By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Call it a good start for the Bluefield State baseball team.
After winning just seven games in their final season in the WVIAC, the Big Blues are already closing in on that total in 2014, having compiled a 5-6 record with a visit on tap today to face Elizabeth City in Cary, N.C.
“It is a pretty good start,” said Geoff Hunter, who is currently in his 30th season as head coach of the Big Blues. “You are never satisfied with losses if you are a coach, and there are a couple of games there where we had the opportunity to win and we didn’t...
“We feel fairly good about it. We just hope the weather will start cooperating so we can start playing consistently and keep building on what we have been able to accomplish thus far.”
Bluefield State, which has 20 freshmen and sophomores on its active 29-man roster, started the season with an 1-4 record, and didn’t score a run in the four losses. The Big Blues have taken advantage of good weather in trips south, and have improved with practice time, scoring 15, 10 and 8 runs (twice) in a 3-1 trip two weeks ago in Atlanta.
“We didn’t hit at all to begin with, but we hadn’t been outside...,” said Hunter, who was able to schedule an NCAA-limit 50 games despite having to play this season with independent status. “We have been able to get out on our place a couple of times, but I think our hitting is starting to catch up a little bit. We have been going south and playing southern teams so the nature of the beast is you are going to be a little behind those people.”
Not only has the hitting improved, but so has the pitching, and that has also led to better defense, which is a good combination for success.
“It all comes down to pitching, that is the bottom line,” Hunter said. “Obviously you have got to play a little defense to support them and you have got to score some runs...
“You have got to have someone that throws strikes and doesn’t walk people and doesn’t hit people and pitches to contact and gives your defense a chance to make plays. That is what it is all about at our level.”
Leading the Rams at the plate has been center fielder Dale Davis, one of four players on the squad from the Bahamas, and cleanup hitter Alex Dunn, who is among the nation’s NAIA leaders with four home runs.
“(Davis) is a very talented player. He is off to a really good start, he had a big weekend when we went to Atlanta, I just call him a special talent,” Hunter said. “(Dunn) is off to a really good start, he has got four home runs already in the first 11 games. He is just a very good hitter. He has a plan when he goes up there, which a lot of kids don’t. He is just usually looking for one pitch.”
Leading the improved Bluefield State pitching staff is lone southpaw, Ben Fraley, a transfer from Walters State in Tennessee, and currently the ‘anchor’ of the pitching staff.
“We have been blessed to have some really good pitchers here over the years,” Hunter said. “In my experiences as a college coach, if you want to have a pitching staff that is going to give you a chance to win day in and day out, you have really got to have somebody to anchor that staff.
“We have had a few guys like Austin Pratt that were just exceptional and I think Ben has the potential to be exceptional at this level.”
The rest of the staff is full of local products, of which the Big Blues have plenty, including 12 players from West Virginia and eight from Virginia.
Among the possibilities are Ridge Sibold (James Monroe), Jacob Muncy (River View), J.C. Pennington (Princeton), Cody Justus (Concord, Grundy), and Derek Thornton (Wyoming East). Alex Quick (Princeton), Kevin Cottle (PikeView), Frank Ormsbee (Greenbrier East) and a few position players could also toe the rubber.
“You can never have enough pitching, especially if we keep having bad weather and we have to play back to back to back...,” said Hunter, who has been especially surprised by the efforts of Sibold and Thornton. “If you play back to back to back obviously you have got to have pitching depth.
“It is good to have those kids and they are all young and doing a pretty good job in the classroom and feel like they are good investments for the future.”
Catching those hurlers will be a quartet of ‘good catch and throw guys’, including three-year veteran Kyle Blocker — one of three seniors on the club — Crachad Laing (Bahamas), Scott Edwards (Australia) and Jacob Hall, a transfer from Austin Peay.
“We have four kids and all of them are pretty talented,” Hunter said. “The other kids can do other things for you as well, either pitch or DH or playing other positions, they are all good all-around players.”
Tyler Frazier is Bluefield State’s shortstop and leadoff batter, and he is joined in the middle infield at second either Corey Payne or Justin Bowler. Third base is patrolled by Ricky Diaz, who joined Payne in transferring from Roane State near Knoxville.
Tony Bolden, Clay Ayers — an WVIAC performer last season, who is recovering from an injury — and Justus are also possibilities in the infield.
The talented Davis is joined by a platoon squad in the outfield, including Tanner Lilly (Summers County) and Boston New in left, and Cody Underwood (River View), Justus, Edwards and others in right.
New’s unique first name came from his parents, who are fans of the Boston Red Sox.
“I think overall we are a little better defensively than we were last year and I would like to think a little better offensively,” said Hunter, who has 14 of his 32 total players majoring in engineering. “We have more pitching depth than we had so we are hoping that is going to equate to a little bit better season than what we had.
“We are certainly off to a better start than we were last season. We will see how it goes.”
Bluefield State, which has very few home games slated for the season, might not be able to play any games at June O. Shott Field. A bank that connects to the right field line need to be stabilized and improvements have been slowed by weather.
The Big Blues will look for other places to play, including Linda K. Epling Stadium in Beckley, and have been known to practice in local gymnasiums or in area parking lots.
“As soon as the weather breaks they are going to get right back on to it and see what they can do, but any time you get into something like that sometimes it turns out to be a little bit bigger project than you thought,” Hunter said. “We are hopeful, but if not there are some nice venues in the area.
“I guess we will just have to call those home for 2014 if we can’t get our right field put back together in time.”
Bluefield State will probably sit out the postseason. Independents rarely get Division II invitations, and the East Coast Athletic Conference (ECAC) — which the Blues joined in January — doesn’t offer tournament play in any sport other than basketball.
For now, Hunter, who is confident there are other options available to Bluefield State, is focused on the season ahead.
“We feel like we have been competitive and we have put ourselves in position to win some games and we have been able to win a few,” Hunter said. “We are hoping we can continue to get better as the season progresses...
“There is no postseason for 2014, we are obviously hoping that will change in the future.”
—Contact Brian Woodson at firstname.lastname@example.org