Landon Powell was making his way back from the small lake about 500 yards beyond the right-field fence of North Greenville University's baseball stadium. He had just turned on the pump so he could water the field.
It was 2014 and the former Apex High School and South Carolina star and Oakland Athletics catcher was going through a typical day while preparing for his first year as North Greenville's head baseball coach. Powell looked out at a field where the pitching mound was 8 inches off-center and first base was a foot farther from home plate than it should be.
He questioned whether he had made the right decision to come to the small Division II school in Tigerville, about 30 minutes north of Greenville, S.C.
“At first I was kind of like, ‘Eh, I don’t know if that’s good’ because they were so bad here,” Powell recalled. “The field was like a high school field. The grass was knee high. … It was kind of a mess. But I felt like it was a clean slate, like an empty canvas. So, wanting to build a program, an empty canvas was a perfect way to do that.”
Powell, who's now 36, had decided not long after his professional baseball career ended in 2013 that he wanted to become a college coach, quickly climb the ranks and move on to an SEC or ACC program. He spent one year as an assistant at Furman before taking on the tall task of turning around a North Greenville team that finished 8-35 the season before he arrived.
Four years later, as he sits in his office overlooking a new $1.2 million facility, smiling as he talks about the top-ranked program in Division II, the man who has relied on faith throughout his life has no doubt that God led him exactly where he was meant to be.
“I could never have imagined four years ago, with what we inherited and what was here, that four years later we’d be where we are now,” he said. “It’s been awesome. It’s been fun. It’s been fulfilling. I’ve loved everything about it.”
Powell had no head coaching experience when he arrived at North Greenville in May 2014, but he had a vision for how he wanted to run a program.
The Raleigh native played at all levels of baseball, from Little League to Major League, and had been around the game his entire life. He believed he knew how to make players respond in a way that would allow them to play their best.
“When I first retired from playing, I decided I wanted to get into college baseball because I felt like you could do college baseball a little bit differently. I felt like you could build more relationships with players,” Powell said.
He also wanted to create an environment that put as little stress as possible on his team and allowed players to have fun.
“There are a lot of other programs out there where it’s all about wins and losses. We try to build personal relationships with our players. Not necessarily best friends with them, but there are friendships. I think our players know that we care about them, not just on the field, but off the field,” Powell said. “That creates some of that family atmosphere, some of that laid-back atmosphere. And then if it’s time to get on a kid and kick him in the butt a little bit, they respond better because they know that you care about them.”
One of Powell’s first moves was to bring in an assistant coach he was comfortable with. He hired former University of South Carolina teammate and fellow former big leaguer Jon Coutlangus away from Charleston Southern to be his pitching coach.
North Greenville had a team ERA of 7.45 and a team batting average of .236 the year before Powell and Coutlangus arrived. There was an obvious need for talent.
“There were a lot of things stacked up against us. But at the same time we had coaches that had credentials, myself and Cout both playing in the major leagues. That helps. We had opportunities. There were innings available to pitch. There were at-bats available to get as hitters,” Powell said. “And then I think once we brought kids here on visits and they got to see the school with their own eyes and they got to meet the people around campus, this is a great place. There’s something special about this place when you get here.”
Building it up
North Greenville went from finishing 2-18 in Conference Carolinas in 2014 to winning the Conference Carolinas Tournament Championship in 2015, Powell’s first year at the helm.
The Crusaders made the Division II NCAA tournament for the first time and won 29 games in Powell’s first season, 21 more than the previous year.
“Our first year, that team was picked to finish 10th out of 10 teams in our league in the preseason polls. That’s the 8-35 team with about six or seven new players added in. It was just a changing of culture and getting them to believe in themselves and believe in the process and have fun,” Powell said. “That team had a lot to do with where we are now because of their mindset, the chip they had on their shoulder. They were able to turn it around, which gave us momentum to go get other good recruits that have helped this program grow.”
North Greenville won 35 games in 2016, 38 games in 2017 and is currently 44-8 and ranked No. 1 in the country after winning the Conference Carolinas tournament for the second time on Monday.
South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner has known Powell since he was a young kid and a bat boy at N.C. State when Tanner was coaching there. Tanner later coached Powell at USC and has followed his baseball career and now coaching career closely. He is thrilled for his former player.
"I’m not the least bit surprised that he’s successful," Tanner said. "He understands what he’s doing. He’s a great teacher and communicator. He’s got great balance. He’s a guy that can bring out a player’s ability. I went and watched them play one game last year, and he’s just got a great demeanor for players to be successful."
The North Greenville stadium that at one point stuck out like a sore thumb, even by Division II standards, is now on its way to being the best in the league.
The $1.2 million renovation, which was completed before the start of the 2018 season, included an artificial turf playing surface with a standard dirt mound, as well as new outfield fencing and backstop fencing, a new scoreboard, a new bullpen and new batting cages.
“I would not be scared to say it was probably the worst facility in our conference. ... I remember being there a couple of years ago and the outfield fence blew down in the middle of the game,” Limestone coach Chris Wiley said. “Now with the upgrades ... once they finish the whole stadium, they went from the worst to maybe the best."
A major stadium project, to be completed in the coming years, will include new bleachers, a new field house, new locker rooms, new dorms and a press box.
"He took a program that was dormant," Tanner said. "Let’s face it. You talk about rebuilding? No, it was dormant. And he’s been very successful."
