GREENSBORO-Baseball is a grind. To be able to compete and execute at a high level over the course of a 50-plus game season requires not only skill but fortitude.
The North Carolina A&T baseball team showed that fortitude and fighting spirit this season as they finished with a 20-36 overall record and a 12-12 MEAC record under first-year head coach Joel Sanchez. The Aggies had a solid start and a strong finish, earning the No. 3 seed in the Southern Division and being one of the last four teams standing in the MEAC Tournament.
"The character of this team is starting to take form. It was a long season, and towards the end the team started kind of jelling together a little bit," Sanchez said. "We were playing hard, but just not getting the results that we were looking for. It was a good group of guys that stepped up and had good finishes to their years. Those guys will be back and they're a good group to build on for the coming year."
The offseason will bring about some significant changes for the program. Some of the offseason will be spent awaiting a decision by the Greensboro City Council to see if there are going to be changes to War Memorial Stadium.
On April 3, the City Council was brought a proposal to spend $1.41 million in a 2008 General Obligation bonds to renovate the stadium. The City Council issued a motion at the April 3 meeting to get engineers from the university to do another assessment on the stadium to provide a second opinion on the status of the stadium's structure and the needs for renovation. The Council decided to postpone voting on the proposal to spend $1.41 million on renovating the stadium for 90 days or until the university's analysis could be completed.
The A&T baseball staff is currently awaiting the results of that study and the Council's vote to see if any renovations might affect their ability to play in the stadium next season.
In terms of baseball performance, the Aggies hope to sharpen their defensive and offensive skills, while adding more pitching depth to the roster.
"You've got to have some depth on the mound so that you can have options to go to when you have certain situations," Sanchez said, adding that he's looking to have a minimum of 12 pitchers on the roster. "But I'm shooting for more-14, 15, 16 - the more the better. You never know-somebody gets hurt and you've got to have somebody ready to go to."
Sanchez will also have to fill the gap left by four seniors-including his starting middle infielders Michael Radford and Marquis Riley, starting center fielder Carvell Copeland and No. 1 pitcher Estarlin Paulino. The 2013 class will be his first as a head coach, and Sanchez already knows what qualities he's looking for in his new student-athletes.
"We've got to bring in the type of student-athlete that's going to be a fit-hardworking, grinder-type individuals that are hard working on the field and in the classroom. We're looking for grinders. That would be the character of this team," he said.
Additionally, he's looking to change the program from its past high-octane offensive approach to something that values all-around performance.
And with the way the team closed out the season, including two victories by the MEAC 10-run rule in the MEAC Tournament, Sanchez thinks that momentum will help prepare his Aggies for the next season.
"We had a strong showing there I think in those two games of what we can do," he said. "Hopefully that type of finish mentality we can carry on into next year. I know we've got our work cut out for us. It's going to be an important fall. We've got to set the tone early and hopefully the returning group knows and understands what it's going to take."
Recognition for the Aggies this season included Marquis Riley being named first-team All-MEAC. Third baseman Luke Tendler, first baseman Kelvin Freeman and shortstop Michael Radford collected second-team All-MEAC honors. Tendler and Freeman are slated to return in 2013.
The Aggies other recognitions this season included Estarlin Paulino winning MEAC Pitcher of the Week twice and Brandon Wilkerson earning MEAC Rookie of the Week twice.
The Aggies not only performed well on the field but in the classroom. A total of 17 players earned 2011 Fall Dean's List honors, while nine earned MEAC Commissioner's All-Academic team honors. The A&T baseball team is also one of the few teams on campus that can claim having a 4.0 GPA student-athlete on its roster in right-handed pitcher Andrew Cook.