Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local Sports

February 16, 2014

Concord baseball team heads south to launch season

ATHENS — The 2013 championship trophy is on the shelf, the recruits are in the fold, the preseason routine is in the past, and the Concord University baseball team is embarking on a new season today in the warmer environment of Mt. Olive, N.C.

Concord baseball won the West Virginia Conference title in two of the three years Andrew Wright has been head coach, including last spring, just before the league dissolved.

Responding to that observation about past success, Wright said on Saturday morning, “Yeah, they can’t take them away from you. But the way we look at it is, it’s another year. You put it on then shelf and try to go out and win again.”

Concord has been picked to win the first Mountain East Conference championship by a preseason vote of the coaches. The Mountain Lions have been receiving votes in national NCAA Division II preseason polls conducted by D2Baseball News.com and by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA).

First, however, the team had to get off-campus. That provided the squad and its coaches with a good cardio workout on Saturday morning.

Wright said the team was “very excited” to venture out and begin the season. “They should be, anyway, because we’ve just had to shovel three feet of snow out (from) in front of the buses.”

That took place in single-digit wind chill behind the university’s gym, before walking to the cafeteria for lunch.

Wright said about Concord’s recent practices, “There’s only so long that you can spend indoors without getting cabin fever. We’ve kept practices light enough, and we’ve kept them up-tempo enough to where it hasn’t affected us that much.”

“But the objective is, when we show up at Mount Olive, it doesn’t matter what happened yesterday. It doesn’t matter what’s going to happen tomorrow. We’ve got to win, today.”

The Trojans of Mount Olive, already 4-2 this year, are ranked fourth in Division II by the NCBWA and fifth by D2BaseballNews.com. In their six games, the Trojans are averaging 9.6 runs per game, led by Brandon Reitano, who already has seven runs batted in and two homers.

Wright said that Concord’s pitching has made a step forward compared to recent seasons.

“Our pitching depth, I think, will be one of our strengths,” he said. “Now, whether we go out and execute pitches, that’s left to be determined, but we certainly have several options on the mound which, in the past, we have not had.”

“This helps us get closer to the ideal, which is pitching well, playing good defense, and hitting. We’ve always felt pretty good about our offense and our defense; it’s just a matter of making sure we can do right, on the mound.”

The ace of the pitching corps is right-handed senior Ryan Weatherholtz, who threw two complete games last season, going 4-2 with a 3.77 ERA.

“Ryan Weatherholtz, he’s a champion, when you look at it (from a growth standpoint),” Wright said. “From about two weeks into his freshman year, he’s been our No. 1 (pitcher). You know what you’re going to get out of him every time he gets on the mound, which is great.”

The No. 2 pitcher for the Mountain Lions is Tyler Coyle, who transferred into Concord in time to play last season. He was 7-4 with a 4.94 ERA and a team-high 64 innings pitched.

Wright said, “Having the addition of Tyler Coyle, who came from UNC – Asheville, has been very big for us. Now, being a red-shirt senior, he has matured a lot from last year to this year — and last year he pitched pretty well for us.”

“We have several guys in that 3-4 (starting) role. We’re still trying to figure that out right now.”

A key arm in the bullpen is senior right-hander Dustin Nuckles from Oak Hill.

“He is unbelievable to have around, because he’s very mature,” Wright said. Nuckels also provides a role model for up-and-coming CU pitchers.

Wright said, “We do have a lot of youth on our pitching staff, so for them to have somebody to look up to in that role has been unbelievable — plus, he goes out and pitches well.”

It’s not one pitcher’s sole responsibility, however. Speaking of the mentoring undertaken by the veteran pitching corps, Wright said, “They’ve done a very good job. The biggest hurdle to jump through is to show them what our brand of work looks like.

“A lot of guys, when they come in with a lot of success out of high school, a lot of times the work ethic, they think it’s there, but it might not necessarily be there. We always like to say we have a different definition of what work is, in this program.”

“As soon as they’re over the hump on that — and a lot of them, very much are — we’ve got a bright future ahead of us.”

The offense includes familiar faces.

“With only having to add two new guys into the fold, and doing as well as we did offensively last year, I feel really good about our chances of our offense putting us in a position to win games,” Wright said.

Two additions to the batting lineup are Pennsylvanian Eli Flynn and Damon Frazier from Waynesboro, Va., who is currently unavailable due to an injury.

On defense, Wright said, “I think it stacks up very, very well. We’re much more athletic at every position. I think we’re better suited to play defense at every position than we ever have been.”

Seniors Joey Miller and Brandon Costa return at first base and catcher, respectively. Senior Bret Blevins is in right field and junior Jarrod Groves holds down second base.

Wright said, “Andrew Siegel, in my opinion, is one of the best center fielders in the country.”

“We’ve actually moved Ryan Johnston to left field. T.J. Brockway and Damon Frazier are going to figure it out at third base. We’ve got a new face at shortstop, Brad Sullivan — who was in the program last year, but is just the type of guy that goes out and gets it done.”

“So I expect a very steady defense this year.”

Asked if being in West Virginia’s late winter weather put his team at a competitive disadvantage, Wright did not hesitate with his answer.

“I would sound uneducated if I said ‘no.’ I think it is a disadvantage, but I think that a lot of people use it as a crutch. We’re not willing to do that,” Wright said.

“We try to find ways around it. Whether we’ve got 36-degree weather, (so we have to) go take ground balls on the football field, we do it. We find ways to maximize what we have.

“We can’t control the weather, so we just eliminate that out of the factor, and we figure out, what can we do today to get better.”

“We do what we can with what we’ve got, and we’re never going to use the fact that we’re from West Virginia as an excuse.”

Weather complications have pushed the season-opening series with Mount Olive to a pair of 1 p.m. games today and Monday. Concord is scheduled to play its first home game next Saturday against Pitt-Johnstown at Anderson Field in Athens — weather permitting.

— Contact Tom Bone at tbone@bdtonline.com

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