It was one of the earliest endings to a season in school history. It was a record-setting year in the worst of ways. It was a disappointment in the eyes of the coach, the school, and the supporters.
Yet the 2000 Catamount baseball season could possibly be one of the biggest springboards in Western Carolina history.
“Last year, record-wise, was a disappointment,” said second-year head coach Todd Raleigh. “With Western Carolina and baseball, people have been spoiled and expect a big season every year and it just didn’t happen for a lot of reasons.”
Catamount fans spoiled? Only if you call nine conference championships and nine appearances in the NCAA tournament spoiled.
Raleigh added, “Last year was last year, though, and I really feel good about this year’s club.”
“One of the positives from last season was playing young guys. It wasn’t uncommon to play seven freshmen at the same time. It wasn’t uncommon for us to go into a weekend conference series and throw all freshmen, which it’s tough to win,” he said, adding, “But last year, we went with that youth and I think this year it’s going to pay off for us.”
The 2000 Catamounts finished 15-38, 11-14 in conference, but were involved in 12 one-run ball games, nine of which were in conference and one against SEC opponent Tennessee. All but one of the 12 were losses.
Now all eyes turn to the new millennium with only a glance to the past. One concern from the past that creeps into the present is the pitching staff. However, the christening by fire those freshmen hurlers experienced in 2000 should pay off a year later.
“We have some good returning pitchers,” said Raleigh. “(Jared) Burton, (Ryan) Basner, and the Foster twins all pitched well last year as freshmen. Their ERAs are a little high, but there are some balls we didn’t get to, so it’s a little deceiving. (Joe) Camac is in that same category. He wasn’t really ready to pitch last year but he had to.”
“They’re much more mature than an average sophomore. An average sophomore shouldn’t have a tremendous amount of experience, but last year, they were all we had.”
Another specter from the past haunts Raleigh and staff – but in a good way. Two upperclassmen who saw very limited time in 2000 due to injury will be back for Raleigh’s Cats, and he feels that they will help tremendously.
Robbie Hoover had a nerve in his elbow rubbing bone and underwent surgery during the season, while Ryan Schade, who transferred in from the University of Indiana last year, was ill with mononucleosis that resulted in the enlargement of his kidneys and was kept out of the lineup as a precaution.
Raleigh describes Hoover as a “draft-able type player” who is “very mature and brings experience that other kids don’t have.” He throws in 90 mph range, but is still in rehabilitation and will be limited early on in his appearances.
Raleigh was counting on Schade last season to shore up the infield. However, with his absence it left a void – a void that resulted in the Catamounts having the worst ranked infield in the conference. However, with his return also comes some help. Raleigh feels that his infield is the most improved area in 2001.
Schade did get a medical red shirt, saving last year. Hoover is applying for medical hardship as he already received a medical red shirt his freshman year.
The Catamounts have many freshmen that Raleigh stated could see playing time in their rookie seasons. Michael Roper, Doug Myers, and Michael Roane will all compete for time in the infield.
In addition to talented freshmen, Raleigh has brought in a barrage of transfers to assist his club this year. Leading that group is Dan Woodley, a junior-transfer from James Madison.
Raleigh stated that he originally recruited Woodley while at JMU. He describes him as an outstanding defensive player with a strong arm who knows how to play the game.
Another transfer is Donovan Minero, who looks to be the early replacement for Charles Thomas, who was drafted over the summer by the Atlanta Braves. Raleigh said that Thomas had an exceptional summer with the Braves organization.
“Charles is a huge loss. He’s really the only loss that we have a hard time replacing. He’s a marquee player. He can go get the ball in the outfield, can hit, and can make thing happen on the bases,” he commented.
Minero, a junior, transferred in from San Jose, a team that made the College World Series last year. Raleigh commented that he’s a solid player, who’s “got some pop.”
Raleigh also added some depth to his pitching staff, adding Dan Foley, Jeff Skinner and Derek Marion. They will add depth and force to the returning sophomores.
Speaking of returning players, Raleigh has many. With Thomas leaving, the returning leading offensive threat is sophomore Rod Goldston. Last season the Ramseur, NC native hit .256 , but had team-highs with 40 RBIs and six homeruns.
“Rod’s a good player; he’s a gamer,” said Raleigh. “He’s really improved with his swing and outfield-wise and he got a lot of big hits for us. He’s a also a good leader and a hard worker – a very positive influence on our team.”
Goldston had a 20-game hit streak last season.
Another danger at the plate is sophomore Alan Beck, who split time at first, left field, and as designated hitter last season. He was second on the team in long balls (4) and had 30 RBIs. Raleigh stated that he improved in left field, playing there all summer, and will again see time at first.
However, with the loss of Morgan Frazier to transfer, Raleigh will move Todd Buchanan to first base where he started seven games last season.
Also returning is Jeremy Hamrick, whom Raleigh calls the “fastest guy on the team,” and Ben Rhoney. These two will provide experience in several different positions and will battle for playing time.
But perhaps the deepest position on the Catamount squad is the battery partner behind the plate. Four catchers – senior Matt Price, sophomore Ryan McCurry, and freshmen Chad Emery and Brian Sigmon – will compete for the starting slot. Raleigh said that he’s comfortable with any one of the four behind the plate but will go with the hot player.
Strengths of the Catamount team in 2001, according to Raleigh, will be the infield and the game experience that his freshmen gained in 2000.
“I want to see an infield better than ours,” said Raleigh. “I feel we’ve gone from worst to first.”
Raleigh added that fall practice and preseason practice this semester has been very good.
“The biggest difference in fall practice for this season over last was the competition within the team for positions. They don’t know who’s going to start,” said Raleigh. “This semester, they came back in good shape ready to play. I am pleased right now with where we are. We’re ahead of where we were last year.”
Looking at the Catamounts’ schedule, things don’t start out easy. WCU opens up with dates at Auburn and East Carolina, with dates at Wright State, Kent State, Clemson, and Tennessee looming, in addition to the tough conference slate. However, Raleigh prefers this type of scheduling.
“I feel like we have the toughest schedule in the conference. That’s only going to help us,” said Raleigh. “If you want to be the best, you’ve got to play the best and get better as a club. By playing the top teams it sets a better benchmark to set standards by.”
He added, “Our own goal is going to a regional and making it to the College World Series.”
Last year’s champion, Georgia Southern, looks to be stacked again in 2001, with UNC Greensboro, The Citadel, and the College of Charleston also competitors for the crown.
On paper, the Catamounts look weak – NO returning .300 hitter … NO All-conference selections … NO power hitters with double-digit homeruns … NO pitchers with ERAs under 4.00. However, these facts could play in WCU’s favor.
“I think our guys are hungry. With what we’re returning, it’s kind of scary. We’re going to be prepared and hungry to play. We’re not going to back down or be intimidated by anyone,” Raleigh said.
He added, “I’m hoping we can surprise people. Certainly Western Carolina’s never surprised anybody in the past; it’s always been when we played a weekend series it’s usually the biggest series of the year for each team. We’ve won more conference championships and had more success than anybody. We were the hunted, now we’re the hunter.”
The “boys of summer” start their hunt for Omaha in the dead of winter, February 2, as they travel to Auburn.