The veteran skipper who concludes his 12th season at the school on Saturday doesn’t diminish the importance of a star-studded haul but says pen-to-paper is just the second step of a tedious, year-long recruiting process.
“On paper, this class looks very strong with a lot of high profile guys and a lot of talent,” O’Neil said. “But, the whole thing about it is we still have work to do. Most of these guys have to go to summer school and pass a class to play at UNCP. That’s just how it is with transfers at the Division II level.”
O’Neil estimates that 75 percent of his 18-player class needs a "credit or two" to be eligible for fall practice. Of those newcomers, only seven are coming out of high school.
“It would be nice to say everyone’s signed, sealed, delivered and ready to go, but that’s not how it is,” he said. “Phase 2 is signing the letter of intent. Phase 3 is getting to Pembroke. Phase 4 is being healthy and eligible to play.”
By recent program standards, this season’s 29 wins and 19 losses is a disappointment considering what transpired in 2011. The Braves managed a school-record 44-12 campaign, capturing the Peach Belt Conference Tournament and advancing to the final day of the Mount Olive Regional in the school’s first-ever postseason appearance.
During O’Neil’s tenure over the last decade, UNCP has become an attractive choice for in-state players thanks to its DII conference affiliation and seven consecutive 30-win seasons.
Anchored by DeSean Anderson, a former College World Series champion outfielder at South Carolina, Justin Britt, a JUCO All-American shortstop at Southeastern, and Cody Cox, a 6-foot-7 hurler and 2010 Under Armour All-American from Virginia Beach, Va., time will tell if this year’s class is the program’s most successful yet.
Pitching was UNCP’s top area of need. The Braves lose their top four arms off this year’s staff and a few contributors at the back end of the bullpen including closer Braxton Lewis who had 19 saves over his final two seasons.
Eleven new pitchers should arrive this summer.
“We went around and tried to sign the best position players possible after we filled out our pitching needs,” O’Neil said. “Everyone in this group is going to get an opportunity to play, but they’ll be going against guys who are already in our program. Everyone gets the same opportunity. That’s the only fair way to do it.”
Anderson appeared in 21 games for the Gamecocks in 2011 and is perhaps the gem of the class. Anderson was drafted in the 30th round by the Boston Red Sox out of Ragsdale High, but signed with the Gamecocks over North Carolina. He was dismissed from the team following his freshman season for academic reasons and landed at Rockingham Community College.
UNCP assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Blake Newsome knew the Braves had a shot with the Reidsville native.
“Being one of the top prospects in the state out of high school, there was a lot of information on DeSean already out there,” Newsome said. “We got on him early and I think he really felt comfortable with us. There’s a lot to like about Pembroke … the size of our campus isn’t South Carolina, but it’s not Rockingham either.
“He’ll be getting a quality education at a quality program here. I think the draw of playing for another nationally-ranked program was also important to him.”
Britt’s a local infielder and former all-conference player for Sandy Thorndyke at Fairmont. With starting shortstop J.J. Williams graduating next month, the junior from Southeastern Community College has a chance to be in the lineup next spring.
“Athletic ability is the first thing that jumped off the page with him,” O’Neil said. “He’s a very athletic kid who can play shortstop or center field. Those are two of baseball’s most athletic positions. We’re happy to welcome him to our program.”
O’Neil has his hands full over the next three months staying in contact with all of his new players.
“We'll try to stay on top of them and call or email them once a week,” he said. “It’s a process at this level. We wish everybody was lock, stock and barrel, but that’s not Division II athletics.”
Reach Staff writer Brad Crawford at (910) 272-6119 or email@example.com.