Bringing in talent
In addition to changing the culture at North Greenville and helping to improve the facilities, Powell has attracted a different level of prospect from what the Crusaders were previously bringing in.
NGU has had success with signing Division I transfers, and this year’s team is led by former College of Charleston outfielder Connor Grant, former South Carolina catcher John Jones, former North Carolina infielder Utah Jones, former South Carolina infielder Jared Williams and former Clemson pitcher Tucker Burgess.
“Having the South Carolina ties that he does and everybody in baseball knowing his name, that definitely helps him out,” Wiley said. “I think as a college kid looking for somewhere to go, seeing Landon Powell as the head coach and having the ties that he has to pro baseball still and the ties that he has to the Division I programs in the state, I think he’s helped sell North Greenville to those kids.”
Mount Olive had been the premier program in Conference Carolinas for some time before North Greenville’s recent surge. The Trojans won 10 conference tournament championships from 2004-17 and nine regular-season championships from 2007-17 while relying on their share of Division I transfers.
“The recruiting game is a little different here than it is at a Division I place because you get guys like John Jones that are going to leave South Carolina. Well now all of a sudden every DII coach in the country is calling him trying to get him,” Powell said. “We had to get involved in that game to compete at this level. For us to be a really good team at our level, we had to go get Division I transfers, because if we didn’t, then Lander was or Francis Marion was or Mount Olive was or whoever. Those were the schools that were getting them, and they were winning. Our mixture here has definitely been a mixture of Division I players and high school kids.”
Division I transfers landing at North Greenville have been beneficial for the program and the players.
Williams, who is hitting .319 and has started 48 of 49 games, spent a year at USC Lancaster between stops at South Carolina and North Greenville.
“The experience has been amazing. These coaches, this group of guys, you love coming out here every day and being around these guys. It’s a great feeling. It’s just special,” Williams said. “Obviously, the facilities and being able to get everything you want at South Carolina (is great), but being here you get that opportunity to play every day and show who you are. ... We’re here to have fun but also it’s business at the same time.”
The more time Powell has spent at North Greenville, the more his priorities have changed as far as what he wants out of coaching college baseball.
He is no longer fixated on moving up the coaching ladder as quickly as possible and trying to land a job at a Division I school.
“I’ve learned the things I value from a career standpoint. When I first decided I was going to be a college coach, I thought I wanted to rise the ranks and coach at South Carolina or some big school and win a national championship. Those are some of the aspirations you have,” Powell said. “But now that I’ve gotten into it, that’s not the stuff that drives me. Now I really value where God has me in my life and the impact I’m able to have on players. Having guys that felt like they were out of opportunities, that felt like they were kind of bottom of the ninth, two strikes on them, trying to still make it in the game of baseball. And to have those guys come here and rejuvenate their careers has been a really fulfilling thing to see.”
Powell has had a handful of players drafted since taking over at NGU, including former South Carolina outfielder Clark Scolamiero being picked in the 22nd round by the Indians in 2017 and former UNCGreensboro pitcher Adam Boghosian landing with the Nationals in the 22nd round in 2015.
Boghosian pitched 8 2/3 innings for UNCG as a redshirt junior in 2014 before finding a new home at North Greenville, becoming the team’s closer and being drafted.
“To this date (that’s) the most fulfilling thing that I’ve had,” Powell said of Boghosian's story. “I was actually in my truck on campus here riding around, and he called me, and I answered the phone and he’s just boohoo crying on the other end because he had just gotten drafted, just saying, ‘Thank you’ and how much it meant to him. That moment, that’s why I’m doing this. It’s not about the money. It’s not about the next best job. ... I care about the relationships and the players. I don’t think I would’ve thought that when I first got into it that that’s how it would be.”
Powell and his staff still face plenty of challenges.
Division II programs are allowed to give out nine scholarships. NGU had 3.5 to work with when Powell arrived and is at six now.
North Greenville does not have a director of baseball operations, an equipment manager, an academic adviser or a secretary. Powell and his staff handle all of those responsibilities. And he believes he is better for it.
“For the most part, I sit here and do all of our scholarship forms. I order equipment. I balance budgets. I do transportation. I set up buses. I set up hotels. I’m a lot of things. You wear a lot of hats at this level,” Powell said. “But I look at that in a positive way. We’re trying to develop players, but this is also to develop me as a coach and learn all of these different aspects of it, do all these different things. I think that just helps me as a coach.”
North Greenville earned its first trip to the Division II baseball tournament in Powell’s first season in 2015, and it will make its second trip there this month. Powell is aiming to continue to take the program to new heights, and the more time he spends at North Greenville the bigger his dreams for the small Division II school become.
“We’re ranked No. 1 right now in the nation, so I don’t see why we can’t continue to try to set standards like that. ... I would love for our guys to keep winning, get drafted, new guys come in and keep winning, get drafted. I’d love in 20 years to look back at this program as one of the powerhouses in Division II baseball,” Powell said. “Not only that but there’s a spiritual side to all of this, too. This is a Christian school, and my faith’s a big part of my life. I hope that players are also getting fed here and getting fulfilled in a different way outside of baseball, because that will impact their life more than the game will.
"There’s a lot of good that comes out of this place. North Greenville’s a great school, and I think not just the baseball program, but the entire school is growing and going places. It’s kind of been a secret here in the Upstate. Not a lot of people know about North Greenville.”
With Powell’s help, that is starting to change.