed, power and timely hitting.

Forbes talked with Honeycutt about the importance of not letting the publicity get to his head, and he’s done his best to ignore the noise. He’s not worried about where he might get drafted in 2024.

“Just trying to stay level-headed, stay with the process and just keep going,” he said.

Honeycutt, one of 17 returning lettermen, led the Tar Heels in home runs (25), RBI (57), total bases (166), slugging percentage (.672), steals (29) and triples (4). In addition, he led returning players who played significantly in batting average (.296) and on-base percentage (.409).

“I feel like Vance is stronger,” Forbes said. “I feel like he’s faster. I feel like he’s a smarter player. The good thing for Vance is he’s surrounded by some other really good players, so that takes some of the pressure off him. He just happens to get the extra attention.”

Honeycutt, junior Horvath (.268, 18 homers, 53 RBI, 19 steals) and junior first baseman/DH Alberto Osuna (20 homers, 57 RBI) combined for 63 homers and 167 RBI last season. Other regulars back, all juniors, are talented defensive infielder Colby Wilkerson and infielders Johnny Castagnozzi and Hunter Stokely.

Carolina lost five players who were drafted last summer: four-year starting shortstop Danny Serretti (Tigers), right fielder Angel Zarate (Guardians), and pitchers Palermo (Rockies), Schaeffer (Mariners) and Shawn Rapp (Guardians).

Without a couple of leaders from last season’s team in Serretti and Zarate, Forbes said that Horvath is taking that leadership role.

“I think he’s really learned how to lead,” Forbes said of Horvath. “He learned by example. Now he’s learning how to lead by running the locker room, speaking up when he needs to speak up.”

Without Serretti, Wilkerson — a key reason why UNC turned the third-most double plays in the country last season — is expected to shift from second base to shortstop.

“I love him there,” Horvath said. “I think he can play any position. He’s very versatile. A lot of [turning a double play] has to do with making sure we get the first out, but he definitely helped me out quite a bit. With him, I felt like I could throw it anywhere at the bag, and he would turn it. But I feel confident whoever’s there is gonna get the job done.”

Wilkerson has always been solid on defense but hasn’t always been productive offensively. He’s going to go back to switch-hitting this season to give the Heels another left-handed bat.

“Colby has continued to get better,” Forbes said. “We do feel like he can be a dynamic, All-ACC type defensive shortstop.”

The candidates to play second base are freshman Austin Hawke, redshirt freshman Casey Cook, who missed most of last season after having shoulder surgery, and sophomore Jackson Van De Brake. Forbes added that junior Patrick Alvarez is the ultimate utility player who can play many positions, including second.

First base could be a platoon situation again this season, with Stokely, Osuna and Castagnozzi vying for time. Stokely could play some at third, which would put Horvath in right field.

“I’ll put a very big premium on first-base defense because I know how important it is,” Forbes said. “But you’ll see all three of those guys over there.”

In the mix for the left-and right-field spots are Cook, redshirt senior Max Reimer and sophomore Reece Holbrook. But Forbes added that freshman Carter French, a recruited walk-on wide receiver on the football team, could also play.

“He’s shown that he’s a pretty dang good player. So we’re excited about him as well,” Forbes said of French.

Among the new pitchers are Penn transfer Kevin Eaise, the two-time Ivy League pitcher of the year (7–1, 4.03 ERA, 79 Ks in 67 innings last season), and Vanderbilt transfer left-hander Nelson Berwich (1–0, 0.87 ERA, 15Ks in 10⅓ innings).

“He can really pitch,” Forbes said of Eaise. “He reminds me a lot of Cooper Criswell with his skill set. Fills up the zone, a really good slider; tough kid.”

There are also three right-handed junior college transfers and three freshmen who were state high school players of the year.

Jake Knapp (14–1 2.40 ERA 113 Ks in 82⅔ innings), a Walters State transfer from Greensboro, leads the three right-handed JUCO transfers.

“He’s got a chance to be pretty special,” Forbes said of Knapp.

The other junior college transfers are Ben Peterson (from Apex, transferring from Florida Southwestern State) and Matt Poston (from Florence-Darlington Tech).

The freshmen who won state honors are right-hander Matthew Matthijs of Greenville (25–4, 0.94 ERA in his career at D.H. Conley), left-hander Kyle Percival of Lancaster, S.C. (20–0 and 256 Ks in the last two seasons) and right-hander Will Simmons of Sioux Falls, S.D.

Carlson said that Matthijs has stood out to him.

“He’s just a well-mannered kid, hard worker. I think he’ll be a really good player for us,” Carlson said.

Junior catcher Tomas Frick had to learn to catch a lot of new pitchers in the offseason, and said that Knapp and Eaise have looked impressive.

“They both came in, seemed like they have a lot experience at a college level and know what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to pitch people and go about their business the right way,” Frick said.

