DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 20, 2018) – In the summer of 2014, the North Carolina A&T baseball program hired an assistant coach named Ben Hall. Two months later he was N.C. A&T’s interim head coach. His team included a few freshmen he recently met named Myles Sowell, Adan Ordonez, Milton Rivera, A.J. Hunt and K.J. McAlister.
Hall and those group of players experienced a 10-win season in 2015 and did not qualify for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Championship Baseball Tournament. They won 13 games in 2016 and did not qualify for the tournament. In 2017, they reached the tournament and were one win shy of making the championship game.
On Sunday, May 20, 2018, the senior group of Sowell, Ordonez, Rivera, Hunt and McAlister along with Hall and the rest of the Aggies baseball program won the 2018 MEAC championship with a 12-9 win over their longtime nemesis in the tournament, the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats.
Four years removed from that 10-win season, the 2018 Aggies broke the school record for wins (32-23) and won the program’s fourth MEAC title and the first since 2005. Sophomore Zach McLean was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and McLean, junior Dawnoven Smith, Rivera, and Sowell were named to the all-tournament team.
“First off, those young men are quality people,” said Hall who won the title in his hometown of Daytona Beach, Fla., after leading the Aggies to a school-record 16 conference wins.
“They trusted we would put good players around them. Leadership is important. Senior leadership is imperative,” Hall continued. “Those guys getting tournament experience last year for the first was important because we learned from it and grew from it. So, what happened is we returned a team full of hungry kids who wanted to do nothing but win. They had one purpose and that’s not to leave Daytona Beach without a championship.”
N.C. A&T came into Sunday’s game still in the winner’s bracket, therefore, the Aggies needed to only win once to claim the title while the Wildcats (24-34) had to win twice to claim the title. Hall said he did not want his team thinking about playing a second game on Sunday.
That feat became difficult when the Wildcats took a 5-0 lead in the third and an 8-4 lead going into the bottom of the fifth. The Aggies fifth saw the Wildcats replace right-hand starter Tyler Norris, who was pitching on short rest after throwing three innings against Norfolk State on Wednesday, with RHP Brandon Wilkes. Wilkes opened by hitting junior Jarrett Norman with 1-1 pitch. McLean then blasted a two-run homer to left to cut the Wildcats lead to 8-6. It was McLean’s third homer of the tournament with all three going to left. He also finished with a whopping 11 RBI in three games.
“I think Zach’s home run against their bullpen guy let our guys know we were going to be okay,” said Hall. “Their starter competed his tail off. He was tough on our guys. But when Zach destroyed that fastball, as long as we were able to put some zeroes up (on the scoreboard), we really had no doubt in the dugout we were going to win.”
N.C. A&T added another run in the fifth on an RBI single from Forest Kimbrell to make it an 8-7 game. The Aggies manufactured a run in the seventh to tie the game at 8, as sophomore Ryne Stanley walked, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Sowell and reached third on a groundout by Rivera. Stanley then came home on a wild pitch by RHP Tyler Krull.
A four-run eighth gave the Aggies the lead for good. With runners on first and second, McLean’s RBI double to left gave the Aggies their first lead of the game. Another wild pitch, this time from B-CU LHP Joseph Calamita, allowed another Aggies run to score as Norman crossed the plate for a 10-8 Aggies lead. McLean later scored on a passed ball. The last run of the inning was scored from a second rally the Aggies mounted after the bases were cleared.
Sowell reached on a fielder’s choice and Rivera and senior Greg White were hit by pitches. B-CU reliever David Matta (RHP) forced in a run when he walked Kimbrell on six pitches for a 12-8 Aggies advantage. By this time, the game was in the hands of the Aggies bullpen who has been excellent all season. Junior reliever Leon Hunter (RHP) and senior reliever Josh Bottenfield (RHP) did not disappoint.
“We knew we had our pitching set up the way we wanted,” said Hall. “We wanted to be in a position where we could turn the game over to Bott and let him finish it. I thought Leon Hunter was huge for us and Bott was a tough matchup for them. Those guys went out and executed the game plan.”
Hunter pitched 2.1 innings of scoreless relief and Bottenfield (6-3), the nation’s leader in appearances with 38, got the win by pitching 2.1 innings and striking out two.
N.C. A&T will now ready itself for the NCAA Regionals scheduled for June 1-4. The selection show is 12 p.m., Monday, May 28 on ESPNU.
The last time the Aggies were in the NCAA Regionals they opened against Clemson. Clemson’s second baseman that day was named Ben Hall. Yes, that same young assistant coach turned interim head coach from 2014.