Opening day has a special meaning in baseball, heralding the birth of a new season every spring. It’s even more significant when the program is brand new.
That’s the situation at William Peace University, where the Pacers will take to the diamond Saturday against Craven Community College for their first regular-season game ever.
The doubleheader will begin at 12:30 p.m., with the second game at 3:30, 18 months after Chris Duty was named the inaugural baseball coach at the downtown Raleigh university and began constructing a program from the ground up. Baseball will be the fifth sport to field a men’s team at the school, joining basketball, cross country, golf and soccer.
“It really is a thrill,” said Duty, a 2001 N.C. State graduate who served four years as the coach at East Wake High and two years as an associate scout for the Baltimore Orioles before being named coach at William Peace in August 2012. “Being a baseball guy, starting something from scratch, having everything your own way, is really a dream come true for a coach.”
William Peace is a member of the NCAA Division III USA South Conference, whose 13 members stretch from Alabama to Virginia. The Pacers will play a modified schedule this year before becoming the 11th baseball entry in the conference in 2015.
Duty had to attend to the details of running a program, such as securing game and practice facilities – William Peace doesn’t have a baseball field – putting together a schedule and even ordering uniforms. The field was easy to find, though. For four years Duty has served as facility supervisor of the USA National Baseball Complex in Cary. That’s where the Pacers will practice and play their home games, including Saturday’s doubleheader.
The biggest task Duty faced, however, was putting together a roster. Nine months ago, there were no baseball players at William Peace. In fact, there were no male students at William Peace – formerly Peace College – until it went coed in fall 2012, when it changed its name.
In relatively short order, Duty has assembled a freshman-heavy 30-man roster. There are also five sophomores and two juniors. Four players transferred from other colleges.
“I felt like I did a pretty good job of that for Year 1,” Duty said. “I recruited 24 players for the team. Another 10 or 12 students already in school tried out, and I kept six of them.”
Most of Duty’s players are from North Carolina, along with five from Virginia, two from New York and one from Maryland. Duty, who played one year of college baseball at Belmont Abbey before transferring to N.C. State, where he did not play, has availed himself of his many contacts in the sport to find players.
Sometimes, they just found him when the news got out that William Peace was starting a program.
Saturday’s Game 1 starting pitcher, side-arming sophomore right-hander Wes Dumford, spent one year at Catawba Valley Community College after graduating from Mooresville High in 2010. Arm trouble limited him to two innings pitched in college, and he dropped out of school before eventually finding work at an indoor sports complex.
“I stayed around the game, started coaching kids in AAU baseball, and this past summer decided to give it another shot,” Dumford said. “I played in a collegiate summer ball league in Charlotte this past summer, and everything fell in place for me to come up here.”
Dumford also remade himself during his hiatus from the mound. He had used a conventional three-quarters delivery before, but after his arm problems he adopted the sidearm release at the suggestion of a co-worker.
He has gotten results. Last fall he allowed one run in four innings for William Peace in an exhibition against the touring Czech national team, which included five players who signed pro contracts in Major League Baseball.
Christian Neal, a sophomore right-hander who will pitch Game 2 on Saturday, played for Duty at East Wake before attending N.C. Central for a year. He transferred because he wanted an opportunity to play in the outfield as well as pitch.
“I liked playing for coach Duty in high school, did a lot of thinking and decided to transfer for the opportunity to play two-way and make an impact in a new program,” said Neal, a power pitcher who has reached 90 mph with his fastball.
As a freshman at N.C. Central he posted a 2.00 ERA, striking out 19 in 18 innings. He will probably play one of the corner outfield spots when he isn’t pitching, Duty said.
Freshman shortstop Trevor Nanney took a more familial approach to William Peace. Duty’s cousin is the wife of Nanney’s coach at Central Davidson High in Lexington.
“That was pretty weird that they were related and actually knew where Peace was and everything,” Nanney said. “Coach Duty came out and watched me play a game. He said he could have left during warm-ups, that he had already made up his mind to recruit me.”
Duty has equally positive impressions of his team as a whole.
“I feel good about this team,” he said. “I have high expectations of them and for them.
“Having said that, we are extremely young. Everybody we play will be older than us and more experienced. But the guys we’ve brought in can definitely play at this level. It will be a joy to watch them grow. They’ve come so far in just five months.”