College Sports

NCCU pitcher forges path into pro baseball

North Carolina Central University's Andrew Vernon pitches during their game against Niagara University at Durham Athletic Park in February.
North Carolina Central University's Andrew Vernon pitches during their game against Niagara University at Durham Athletic Park in February. Red Rocket Photography via NCCU

For the N.C. Central baseball program, the dream of having one of their own drafted by the MLB was littered with near-misses.

Since reincarnating the team in 2006, the Eagles had produced three players who had gone on to play professionally.

In 2013, pitcher Gavin Guarrera started one game in the Australian Baseball League and former teammate Mike Romano made nine appearances in the Pecos League. In 2015, pitcher Eric Kimber signed as a free agent with the Kansas City Royals and played one season with their rookie Arizona League affiliate. None of those names, however, were ever announced in the MLB’s annual 40-round draft each spring.

But on June 11, N.C. Central’s draft drought ended as quickly as an Andrew Vernon fastball down the middle.

On that Saturday afternoon, the Milwaukee Brewers used the 831st pick of the 2016 MLB Draft on Vernon, a 22-year-old pitcher from Raleigh, making the former Knightdale High star the first N.C. Central baseball player ever drafted.

“He’s worked very hard for this and he’s always represented the program with such class on and off the field,” said N.C. Central baseball coach Jim Koerner. “With his work ethic and determination, I think he’s got a bright future.”

The Eagles’ decade of frustration can be put to rest now: they, at last, have their long-awaited draftee. There’s little time to rest for Vernon – his selection merely represents the latest step forward in a career arc that the 6’4”, 232-pound hurler hopes is just beginning.

“At the end of the day, I’m just happy to be able to continue to play this game and have the opportunity that I have in front of me,” Vernon said.

Mental battle

Vernon’s family has its roots firmly entrenched in athletics.

His mother Wendy played four seasons of basketball at Liberty University and left as the 22nd-leading rebounder in school history. His father James played baseball through high school but was unable to realize his aspirations of going further in the sport.

When Vernon was 5, he joined a youth baseball league and inherited his father’s yearnings.

“It was love at first throw,” Vernon said.

But by his junior year at Knightdale High, Vernon’s baseball career began to stall. In 32 innings pitched for the Knights, Vernon estimated he surrendered 86 walks – almost three per inning.

“I couldn’t throw it in the ocean ... and my velocity was way down,” Vernon said. “They say that baseball is 50 percent physical and 50 percent mental. Honestly, it’s all a mental game. I had a lot of mental problems, I guess you could say.”

At his father’s urging, he decided to commit to a new workout regimen, re-focus on basic throwing mechanics and try to block out the over-thinking he had struggled with before.

The results paid off and he saw a major improvement in his play for his 2012 senior year. Vernon’s pitching earned him a spot on the Greater Neuse River All-Conference team and helped Knightdale to a 14-10 record.

“We always knew he had some talent, but he had some years where he struggled,” James Vernon said. “He progressed tremendously. He went from really no work ethic to, in his senior year, being in the gym every day, seven days a week.”

Upon graduating, however, he still wasn’t sure where he was headed next. Louisburg College, a two-year school where he could build his resume before transferring, was on top of the list before Christopher Smith, a Knightdale assistant who had previously coached at Central, got him in touch with the Eagles.

The school in Durham first fielded a baseball team in 1911 but the program’s century-long history was tumultuous, including a dormant period from 1975 to 2006. The 2012 season had been its first as a full-fledged Division I member. But it was the best opportunity Vernon was going to get.

After just one tryout – “I pitched really well (at it),” Vernon admitted – Central offered a scholarship, which he accepted later in the summer.

Thriving at Central

Koerner immediately saw star potential in the freshman.

“Andrew came in with just tremendous work ethic,” said Koerner. “He had a very strong desire to be great. And from day one, he just ate up everything that was thrown at him, from what our pitching coaches did with him from a baseball standpoint to what our strength coaches did with him from a conditioning standpoint.”

During his first three years, Vernon was exclusively a reliever, leading the team in appearances as both a sophomore and junior. He recorded a 5.31 ERA with seven saves and a 2-2 record as a sophomore. His ERA dropped to 3.45 with four saves and a 3-5 record as a junior.

During his 2016 senior year, however, Vernon began and ended the season as a closer but was forced to switch to a starter in the middle, making six starts from March 20 to April 23. He held his opponents to three runs or fewer in five of those six starts and eventually finished the season as the team leader in ERA (3.34), saves (4) and strikeouts (85) with a 2-3 record through 62 innings pitched.

“With his talent, he won us a lot of baseball games,” Koerner said. “This year, having to go from a closer to a starter back to a closer, he impacted the game in so many different ways and he’s going to be sorely missed.”

Vernon attributes many hours spent with Koerner and pitching coach A.J. Battisto for helping him develop into a more complete player during his time with the program.

“I came from being a little, scrawny pitcher coming in to really filling out and learning how to actually pitch instead of just throw,” Vernon said. “I developed mental toughness; I discovered how to play the game instead of just being out there and going through the motions.”

Nervous moments

Vernon entered the draft – a three-day event stretched out from June 9-11, with the 11th to 40th rounds all taking place on the final day – expecting to be selected at some point during the middle or late rounds.

During the morning of June 11, he fielded calls from the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres. None of those teams picked him.

As the clock ticked into the afternoon, he couldn’t bear to follow the draft’s progress any further, instead opting to play an NBA 2K video game with a friend.

Finally, in the 28th round, the Brewers came calling.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Vernon. “When I first got taken, I didn’t know where I was going to be or what was going to happen after that or how fast the process was.”

The verdict: fast.

His new MLB organization wanted him to fly out to their Arizona League team just two days later to prepare for the season, which began a week later on June 20. Vernon would be playing rookie-league, short-season baseball – the Arizona League plays in spring training stadiums around Phoenix and comprises the lowest rung of the minor leagues – but he would be playing nonetheless.

There would be no time to savor the moment.

Praising Arizona

For the N.C. Central program, Vernon’s selection is expected to be a boon for recruiting.

It marks the second consecutive season that an Eagles player has gone on to the Arizona League for the summer and validates the program as “a place that can produce professional baseball players,” according to Koerner.

Vernon, too, called his title of “first ever” an honor and said he hopes his accomplishment will attract new talent to the school in years to come.

But in the heat of Arizona, Vernon’s focus has already shifted entirely to the season at hand.

On June 21, Vernon made his first appearance for the Brewers’ affiliate, pitching two scoreless innings to earn the save in a 5-4 win over the Angels’ Arizona League team. Vernon fanned two batters, allowed just one hit and pitched out of a ninth-inning jam in which the Angels had two men on with no outs.

Although he struggled in his second appearance – allowing two game-deciding runs in the ninth inning of an 8-6 loss to the Padres’ affiliate – Vernon remains patient in his transition process to his new team, new home and new career. After all, he has the weight of a university’s legacy on his shoulders.

Going into Thursday’s games Vernon was 0-1 with a 3.86 ERA in seven innings of work.

“It’s a lot of desert. It’s very dry. It’s definitely not North Carolina,” Vernon said. “But I’ve enjoyed it so far and … right now, I’m just riding the wave I’m on.”