Craig Keuchel throwing during first official practice.

Spring is near and the cold days of winter will soon be over. 

With that, baseball season will be moving in and Charlotte’s squad took the field on Jan. 24 for the first time in 2020 to showcase their new and old faces in their first official practice. 

The biggest change for the 49ers is their head coach. Long time 49er coach Loren Hibbs retired in June 2019 after 26 years with Charlotte. Robert Woodard was hired to take his place. 

With the new season just a couple weeks away, there’s a lot to be excited about for Woodard and company.

“It’s really hard to put into words,” Woodard said. “Growing up here, when you think of Charlotte baseball it was Coach Hibbs. When this opportunity came about, it was a no-brainer for me.” 

New coaches, new expectations 

After Hibbs retired in 2019, Woodard was hired shortly after. Woodard is a Charlotte native and played high school baseball at Myers Park. He then played at UNC Chapel Hill from 2004-07 when the Tar Heels made the College World Series twice. 

This opportunity for Woodard was something he never thought about getting, but it was something he knew he couldn’t pass up. 

“After nine years of being an assistant coach at the Division I level, I would come home every holiday and I was always coming and going,” Woodard said. “Truthfully, I never thought about this ever being an option. Coach Hibbs was here for so long, you thought he was going to coach until he's 90 years old.”  

The first-time head coach has plenty of coaching experience. Along with stints at Virginia Tech and UNC Wilmington, Woodard had been at his alma mater, Chapel Hill, since 2016 as an assistant coach and pitching coach. During that time, the Tar Heels made a CWS appearance and have sent multiple pitchers to the big leagues. 

Woodard is focused on the now these days and how his team will compete this season. This season's expectations are a little different from years past. The 49ers were picked 11th in the Conference USA preseason poll. Woodard says his team won’t pay attention to the doubters; rather, they will focus on the talent at hand. 

“It’s a cliché, but it’s the process. Every day you have things you need to get better at,” Woodard said. “I’m a big believer that if we focus on those things the results will take care of itself. You could pick us to be the number one team in the country or the last team, it will never make a difference to me.” 

Plenty of talent

Charlotte saw several key players graduate from last season’s team. The most notable being Harris Yett, who is currently playing in the Baltimore Orioles minor league system. 

Although, the 49ers are still in good hands. Josh Haney is back for his sophomore season after producing a successful freshman campaign. 

The third baseman made the C-USA all-freshman team with a .281 batting average. He started all but three games last season and has a lot of potential moving forward. 

Todd Elwood will be a key hitter as he will lead off this year. The senior is coming off of his best season yet with a .333 batting average and 13 RBI’s. 

Woodard is hopeful Elwood will help Charlotte win big games. 

“Moving into the position side, it starts with Elwood,” Woodard said. “If you had nine Todd Elwood’s on your roster, you would probably go to the College World Series. [He's] that kind of player. Everything you want is there.” 

Senior Rafi Vazquez, who is coming off of an injury, will be another guy who can hit the long ball. He had a .289 batting average last season and hit 12 home runs.  

Catchers Jacob Whitley and Craig Keuchel are in a tight contest for the starting spot. 

“We have a really good battle behind the plate between Whitley and Keuchel,” Woodward said. “It’s neck-and-neck, you could put both guys behind the plate and they would do well for us.” 

Carson Johnson, Tate Pennington, David McCabe, Dominic Pilolli and Zach Weston all are players that can make a splash on the hitting side of things as well. 

On the mound, there’s tons of talent. Senior Ryan Czanstkowski will be leading the charge. 

“On the mound, I think you have to start with Ryan Czanstkowski,” Woodard said about the pitching staff. “He’s gone above and beyond in terms of his performance and preparation since August. He has the chance to have a really strong and memorable senior year.” 

Czanstkowski transferred in from Connors State and went 2-6 in his first season as a Niner in 2019. He also had impressive outings as a relief pitcher. 

“Last year I had a pretty decent year, but I’m obviously looking to better myself and do better for my team,” Czanstkowski said. “This pitching staff is very talented. Our expectations are through the roof.” 

There are a couple of new faces on the pitching staff for Charlotte as well. Nick Turnbull, a senior transfer from Maryland, will be a big asset. Along with earning big-game experience, he went 2-1 with a 4.08 earned run average. He struck out 17 batters in 2019 in his 17.2 innings of work. 

Trae Starnes, a junior college transfer, will be another addition to the pitching staff. Bryce McGowan will be back for his second season after winning three games as a starter in his freshman campaign. Will Palinkas and Christian Lothes are two pitchers that are expected to make a splash as well. 

Colby Bruce is a returning relief pitcher who earned C-USA preseason honors. The senior had a 2.63 ERA. 

A tough schedule

Charlotte won’t have it easy this season. Along with an always tough C-USA schedule, Charlotte will be facing some of the toughest opponents in the country. On Feb. 18, the 49ers will play at Tennessee and then will play at 2016 CWS Champion Coastal Carolina on Mar. 3. Charlotte will again play NC State on Mar. 10 after losing to the Wolfpack in 2019 by one run. 

The 49ers will get to be a part of the college baseball series at BB&T ballpark on Mar. 17 against Wake Forest and will then play NC State again on Mar. 24 in the BB&T series. 

Playing big-time schools isn't new for the returning 49ers. Although Woodard knows what it likes playing big schools, he’s confident his team will have no problem handling the pressure. 

“We have eight seniors and a grad transfer,” Woodard said. “We have some experience and guys who are much more ready than in previous years.” 

Charlotte will take the field for the first time in the 2020 season on Friday, Feb. 14 with a three-game weekend series at home against Virginia Commonwealth.

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