Experienced A&T Baseball Program Prepares For 2018
2017 Record: 28-25, 15-9 MEAC
Letter Returning/Lost: 23/14
Starting Position Players Returning/Lost: 8/1
Returning Weekend Starters/Lost: 2/1
Returning Relief/Midweek Pitchers Returning/Lost: 5/1
GREENSBORO (February 8, 2018) -- The North Carolina A&T baseball program looks to build off a successful 2017 campaign with a veteran group of returners. Last season Aggies baseball tied a school record for conference wins by going 15-9 while having a 15-game improvement in wins.
“Last year was a stepping stone year for us to get ourselves pointed and moving in the right direction,” said Ben Hall, who is entering his fourth season as N.C. A&T’s head coach. “When you are able to bring in a great group of talented baseball players that elevates the overall talent of the program. Combine that with some players who have been here and have bought into what we have been doing and you start to create a nucleus as you make a transition from the year before to a more successful season.”
In order to improve on last season’s success the Aggies are focusing on their defensive play. N.C. A&T ranked second in the MEAC in both double plays (42) while placing fifth in ERA (5.29) and sixth in fielding percentage (0.946).
"We need to play better defense and to control and handle the ball better,” Hall said. “We know we have a good offensive group, so combining that with another year of better pitching is ideally what we are aiming for.”
Predicted to finish second by MEAC head coaches and sports information directors in the 2018 MEAC preseason poll, N.C. A&T returns 23 letterwinners including eight starting position players, five bullpen pitchers and a pair of weekend starters.
Three Aggies were selected to the conference preseason first team in Catcher Adan Ordonez (5-foot-7, 180, SR, Clermont, Fla.), shortstop Brandon Melendez (5-9, 180, SR, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) and outfielder Myles Sowell (6-2, 180, SR, Greensboro, N.C.). There were also two second teamers in outfielder Greg White (6-1, 180, SR, Greensboro, N.C.) and utility player Perry “AJ” Hunt (5-11, 180, SR, Chesapeake, Va.). A new goal for the Aggies this season is to get themselves into a championship opportunity.
“These guys have one thought on their mind, developing on a day-to-day process to put themselves into a position to win a MEAC championship. When you come close it lets you know what is still left to do to get there, said Hall. “We have a good group of older players who relates well to each other and holds each other accountable. That in turn gives them the ability to trickle down that leadership qualities to the rest of the group.”
All three catchers bring unique attributes to the team. Ordonez has played in 148 career games for the Aggies and made his second All-MEAC first team in 2017. He is one of the most accomplished players in program history with MEAC Rookie of the Year, Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American and N.C. A&T Athletics Male Rookie of the Year honors on his resume.
He is a career .323 hitter with 110 RBI, a .443 slugging percentage and 36 doubles. Last season he was one of the toughest players in the country to strike out, ranking 14th nationally with only 11 strikeouts in 174 at-bats. He was 35th in the nation in RBI per game (1.39).
Jarrett Norman (5-10, 185, JR, Matthews, N.C.) and Ryne Stanley (6-0, 190, So., High Point, N.C.) well see time behind the plate. Norman has played a lot in his two seasons and has emerged as one of the vocal leaders of the Aggies. He also proved to be a clutch player for the Aggies in 2017. Stanley does not have as much experience as Ordonez or Norman.
Greg White and Myles Sowell look to lead the outfielders. “White has taken a step forward as a senior leader,” Hall said. “Last year he was a first-year Aggie, so now he is more comfortable and helping to lead the outfield group.”
White was the Aggie leader in hits (73), doubles (12), stolen bases (15), total plate appearances (214) and at bats (181). Sowell was ranked second in the conference in triples (5), fifth in both runs scored (41) and batting average (.356) while finishing eighth in both total bases (87) and hits (62). Right fielders Camden Williamson (5-8, 180, SO, Greensboro, N.C.) and Dawnoven Smith (6-1, 215, JR, Jacksonville, N.C.) will also add depth to the returning outfielders.
Melendez (SS), Hunt (3B) and Milton Rivera (5-9, 175, 2B, SR, Humacao, Puerto Rico) started last season for the Aggies and with their return have raised expectations for the infield. Melendez led the Aggies in batting average (.363), on base percentage (.442) and in walks (21). Hunt emerged as a conference leader in several statistical categories. He was tied for fourth in home runs (6) and ninth in slugging percentage (.483).
“Hunt has started to establish himself. He looks like an older player, he has the feel, he talks older and sounds like he has been around the block a little bit.”
Rivera came on late last season. Over his final 14 games, Rivera batted .368 with 14 runs scored, 15 RBI and six doubles. On the season, he batted .270 with 25 runs scored, 24 RBI and 10 doubles.
A major factor to the Aggies 2017 success was closer Cutter Dyals (RHP). Dyals was a first-team All-MEAC honoree and was on the Midseason Watch List for the 13th annual National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year Award. Dyals became the 19th player in program history to be selected in the MLB draft. In his one season with the Aggies, Dyals finished with an impressive 0.50 ERA holding batters to .190.
“Dyals made a much bigger impact than we all thought he would,” Hall said. “We knew he was going to be good for us, but it is hard to draw up that kind of year that he had.”
Now that Dyals is the minor league system of the Atlanta Braves, the Aggies must move forward without his dominance. Hall decided to replace that one-man dominance with depth.
“Our pitching is definitely as deep as a pitching staff since we have been here. We can go 13,14, 15 deep possibly on the mound. That's rare,” Hall said. “I feel like every one of our pitchers can go out there and give us something whether it is in a role or as a frontline guy.”
Marcello Betances (6-2, 205, SR, Raleigh, N.C.) led the Aggies in strikeouts (58), innings pitched (71.2) and games started (14) posting a 5.40 ERA. Michael Johnson (5-11, 220, SO, Lexington, N.C.) struck out 36 and ranked fifth in the conference in walks allowed (18). He made 12 starts with a 6.16 ERA in 64.1 innings pitched.
“Being able to return two weekend starters in Johnson and Betances is huge,” Hall said. “The bullpen will be a good strength to our team. There are a lot of options and everyone brings something different.”
N.C. A&T opens the season 4 p.m., Friday, Feb. 16 at War Memorial Stadium. The Aggies will host Coppin State for a three-game non-conference series to open the season as the final two games will be played on Saturday (2 p.m.) and Sunday (1 p.m.).
The schedule is also highlighted by non-conference games at N.C. State (Feb. 20) and at national power South Carolina (March 7). There is also the annual game at the Greensboro Grasshoppers home park, First National Bank Field, against UNC Greensboro on March 21. Conference play begins on March 10 with a doubleheader at home against rival North Carolina Central.