PEMBROKE — Last season, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke baseball team relied heavily on its high-scoring offense to help win games, but with 25 new players and seven new starters out on the field, it will have to be more balanced to win games this season.
“We’re just going to do it a little different this year than we did it last year,” UNCP baseball coach Paul O’Neil said. “We were extremely offensive last year, but we’re not going to be like that this year… It doesn’t mean we aren’t going to win games, we’re just going to have to win doing it differently. We’re going to have to pitch better this year, we’re going to have to play solid defense, we’re going to have to run the bases better than we did a year ago.”
UNCP went 38-13 in 2015, was the top run scoring team in the nation but was left out of the NCAA Southeast regional. The core of that team has graduated or moved on and now O’Neil says it’s a new feeling going into this season.
“I think we’ve got some talent. We’ve got some guys that can play, but in the same breath you’ve got 25 new players that are trying to find their way a little bit,” he said. “I feel like we’ve replaced those guys with some talented players, these new players have talent and can play baseball, but it’s unfair to say to these news kids that you’re not as good as this guy or that guy, or this guy was better than you.”
The bulk of last year’s lineup being three-year starters, several junior college transfers will be sprinkled in with the underclassmen to fill the void.
“There’s going to be some freshman that are going to get some significant playing time for us, they’re good players that will get out there along with some transfer guys that will get some playing time,” O’Neil said. “We’re going to play a lot of guys. Are there some older guys? Yeah, we do have some older guys that have some experience, but it’s not the same experience.”
Junior Drew Beaver at second base is the Braves only returning starter from last year. Beaver batted .325 last season with 51 RBIs and is expected to have an even better season and lead the team from the middle infield.
“He needs to have a better year than he had last year. You hope he improves and he had a good year last year,” O’Neil said.
Sophomore Roberto Rivera at shortstop and junior Justin Datillo behind the plate are two others that he expects to have solid years as newcomers for the Braves along with everyone else in the lineup.
“If we want to have the success that we’ve been having the past decade, then all the players have to have good years,” said O’Neil, who enters his 16th season as head of the UNCP program. “Everyone’s got to contribute and everyone’s got to contribute in an equal part to our team.
The Braves lost two of the three weekend starters from last year, but the one returner, senior right-hander Logan Cook, will anchor the projected weekend rotation with Jesse Stinnett who transferred from Maryland Eastern Shore and Lane Johnson who came in from Pitt Community College pitching the games ahead of him. Cook joins Fairmont graduate Alex Britt as the top two pitchers appearance-wise from last season and they are expected to lead a staff that will have to carry more of the load with a smaller margin of error when it comes to runs allowed.
“We have discussed it with the staff that we’re going to have to pitch much better than we did a year ago,” O’Neil said. “Pitching is going to have to carry us to a certain degree until some of our guys get their footing.
“I think they can do that. I feel like we’ve got enough quality arms that are on our staff that they can be the front-runner of the team where last year the offense was the engine that pulled the train. This year it’s going to be our pitching I hope that pulls that train.”
Lady Braves to lean on underclassmen this season
With five upperclassmen on this year’s team, UNCP softball coach Brittany Bennett knows there will be a learning curve with having a young team, but the youth has her excited for this season and beyond as she continues to build the program.
“I like our team,” Bennett said. “We’re so much better than we have been the last two years. But then again with youth, you’ve got to figure out how to wholeheartedly finish games and figure out how to put little pieces together and figure out how to mentally stay strong when you don’t have a lot of playing experience.”
UNCP welcomes 14 new players to the team, nine of which are freshman and several Bennett sees will get significant time in the field this year.
“Anytime you have freshmen playing, that’s a good sight for where your team is heading,” Bennett said. “The freshmen that are playing and getting some playing time now and are contributing are going to be really successful once they get 20 games under their belt.
To go along with the freshmen addition, transfer juniors Abbey Walters and Ashleigh Mason were added to the team with the absence of a junior class.
“Abbey Walters and Ashleigh Mason have made a huge impact on our team and you can definitely tell that Abbey is a hard force offensively,” Bennett said.
The two transfers join five other returning fielders to bring solidarity to the lineup that Bennett said has not been there in her previous two years.
“From top-to-bottom this year on our team, I’m not sure at any point in time who won’t get it done,” Bennett said.
Preseason All-PBC selection shortstop Taylor Gerhart and third baseman Jamie Johnson return after strong freshman campaigns. Seniors Morgan Davis and Whitney Jackson are the only two players that have been with Bennett for all three years of her stint with the Lady Braves and she has noticed a more competitive spirit with the seniors leading up to this season.
“They know the expectations, they know what practices are going to be like, they know what I’m going to hold them accountable for,” Bennett said of Davis and Jackson. “That leadership skill whatsoever is a really great thing to have among team chemistry and production.”
Senior Katie Saunders and freshman Taylor Strickland will see the majority of the time toeing the rubber for UNCP.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.