PEMBROKE — On the field, the turnaround for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke midway through this season started by winning the series against then No. 1 North Georgia, but the inspiration to sweep started in right field corner at Augusta University’s Lake Olmstead Stadium with a post-game talk.
The Braves had just dropped the series to Augusta and were sitting at 2-4 in Peach Belt Conference play. Coach Paul O’Neil said that talk he had with his team was its “Coming to Jesus moment,” that sparked the Braves to go 13-5 in PBC play and clinch the fifth seed in this week’s PBC tournament that starts today with a meeting against fourth-seeded Columbus State at 8:30 p.m. at Francis Marion University.
“When we lost down at Augusta, I really got into some kids after the game and challenged them,” O’Neil said. “That was a point there and I think winning the North Georgia series gave everybody the confidence or the hope or what not to project us forward.
“I would say it was a more pointed talk. There was some points made, some individuals mentioned. We came together and we were going to go forward or backward, and they responded the way any coach would want them to respond.”
The response came with two wins in three games over the top-ranked Nighthawks to win the series, and from there the season took off for the Braves starting on the defensive side of the ball. Since March 19, the Braves had won 21 of 25 games and won every PBC series along the way in setting a school record with a 14-game win streak.
In the games since that stretch, UNCP has cleaned up its act on defense with one game of more than two errors. Before then, the Braves had committed three or more errors in six games.
“I feel like we played great baseball in the month of April,” O’Neil said. “I like where our team is at going into the conference tournament. I think we’re focused, I think we’re loose, I think we are relaxed and I think we are ready to play. I think the hardest part for us will be sitting around all day Wednesday.”
Paired with the clean defense is an improved approach at the plate an on the mound.
“We’re clicking. It’s more team-over-me mentality this whole time and we’re all meshing together,” Senior captain Drew Beaver said. “If we get good quality starts, we’re unstoppable. We are putting up 10 hits a game and we’re in a good spot.”
Pitching wise Anthony Burke has been the workhorse as the starter with the most innings pitched at 82 and the best ERA at 3.95 of any arm on the roster. The staff as a whole has shown a lot of confidence and chemistry from the starters to the bullpen that has picked up the nickname “Back Half Boys.”
“They’re a tight group and they really pull for each other,” O’Neil said. “I don’t have a set go-to guy or something that we do. I just kind of go to a guy here and then another guy. It’s who feels good and did good here and mix and match it.”
At the plate the Braves are more balanced than they have in years past with four guys over 40 RBIs in Ethan Baucom, Stibel Aleman Saba, Nick Debo and Roberto Rivera. In past seasons the offense has leaned on one or two hot bats to carry it, but without one focal point the powerful offense trend has still stayed the same with UNCP averaging over nine runs a game. Since 2013, UNCP has averaged over seven runs per game every season.
“We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve always been offensive here, but this year it hasn’t been just one guy,” O’Neil said. “It’s been a wide variety of players and what we’ve done. We’ve mixed and matched.”
UNCP checked in at No. 28 in the latest Collegiate Baseball Newspaper Top 30 poll on Monday and fifth in the latest regional rankings. The top seven from each region earn a berth into the NCAA regionals and a run in the conference tournament could do nothing but improve a chance for a postseason bid.
To find inspiration for a run in the PBC tournament, Beaver said the team has to look no further than the confidence that came from the North Georgia wins.
“That turned our season around, definitely,” Beaver said. “It gives us all the confidence in the world that any team can beat any given team on any given day and it just helped our confidence level after that.”
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.