Aggie Baseball Looks Forward to 2017 Season
2017 N.C. A&T BASEBALL PREVIEW
2016 Record: 13-41, 6-18 MEAC
Lettermen Returning/Lost: 18/9
Starting Position Players Returning/Lost: 8/1
Reserve Position Players Returning/Lost: 4/3
Returning Weekend Starters/Lost: 2/1
Returning Relief/Midweek Pitchers Returning/Lost: 4/4
Opening Weekend: Caravalle Resort’s Baseball at the Beach Tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Marcello Betances (RHP, 0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. James Madison, 3 p.m., Friday
Josh Bottenfield (RHP, 0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. Richmond, 11 a.m., Saturday
Jonah Owenby (LHP, 0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. Western Carolina, 3 p.m., Sunday
The North Carolina A&T baseball program understands one thing as it starts year three of rebuilding the Aggies back into a team that routinely competes for Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championships. Constructing a solid pitching staff is the hardest part of the rebuild.
During the offseason, third-year head coach Ben Hall and his staff took hammer and nail to their biggest issue since taking over the program in 2015. A year ago, the Aggies posted a 9.16 ERA overall and an 8.84 ERA against MEAC foes.
The Aggies open the 2017 season 3 p.m., Friday at the Caravalle Resort’s Baseball at the Beach Tournament hosted by current national champion Coastal Carolina in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The Aggies play James Madison on Friday, Richmond on Saturday (11 a.m.) and Western Carolina on Sunday (3 p.m.). The Aggies will go into the tournament and the season with 17 healthy arms on the pitching staff. Ten of those arms are new to the active roster including six who were inked during the signing period. The Aggies also return arms such as Robert Peck (6-1, 190, SR, RHP), Will Greene (6-0, 205, SR, RHP) and Kaeson Wilson (6-0, 175, RHP) who shared time as weekend starters last season to reconstruct their pitching staff.
“Pitching takes the longest to build because everybody really needs it,” said Hall. “It is the true bell cow of any program. Obviously for us making a big push and a big improvement on the mound is a key factor in this 2017 year.”
The Aggies did see improvement at the plate last season. In 2014 the Aggies hit a disappointing .245 at the plate as compared to hitting .272 last season. Hall says that number needs to go even higher if the Aggies want to qualify for the MEAC tournament with the possibility of reaching an NCAA regional. The big four from last season includes preseason first-team All-MEAC selections Adan Ordonez (5-7, 180, JR, C) and Timothy Ravare (5-7, 185, SR 2B), second-team preseason selection Milton Rivera (5-8, 175, SR, SS) and team-leader Kyle Clary (5-11, 175, SR, 1B).
Ordonez (.332, 3 HR, 14 2B, 45 RBI) was a second-team selection in 2016 a year after being the MEAC Rookie of the Year and a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American. Ordonez led the Aggies in RBI and was third in the MEAC. He had 21 multiple-hit games and was tied for the team-lead in multiple-RBI games with 10.
“Adan is a special player,” said Hall. “He really transformed himself into one of the best players in the conference. He is consistent, productive and knows how to drive in runs.”
Speaking of transformations, Ravare has certainly turned himself into an offensive threat for the Aggies. As a freshman, he batted. 095. Last season he was a .306 hitter with 11 extra base hits and 20 RBI. He was a first-team All-MEAC selection as a utility player in 2015.
N.C. A&T’s leading hitter from a year ago was Rivera. He was named first-team All-MEAC as a sophomore by hitting .349 with seven home runs, 19 doubles, two triples and 26 RBI. He also had a .553 slugging percentage. Rivera recorded at least three hits in a game six times last season and recorded 28 multiple-hit games. On Feb. 20 at home against Navy, he smashed three home runs and over the three-games series, he posted a 1.417 slugging percentage, crushed four home runs and collected 17 total bases.
Rivera was fifth in the league in hitting and led the league in doubles and hits (75). He was second in runs scored (55) and total bases (119).
