Baseball

NC Central on verge of a baseball breakthrough

NCCU’s Thomas Prospero, center, tries to turn the double-play as Bethune-Cookman’s Josten Heron approaches second base.
NCCU’s Thomas Prospero, center, tries to turn the double-play as Bethune-Cookman’s Josten Heron approaches second base. newsobserver.com

Little old N.C. Central had just accumulated more hits than crosstown opponent Duke for the second time in two weeks Wednesday night at Durham Athletic Park. N.C. Central’s pitching staff, which surrendered three runs in the teams’ first meeting, kept Duke from touching home plate after the first inning this time.

Yet there stood a dejected group of young men led by a coach who knows full well just how close his N.C. Central baseball team is to becoming a winner. The 3-0 and 4-2 losses to Duke constitute a sure sign that N.C. Central has taken giant steps over the past few seasons in progressing from laughingstock to respectability.

“We are this close,” fifth-year N.C. Central coach Jim Koerner (pronounced KERR-ner) said after Wednesday’s game. “We’ve just got to kick the door down. It’s like we’re banging on the door and we’ve just got to kick it down and knock it down. We’ve just got to knock that door down. We’re right there.”

Being “right there” for N.C. Central means having to endure the growing pains of a startup program in what has proven to be a long and sometimes humiliating process over the past decade.

N.C. Central gave up baseball after the 1975 season after having fielded a team since 1910. When the program was reinstated for the 2007 season, the Eagles participated at the NCAA Division II level and managed a respectable 21-24 record.

Then came the jump in 2008 to Division I as an independent, and a 22-148 record followed over the next four seasons. When the program joined the MEAC for the 2012 season, it brought in Koerner to change its fortunes.

How Koerner, who is white, found his way from upstate New York to head a baseball program at a historically black college in North Carolina was quite by happenstance.

Koerner was an assistant coach in 2011 when Buffalo played a three-game series against N.C. Central at Durham Athletic Park. He recalls leaving Durham impressed with the youthfulness and fight of the N.C. Central team, and equally intrigued by the ballpark, the city and the hotbed of baseball in the Research Triangle area.

Poking around the Internet following the 2011 season, Koerner noticed the job opening at N.C. Central.

“I said, what the heck, let me throw my name in the hat, and let’s see if anything happens,” Koerner said. “Maybe they will call me; maybe they won’t.”

N.C. Central called.

We’re all fighting for the same players regardless of skin color. There just needs to be more African-American players playing baseball to have a bigger pool for everybody to choose from.

N.C. Central baseball coach Jim Koerner

Not once during the interview process did Koerner’s race enter the discussion. Frankly, he said he was more concerned about whether it was at all possible to change a losing culture at N.C. Central. Relocating his wife and two young children was a calculated gamble, one he was willing to take.

Race was no issue, mostly because MEAC baseball rosters have been shifting for years toward being dotted by more white players than African-American, reflecting a trend at nearly every level of the sport in which fewer and fewer blacks are playing the game.

All four of N.C. Central’s coaches and 16 of its 31 players are white.

“Everybody is fighting for the same African-American kid, the same quality kid,” Koerner said of recruiting. “There’s just not enough of them playing the game. N.C. State and Elon and High Point, they all want the same players that I want. We’re all fighting for the same players regardless of skin color. There just needs to be more African-American players playing baseball to have a bigger pool for everybody to choose from.”

In an attempt to promote inner-city baseball, the Boston Red Sox organized and hosted a three-game series in 2015 between N.C. Central and Florida A&M. The first two games were played in Pawtucket, R.I., home to the Red Sox Triple-A affiliate, and the finale was staged at Fenway Park.

Florida A&M swept the series, but N.C. Central returned to Durham with memories to last a lifetime. Christian Triplett, a first baseman from Wilkesboro, cranked a pair of home runs over the famous Green Monster in left field. Triplett says he has the videotape of the home runs as evidence, just in case his future children or grandchildren should ever question his monstrous tale.

It is the same video evidence N.C. Central will need when it finally posts a winning record – the Eagles are 23-25 – and gets over the hump with a victory over a big-name opponent such as Duke. That time is coming for a program that in its 16 previous meetings against Duke lost every game by a combined 177-30 score.

At least one person now knows that N.C. Central cannot be scheduled every season for the express purpose of notching a couple more victories.

“Those days are long gone,” said Duke coach Chris Pollard. “We know we’re going to have our hands full. We know we’re going to go up against a team that is very well-coached, that is very disciplined, that does things the right way. So, these are always tough ballgames.”

For N.C. Central, it is a matter of finally kicking and knocking that door down.

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