PEMBROKE — The University of North Carolina at Pembroke baseball team has become accustomed to winning under coach Paul O’Neil.
That tradition has raised the bar for the Braves’ standards of what constitutes a successful season. By those lofty expectations, the 2016 edition of the UNCP baseball team didn’t meet the mark, finishing with a 27-22 record.
“That would be an outstanding year for (some programs),” said O’Neil, whose team failed to reach 30 wins for the first time since 2004. “For us, it was a disappointing year.”
O’Neil earned his 500th career victory last season, but the Braves were marred by defensive miscues and an inability to maintain leads in the later innings of games. Those factors, coupled with a mix of new faces, meant an adjustment period for the team.
Heading into Friday’s season opener against Shepherd, O’Neil is optimistic that those growing pains will pay off for his latest squad.
“This year’s club is more cohesive,” he said. “They work together more, they hang out more and they’re more of a team.
“I’m very optimistic. It’s a new year and a new season. I’m very positive about the direction we’re going in with the kids that have worked hard to this point. I’ve seen a lot of improvement and I like how it’s coming together.”
The Braves return seven position starters and six pitchers off of last season’s club. Infielder Drew Beaver and pitcher Jesse Stinnett enter the year as the senior team captains of a UNCP squad that features 23 upperclassmen, including a plethora of junior college transfers.
O’Neil said last year’s adjustments with the influx of JUCO starters should help the team find more solid footing this season.
“We had a lot of new players last year and we didn’t have strong leadership to go with the new players,” he said. “It’s taken them a year to come together and figure things out. We should see some improvement with those guys.”
Among those players are Roberto Rivera and Stibel Aleman Saba, the leading hitters from last season. Rivera led the Braves at the plate in 2016, batting at a clip of .383 with 70 hits. He also drew a team-best 29 walks and had a .465 on-base percentage. Aleman Saba logged a team-best 56 RBIs in his first season at UNCP.
“It’s a big difference going to school here,” O’Neil said of making the transition from junior college to university life. “It’s a big adjustment and there’s a learning curve for some of the guys. There’s a strong group of guys out there this year.”
Along with Beaver and Stinnett, O’Neil pointed to seniors Justin Dattilo, Nick Debo, Kyle Ramsey and Fairmont’s Alex Britt as players who have brought much-needed leadership during the offseason.
But it’s the leadership of younger players on the roster that gives O’Neil a better feeling ahead of the new season.
“It helps when you have guys that have been in the program,” he said. “But I feel like there are some other guys who have stepped up who are not seniors, like Roberto Rivera, (and pitchers) Anthony Burke and Hank Simpson.
“That’s what gives me some great optimism about this team. You don’t just have older guys leading.”
As for the meeting expectations on the field, O’Neil is hopeful the Braves will be more fundamentally sound in each phase — pitching, offense and defense — of the game this season.
“I feel like we should score runs and play better defense than last year,” he said. “We moved some pieces around that will hopefully strengthen our defense.”
Two of those changes will come in the infield with Beaver moving from shortstop to third base and Hayden Buffkin taking over at first base.
As for pitching, the Braves will be starting the season without two of their most experienced players on the mound. Trace Hagler, the team’s top reliever last season, is out for the year and is scheduled to have Tommy John Surgery next week. Britt will start the year on the injury list as well as he rehabs from a shoulder injury.
“Those are two guys that did well for us last year and were always in the mix,” O’Neil said. “Pitching is always a concern, as I’m sure it is for most college coaches. I know we’re better on the mound than we were a year ago. It’s just always about depth.”
While he would love to have a full complement of arms on hand as the season starts, O’Neil said the early adversity offers “a great opportunity” for other guys on the roster, including former Fairmont ace Cole Lovin.
“(Cole) is an example of a guy that will get an opportunity to be out there and we need him to pitch well,” O’Neil said. “I tell all the guys on our (pitching) staff, ‘We brought you here to pitch.’”
That attitude of bringing worth to the club is something O’Neil expects from each of the guys on his roster.
“I tell them all the time that they can’t just be here for the pizza,” he said. “Everyone on the team must bring something to the ball club. The opportunities are in front of all of these guys.”
The addition of former all-American Collins Cuthrell to the coaching staff should provide plenty of motivation for the team as it looks to get back to its winning ways. Cuthrell is one of 14 players honored with a plaque inside the team’s locker room for reaching all-American status.
“Collins has been a great addition to our program,” O’Neil said. “I like our staff. All three of those guys (Cuthrell, Alex Pearce and Jeff Jefferson) work very hard for me. When we have success, they should get a lot of credit for that. It’s not just one person doing it.”
It’s that kind of work ethic that O’Neil hopes produces more wins this season and a Peach Belt Conference Championship.
“The ultimate goal is to win the regular season,” he said. “That’s what I want. … that’s the body of work throughout the year. In order to do that, we’ll have to play very well in all three areas and get a little lucky.
“You have goals that go beyond that. Everyone wants to be the champion at the end of the year, but the first goal is to win the regular season championship.”
With 18 of its first 21 games at home, UNCP will have the opportunity to build some early momentum. The Braves begin conference play in March against defending PBC champion Columbus State.
With hopes that last season was a mere blip, O’Neil said he’s been driving his players to “stay positive and compete” every day as they push to get back to playing winning baseball.
“That’s been a common (message) that we’ve been trying to talk about with the guys,” he said. “They seem to resonate with it and there’s a lot of optimism. We’re excited to get started.”