The last event of the 2011 college baseball season came down to a pair of Southern Conference sluggers — Victor Roache and Daniel Aldrich — and to me, that says a lot about how far the league has come in the grand scheme of the Division I landscape.
Georgia Southern, and the entire SoCon for that matter, is almost there.
There were 20,578 people in attendance as GSU’s Roache and College of Charleston’s Aldrich mashed their way to the Home Run Derby Finals over the weekend, and to get there, the SoCon power hitters had to get past six other power hitters who came from the SEC, ACC, Pac 10, Patriot League and Atlantic Sun conferences.
Aldrich won the competition with four homers in the finals. Roache hit two. And nobody else even came close. Aldrich (14 total), who drilled seven in the first round and Roache (six total) combined for 20 homers in the competition (after combining for 52 during the season).
To put it into perspective, hitters from Vanderbilt and Virginia Tech hit one each in the contest, and representatives from Arizona State and Bucknell didn’t hit any.
To be fair, a Home Run Derby isn’t really a measuring stick for anything. It’s glorified batting practice.
But when the SoCon’s best is so head-and-shoulders above everybody else in Division I on an even playing field, it says something.
People are always saying that scoring, homers and batting averages are always so high in the Southern Conference because the pitching in the league just can’t stand up to the SEC, the ACC and Pac 10 pitching. And they’re right.
But is it really that far off?
To put it into perspective, Georgia Southern played not one, but both teams that played for the 2011 national championship — Florida and South Carolina.
The Eagles blanked then-No. 1 Florida, 7-0, during a 2011 regular-season midweek game, and against South Carolina’s best pitcher, lost 2-1 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
To me, that says that when the SEC’s best faces the SoCon’s best, things are pretty even. The power conferences just have deeper pitching staffs, and that’s really the only difference. Eagles coach Rodney Hennon says it over and over — “You can’t win without pitching and defense.”
The SoCon had a bad year this season as far as NCAA representation goes. Georgia Southern was the only team in the league to make it to the NCAA Regionals, but in 2010, the SoCon sent three teams. There have been multiple bids numerous times in the past.
Within the league, Georgia Southern, Charleston, Elon, The Citadel, Western Carolina, Appalachian State and more recently even Samford, have proven they can compete with the best programs in the country.
The Southern Conference is close. The league needs to go out and make some noise in the postseason, but if the teams can prove they can compete with and beat the best, they will be able to attract that extra one or two pitchers they need to truly get over the hump and put themselves right there in the mix of the elite college baseball programs.
If guys like Roache (30) and Aldrich (22) keep putting up home run totals like they did during the 2011 season, the SoCon’s bats will continue to light up the country.
The league as a whole is really just 20-30 above-average arms away from truly putting the SEC and ACC programs of college baseball on notice.
Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.