By CODY DALTON
CVCC Sports Information
HICKORY — Celebrating 10 years of the program, the Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) baseball team enters 2019 with hopes of commemorating its decade-long run with a special season.
“We are excited to get started,” said Paul Rozzelle, who enters his fifth season as the head coach and ninth season overall with the Red Hawks. “We are excited to play somebody else other than ourselves.
“I think our guys have prepared and done a good job up to this point, but at some point you want to play somebody that isn’t your teammate.
“It’s nice to know that we get to tee it up against somebody else and kind of get a feel for who we are, what our identity is going to be and how we are going to win baseball games.”
CVCC is coming off a 42-16 record that included going 18-7 in Region X. The Red Hawks went 27-7 at home, playing their games at the Legion Fairgrounds in Newton (as they will again this season).
This year’s CVCC team features six sophomore captains — shortstop Garrison Burress (Granite Falls), catcher Brett Macchia (Hudson), first baseman Tyler Campbell (East Bend) and pitchers Trae Starnes (Taylorsville), Chase Covington (Troutman) and Nic Messina (Gardiner, N.Y.).
All six athletes will play a vital role in the success of this year’s team, Rozzelle said.
“Our captains are very important to us because it’s player voted,” he said. “It’s after the fall season. Freshmen get to come in and see who has taken leadership roles on, who has shown guys the way and put guys under their wings. A big part is holding guys accountable to what we want.”
Those six sophomores return along with seven other players who saw playing time last season — outfielder Rod Munoz, catcher Willie Gordon, infielder R.J. Conner, third baseman Grant Tilley and pitchers Timothy Davila, Greg Collins and Chris Banks.
Rozzelle said he’s impressed by his sophomore leaders, and he expects several veteran players to make leaps this year.
“You see a lot of sophomores take big steps because they have a season under their belt,” he said. “They have some confidence about what they are doing as well as their preparation and abilities.
“Now, they can maybe take it another step. The sophomores we have coming back are very special to us. We are very excited about them.”
The Red Hawks also have several impact sophomore transfers, including pitcher Logan Bender, an All-American and Big South Freshman of the Year at Campbell last spring. He has signed to play at N.C. State next spring.
“When you get transfers that always helps,” Rozzelle said. “You have guys that are transferring for whatever reason — whether it’s a new opportunity, a fresh start or they weren’t getting the looks that they wanted to at their previous schools.
“Again, most of these guys come in with experience at the four-year level — whether it’s (NCAA) Division I or Division II. That experience is invaluable. They get to come in and play with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder because they have something to prove. Having those guys into our program is also a big help.”
Rozzelle said his team’s biggest strength is its pitching staff, but there are some questions that have to be answered as the season goes on.
“On the mound, we feel really good about what we’ve got,” he said. “We are very, very deep. The only question on the mound for us is trying to figure out who is going to start. We’ve got a ton of good arms, but we’ve got to figure out who can fall into that starter role and have the ability to turn a line up over twice and hopefully even a third time. We’ve got to figure that part out.
“That’s probably the one unknown from the pitching standpoint. Having good arms is fantastic, but we’ve got to find guys who can get outs.”
The Red Hawks are also expected to be solid defensively but they’re likely to have a different look after setting records last season for runs (441), RBI (383) and home runs (65).
“Offensively, I don’t know if we are going to put up the same numbers as last season, but I think we are going to be a more competitive team hitting wise,” Rozzelle said. “I think we are going to put nine guys out there who are tough outs. To me, that means a lot.
“That’s something we strive to do in the off season and in the fall. We try get to better there. We don’t necessarily want to have to wait around for the big homer.
“We want an opposing pitcher to know that he’s going to have to work, and he’s going to have to execute all of his pitches to be able to get us out.
“We’ll kind of have to wait to see what the offense looks like. In our early intrasquads, the guys who are going to be getting playing time early have done extremely well. It’s going to be a different look, but a fun one to watch. Guys are going to be putting the ball in play and battling their tail off.
“I think the power numbers and production numbers will come as we get rolling into the season and guys will settle in.”
Perhaps the biggest x-factor for the Red Hawks will be the unknown and seeing who emerges to provide sparks on the mound and at the plate.
“Who is going to step? Every year, somebody does,” Rozzelle said. “You don’t expect it or know it’s coming. Out of the blue, somebody puts up unbelievable numbers.
“There are going to be somebody along the way here that maybe we didn’t have full expectation of having a monumental year, but somebody is going to step up and really do a good job.”
This season, the Red Hawks’ motto is ‘Take Down the Buffalo’ — a slogan Rozzelle came up with after being inspired by Sam Houston State baseball coach Matt Deggs.
“It’s really about having a wolfpack mentality,” Rozzelle said of the motto. “Everyone has a role to play. When a wolf is out on a hunt, every wolf has a certain job. If one of the wolves doesn’t do their job or part, the pack suffers.
“For us, ‘Take Down the Buffalo’ is a number of things — it’s a goal of getting back to the top of the conference. It’s getting back to the World Series. Those are macro goals. You can look at it from a smaller standpoint and say ‘How do we go out and beat a team’s number one pitcher?’
“Maybe that is our buffalo for the day. What is our task that we have to get accomplished?
“Our guys have been buying into that this season, and I’m excited to see it develop and grow. It’s become a nice moniker for us. It reminds guys of what we are here to do.
“Obviously, individually we want guys to sign and move on or have a chance of getting drafted, but we know if we are successful as a group, they are going to get their part.”
CVCC’s home opener is Feb. 19 against Lenoir-Rhyne University’s junior varsity.
“It’s very much testing ourselves and our mettle,” Rozzelle said of the early-season stretch. “It’s a very good litmus test for us to see where we are at. Even though it’s going to be a short non-conference season, we are going to have a pretty good idea of where we are at, what we are good at and what we need to improve upon.”
The second series of the season is against a powerhouse in National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division national runner up Walters State — a program Rozzelle says the Red Hawks have tried to model themselves after.
“They are a benchmark program in our eyes,” Rozzelle said of the Senators. “We want to do everything we can to get to their level. We feel like we are taking steps in the right direction.”
Following its first three season series, the Red Hawks start conference play on Feb. 23 against Region X’s newest addition, Paul D. Camp.
“Our conference is extremely deep,” Rozzelle said. “Junior college baseball has gotten better over the past 10 years because players are realizing that it’s a viable option. Yes, we are getting more talented players, but so is everyone else. It makes the weekends competitive and fun.
“Really anybody in our league can beat anybody every weekend. Walking in and thinking you’ve got three wins is out the door now in our league, which in years past wasn’t the case.
“You could probably rely and count on some wins there throughout the year. Everyone has good players and coaches and are trying to do the same thing we are.”
The Red Hawks will have a special day/night doubleheader on April 6 against Southeastern Community College. The day game is at L.P. Frans Stadium — the home of the Single-A Hickory Crawdads — and the night game is at Henkel-Alley Field at the Legion Fairgrounds in Newton.
During the day game, CVCC will honor three of its All-American players in Bryson Bowman, Danny Sullivan and Julian Smith and also unveil an All-Decade Team to commemorate its 10th Anniversary season — the first of many events planned during the spring to honor the program’s growing legacy.
“We are excited about doing that and other random stuff throughout the year on social media to look back on these last 10 years,” Rozzelle said. “It’ll be pretty special, especially for me being somebody that has been here and affiliated with this program in some way, shape or form except for one.”
- Cody Dalton is CVCC’s Sports Information Director