In addition to the newcomers, Dalton Pence of Cherryville is ready to make his college debut after missing most of what would have been his freshman season with an injury. Forbes was counting on Pence heavily for last season. The left-hander recovered, was the Coastal Plain League pitcher of the year and has a chance to make the starting rotation.

“I’m excited to see how that shakes out and how we figure out exactly who’s gonna be the starters and who’s going to be the back-end guys,” Forbes said. “Obviously, losing Palermo at the back end is something we have to figure out as quick as we can. But sometimes that takes a little bit of time.”

What’s certain is that Carlson is the favorite to be the Friday starter after pitching well In several big games last season, finishing with a 3.71 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 77⅔ innings.

“He’s a big-game pitcher, and he got better as you all saw,” Forbes said. “What we’ve challenged Max with is to pitch deeper [into games]. If you’re gonna pitch for us on Friday, five innings is great, but we need seven innings, and he’s worked hard to get in better shape. But he’s got what it takes, and we saw that at the end [of the season].”

It’s always good to have the Friday pitcher pushed by the rest of the staff. Forbes said that will be the case for Carlson, just like it was for Alex White, Adam Warren or Matt Harvey.

“He also has guys nipping on his heels,” Forbes said. “Those guys keep those guys on edge, and that helps him continue to get better. I believe he’ll start the season on Friday, but we also have three weeks, and I’m a firm believer that I don’t care what you did last year. I mean, the experience does matter. But we’re going to put the guy out there that we feel like he’s gonna give our team the best chance to win on Friday but also save the rest of our pitching staff on Friday.”

Carlson said he’s worked hard to be able to pitch longer in games, in addition to adding a slider as his third pitch.

“Just staying in shape and utilizing, staying in the zone, utilizing that third pitch the best I can to help me get deeper into games,” Carlson said.

Carolina schedule

17Friday4 p.m.Seton HallHome
18Saturday2 p.m.Seton HallHome
19Sunday1 p.m.Seton HallHome
21Tuesday4 p.m.RadfordHome
22Wednesday4 p.m.LongwoodHome
24Friday5 p.m.East CarolinaGreenville
25Saturday2 p.m.East CarolinaHome
26Sunday1 p.m.East CarolinaHome
28Tuesday4 p.m.VCUHome
1Wednesday4 p.m.VCUHome
3Friday4 p.m.Stony BrookHome
4Saturday2 p.m.Stony BrookHome
5Sunday1 p.m.Stony BrookHome
7Tuesday4 p.m.Western CarolinaHome
8Wednesday4 p.m.Penn StateHome
10Friday6 p.m.VirginiaHome
11Saturday2 p.m.VirginiaHome
12Sunday1 p.m.VirginiaHome
14Tuesday6 p.m.CharlotteCharlotte
15Wednesday6 p.m.High PointHome
17Friday3 p.m.PittsburghPittsburgh
18 Saturday2 p.m.PittsburghPittsburgh
19Sunday1 p.m.PittsburghPittsburgh
21Tuesday6 p.m.N.C. A&THome
23Thursday7 p.m.DukeHome
24Friday6 p.m.DukeHome
25Saturday2 p.m.DukeHome
28Tuesday6 p.m.Coastal CarolinaHome
31Friday6 p.m.Notre DameSouth Bend, Ind.
1Saturday3 p.m.Notre DameSouth Bend, Ind.
2Sunday1 p.m.Notre DameSouth Bend, Ind.
4Tuesday7 p.m.South CarolinaCharlotte
6Thursday6 p.m.Georgia TechAtlanta
7Friday6 p.m.Georgia TechAtlanta
8Saturday1 p.m.Georgia TechAtlanta
11Tuesday6 p.m.QueensHome
13Thursday7 p.m.MiamiHome
14Friday6 p.m.MiamiHome
15Saturday2 p.m.MiamiHome
18Tuesday6 p.m.CharlotteHome
21Friday6 p.m.Boston CollegeHome
22Saturday2 p.m.Boston CollegeHome
23Sunday1 p.m.Boston CollegeHome
25Tuesday6 p.m.UNCWHome
28Friday7 p.m.Virginia TechBlacksburg, Va.
29Saturday7 p.m.Virginia TechBlacksburg, Va.
30Sunday1 p.m.Virginia TechBlacksburg, Va.
2Tuesday6 p.m.CampbellHome
9Tuesday6 p.m.Gardner-WebbHome
11Thursday7 p.m.NC StateHome
12Friday6 p.m.NC StateHome
13Saturday2 p.m.NC StateHome
16Tuesday7 p.m.Coastal CarolinaConway, S.C.
18ThursdayClemsonClemson, S.C.
19Friday6 p.m.ClemsonClemson, S.C.
20Saturday1 p.m.ClemsonClemson, S.C.
23–28 Tuesday–
TBAACC ChampionshipDurham
TBANCAA Super RegionalsTBA
TBACollege World SeriesOmaha, Neb.

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications


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