Despite the accomplishments of Ordonez, Ravare and Rivera, the leader of the pack by example on and off the diamond may very well be Clary. Clary, an engineering major with impressive academic credentials, is one of the best defensive first baseman in the MEAC if not the country. He posted a .991 fielding percentage last season as he improved upon his .980 fielding percentage from the 2015 season. Clary’s batting average has also ascended throughout his career.
Clary improved his batting average by 79 points from 2015 to 2016. He batted .300 with 14 doubles, three home runs and 39 RBI. There were 10 games where he produced multiple RBI. He was tied for sixth in the league in doubles and was a third-team selection for All-MEAC.
“He is a coach’s dream because of his work ethic,” said Hall about his senior first baseman. “Kyle has a rigorous work schedule because he is an engineering major, but I know he is going to come to the park, get his workout in and do the things he is asked to do. I’ve been about as pleased with his offseason as anyone on the team.”
As men at work who are continuing to construct a quality baseball program, Hall hopes he can get that type of effort from everyone throughout the 2017 season.
The Aggies added some impressive new arms including junior right-handers Josh Bottenfield, Noah Dyals, Marcello Betances, Gavin Huffman, Josh Stikeleather and junior left-hander Jonah Owenby. They all have a chance at the weekend slots along with returners Peck, Green and Wilson. There are also some talented freshman looking to take the hump in left-hander Jajuan Crawford and right-handers Leon Davidson, Jason Jenkins and Michael Johnson. There are also some returners from the bullpen and midweek starts from last season as sophomores Leon Hunter (RHP) and Matt Stanley (RHP) and junior K.J. McAlister (RHP) look to improve upon last season.
Junior Myles Sowell looks to be the cornerstone in the outfield defensively. The speedy Sowell can run down fly balls in the gaps with ease and he doesn’t have a bad arm either. He didn’t have the type of offensive production he wanted with a .242 batting average, but he did drive in 21 runs and he stole 14 bases in 18 attempts. Sophomore Dawnoven Smith looks to be the leading candidate to start in right field after hitting .270 as a freshman. Junior college transfer Greg White will try to secure the left field position. There is a pop expected from his bat this season. Sophomore Jason King batted .256 in 22 games last season and made nine starts as an outfielder. Sophomores Jarrett Norman and James Rorie will also see playing time in the outfield along with freshman Camden Williamson. Senior Keenan Herring, a big bat in the Aggies lineup, also played some outfield last season.
Redshirt sophomore A.J. Hunt returns to the position after sitting out last season with an injury to his left shoulder. Hunt only made seven errors in 38 games as a freshman at third. Juniors Brandon Melendez and Forest Kimbrell will be his chief competition at the hot corner. Melendez comes in with a reputation of being a big-time hitter out of junior college. Junior Forest Kimbrell, a starter at third base last season, could also play a little shortstop this season.
Hall calls his shortstop the quarterback of the defense. His main man last season was Rivera who was in his first season as the Aggies shortstop. Hall is looking for Rivera to match his offensive output with more consistency on defense. In Year 2, he wants Rivera to be more vocal in terms of making sure everyone is positioned where they need to be, and he wants his decision-making to improve. Kimbrell will be the backup at short.
Ravare is the veteran at this position. With Rivera having a year at shortstop completed, the middle of the Aggies infield should be solid. Ravare posted a .944 field percentage last season. Look for the versatile Kimbrell to fit in here some this season along with freshman Justin Williams.
Clary makes few mistakes at first base. The bigger question here is who is waiting in the wings to take over for the senior once he graduates? Freshman Zach McLean may get a few auditions here along with Hunt.
Ordonez’s story has been well documented. He was recruited as a middle infielder but moved to catcher as a freshman because the Aggies had injury problems at the position. He’s been the starting catcher ever since. He threw out 14 players attempted to steal a base last season. The switch-hitting Norman will be his backup.
This will all depend on who is hot. Herring is the lead candidate here afteer hitting three home runs and driving in 26 runs last season. Norman and White could also fit in here along with King.