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EAST GREENSBORO (February 14, 2019) –It is not about what North Carolina A&T accomplished. It is about what N.C. A&T wants to accomplish. That is the attitude for the program as it heads into the 2019 season 2 p.m., Friday, February 15 at War Memorial Stadium against the Niagara Purple Eagles. 

 

The two teams will play a 2 p.m. doubleheader on Friday before playing a single game at 3 p.m., on Saturday. The Aggies will start senior right-hander Tim Luth (6-3, 3.98 ERA in 2018) for Game 1 and newcomer and junior college transfer Evan Gates (6-1, 185, JR, RHP) will pitch the second game. Saturday’s starter is All-MEAC performer and RHP Michael Johnson (7-2, 3.82 ERA in 2018).  

 

N.C. A&T is coming off a 2018 season that saw them win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) regular-season Southern Division title, the MEAC tournament and they advanced to the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional where they faced UNC and Purdue. 

 

On their way there they broke the school record for wins by going 32-25 and they broke the school record for conference wins with a 16-8 mark. But even with 18 players back from their historic season, even with four players on the preseason all-conference team and even with the fact they have been picked to repeat as Southern Division champions, the Aggies are moving on with life. 

 

“The minute they got started in September, there has been a relentless nature to their work,” said N.C. A&T coach Ben Hall who is entering his fifth season with the program. “They talk a lot about what they want to do, rarely have I heard anything about what they did. This senior class wants to leave their mark on the program. I know they have some aggressive goals in place.”

 

Hall calls last season’s rise to the top of the MEAC an enjoyable experience, but the next step is to stay at the top on a consistent basis. To become a consistent contender the Aggies, want to be better each year. 

 

“For us to keep advancing ourselves it will take better game to game and week to week consistency,” Hall said. “We also want to make a significant improvement in our team defense.”

 

THE INFIELD

The personnel who will make up that defense is still being decided. Hall calls each position rented and players need to pay rent with their work ethic to keep the position. Senior and All-MEAC performer A.J. Hunt has been a mainstay at third base. 

 

Hunt batted .316 with six home runs, 11 doubles and 35 RBI on his way to being named first-team preseason All-MEAC. He had 19 multiple hit games including four games where he had three hits. He also led the team in two-RBI games with seven. He was third in the MEAC in runs scored with 45. 

 

Newcomer and junior college transfer Dustin Baber will look to take over at shortstop after Forest Kimbrell graduated last season. The man who held down the shortstop position two seasons ago – senior Brandon Melendez looks to move to second base for the 2019 season. Melendez missed all of last season with an injury. In 2017, he was an All-MEAC selection after leading the Aggies in hitting (.363). 

 

Redshirt sophomore Justin Williams will look to play both second base and third base this season. Freshmen Tony Mack and Connor Knapp could also figure into the rotation for middle infielders this season. Junior first baseman Zach McLean, the 2018 MEAC tournament MVP, is coming back from injury to open the season, but once he is back to full strength, he should hold down the first baseman position for N.C. A&T. Senior James Rorie, a player Hall credits for having a preseason, should fill in for McLean with help from Williams. 

 

Senior Jarrett Norman and redshirt junior Ryne Stanley bring veteran leadership to the Aggies at catcher. Norman has also served as a productive designated hitter. Freshman catcher Devin Bartley could also see playing time this season because of his bat.

 

“Jarrett and Ryne bring different qualities, but both are starters in mind,” said Hall. “Their leadership is imperative to our overall success with the pitching staff.”

 

 THE OUTFIELD

Discussion of the Aggies outfield starts with senior Dawnoven Smith, an all-conference performer who earned preseason honors in 2019. Smith had a career year in 2018 with a .335 average that included eight home runs, 19 doubles and 45 RBI. He also had a .600 slugging percentage which led the MEAC. He also led the league in doubles and total bases (102), and he was second in runs scored (48).  

 

Junior Shane Faulk is returning from injury. He did play 25 games last season where he batted .271. Faulk and Donte Ward should compete for playing time in center field as they try to replace all-conference center fielder Myles Sowell. Junior Camden Williamson, who played a lot of right field last season, is also returning from injury. Senior Jason King can play all three outfield positions.

 

PITCHING

Luth, Gates and Johnson seem to have the weekend rotation locked down for now. The Aggies used a bullpen by committee approach last season when he came to closing games. The main two committee members were Josh Stikeleather (2-3, 1.96 ERA, 5 saves, 42 K’s) and Josh Bottenfield (6-3, 1.88 ERA, 3 saves, 30 K’s). K.J. McAlister (1-2, 2.13 ERA, 10 K’s) was an excellent setup man which helped matters. 

 

All three of those players are gone, but the Aggies philosophy is not. It will still be bullpen by committee with returners such as RHP Leon Hunter (1-1, 4.68 ERA, 24 K’s) and RHP Roberto Negron (0-0, 7.50 ERA, 11 K’s) as the lead candidates to close games. 

 

Hunter and Negron had excellent offseasons. During summer league play, Hunter was a Northwoods League all-star and Negron pitched for the Puerto Rican under-23 team. Junior RHP Leon Davidson (0-0, 9.45 ERA, 8 K’s) will be asked to come in and get some groundball outs while freshman right-hander Gianni Smith (6-2, 225, Winston-Salem, N.C.) has shown promise.  

 

THE SCHEDULE

After the Niagara series, the Aggies will play seven more home games before opening their conference slate against rival N.C. Central, March 8-10 in Durham. The Aggies will also play two games at First National Bank Field, home of the Greensboro Grasshoppers. The first will be against UNC Greensboro at 6 p.m., March 19 and the other will be against N.C. State at 6 p.m., March 27. 

The Aggies hope to be playing their best baseball when the MEAC tournament arrives May 15-18 in Daytona Beach, Fla. As for the expectations heaped upon the Aggies from last season’s achievements? Again, Hall and the Aggies are moving on. 

 

“We know that preseason projections really don’t have any bearing on what happens,” said Hall. “It’s a nice gesture for teams and players who have established themselves as the frontline in our conference. But in the end, this is a totally different year, and everyone has the same record this week.”