UC pitcher Adam Jafine and the rest of the Golden Eagles will play the first NCAA Division II regional playoff game in program history Thursday at Millersville. Courtesy photo | UC Athletics
By: Derek Redd, Sports Editor | Posted: May 16, 2018 | Source: WV Gazette-Mail
The University of Charleston baseball team has come a long way since head coach Andrew Wright took over. The Golden Eagles won 13 games in 2015, the year before he arrived, then won 16 in his inaugural season of 2016.
That win total jumped to 34 last season, with an appearance in the Mountain East Conference tournament title game. UC is at 34 wins this season, but with an MEC tournament crown to boot.
That conference win has put the Golden Eagles (34-21) into their first NCAA postseason berth, a 3 p.m. Thursday Atlantic Region game as a No. 7 seed at No. 2-seeded Millersville (34-18).
But Wright doesn’t want his team to look at this feat as crossing a finish line. He’d rather it see Thursday’s game as an important stop on a longer path.
“When I accepted the job, I didn’t want to be mediocre,” Wright said. “I thought it was an opportunity to put the program on a national stage. This is the early goings of something we hope is long-lasting.”
The plan began when he arrived from Concord in the summer of 2015. From the start, Wright set expectations for players. There would be an expectation for the way those wearing a UC uniform would go about their business on the field. Wright set a threshold of expectations. If that threshold wasn’t met, there would be consequences, not punitive, but corrective.
“They’re corrective consequences to make sure people realigned their expectations with what’s supposed to happen in a championship program,” Wright said. “Our first meeting in 2015, the very first thing out of my mouth was, ‘We want to be a championship program, and we’re going to start acting like it.’ ”
Wright said the plan broke down into two prongs — process and people. And finding the right people was paramount. Everyone had to buy in, not just those Wright was recruiting, but those already on the team who were getting introduced to a new system.
Many of those UC players with important roles on this team — like sophomores Austin Henrich, Jonathan Carr and Colby Johnson and junior Gianfranco Morello — had committed to the team during its struggles. And Wright was pleased to see veterans like Tristan Fields, Caleb Kinder, Danny Hoyer and Justin Nixon show the quality of character to accept and work hard in a new environment.
“To me, the special thing is where we came from, where we’re going and how we’re getting there, as far as we have an incredible group of teammates. They’re a group of guys that have genuine care for each other and really want to see this program succeed above their individual needs.”
There was some personal growth for Wright that also has helped UC’s program move along. He attributes much of the team’s success to hitting coach Thomas Stallings and pitching coach Casey Hodges. There came a point that Wright decided he had to fire himself as hitting and pitching coach, and said Stallings and Hodges’ contributions have been essential.
“There are days that I joke — it’s half-joke and half-truth — that I don’t feel like I’m doing anything,” Wright said. “There are days that I can step back and Thomas can tell me what’s going on with the offense and Casey tells me what’s going on with the pitchers.
“That was very difficult to do because, early in my coaching career, I was the micro-manager of all micro-managers,” he added. “To be able to step away from it and see this happen has been huge for my own personal development, and has been big for the program’s development.”
The Golden Eagles enter a tough environment Thursday. Millersville, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference tournament runner-up, has made the regional round the last six seasons and won the Atlantic in 1998, 2011 and 2016. Wright doesn’t want a regional appearance to be the program’s apex, so while the Golden Eagles are grateful to reach this level, they don’t want their season to end at this point.
“We have an opportunity to play another baseball game, and I’m expecting to win it,” Wright said. “And I’m expecting to win the next one after that and after that. This is another opportunity to play baseball games and allow our level of preparedness to show through.”