A junior college team built by Pandemic

Gastonia, NC – A baseball field at Gaston College last spring demanded a vivid imagination.

Community College, outside of Charlotte, was reviving a sports program that had been dormant since 1972, so there was a lot of nothing to sell. The team would play in a dilapidated municipal square, with dirt parking a few miles from his campus in Dallas, NC had no form, no team nickname, no team colors, no equipment – no baseball bag.

“I came blindly,” said Amir Kournier, the first base to grow in New Jersey.

“I’ve never heard of Gaston,” said Gus Hughes, a pitcher from Greensboro, NC.

“There was great vision and confidence,” said JD Yakubinis, a designated player who grew up in Charlotte.

Now, less than a year later, Sims Legion Park has a magnificent artificial turf pitch, and the dressing rooms are lined up as part of a nearly $ 1 million renovation. Three sets of bluish-yellow uniforms depicting the rhinoceros logo sit in each stall with drops and turf shoes. Also at the disposal of the players is a weight room and aluminum sticks on the top shelf.

Tuesday season’s finals team record, despite a four-match losing streak, is just as brilliant: 40-9 overall to advance to the Division Championships and 9th in the National Junior College Athletic Association II Division poll. As a first-year program, Gaston is unable to reach the playoffs.

“It’s a pretty sick place to play,” Cournier said. “I did not think that would happen.”

The birth of the Gaston College baseball team is largely the story of a pandemic and how it continues to trace the games and seasons lost by the corovirus in college sports. When the pandemic abruptly shut down the sport in March 2020, the NCAA almost immediately gave athletes an extra year of power in spring sports – golfers, rowers, stumbling blocks and ball players whose season has just begun.

Months later, to ensure that football and basketball money cows went ahead, the NCAA granted all athletes an additional year of authority.

While this may have seemed like a charitable decision, allowing thousands of athletes who were crushed to an unforeseen end to end their careers like normalcy, it did not happen without cost. The extra season meant less scholarship, less space and less playing time for athletes below the food chain, at the high school level.

The NCAA expects to have data on how many athletes benefited from the extra season later this month, but it is hard to imagine a sport that has suffered more than baseball, whose pipeline has been further blocked by the baseball major league decision to close in 2020. Amateur draft from 40 rounds to five (now 20 rounds) and set a $ 20,000 limit for unsigned free agents to sign up for bonuses. This has helped hundreds of players who might have signed professional contracts back to school.

So even in community college, with a start-up baseball program that could offer only the cost of tuition and books and a chance to keep the baseball dreams alive, more than a dozen former Division I players gathered in Gaston.

“If Covid does not happen, I might play last year and stay in Charlotte,” said Chandler Riley, the third bas-relief player to hit left-handed rhinos in Concord, NC, and was a freshman in a red shirt last year. University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Riley is battling the .384, leading the team with 50 feet, 35 steals and 21 doubles, and has signed a letter of intent to play at Campbell University, Buies Creek, NC, next season.

“It helped the older boys and hurts the younger boys who come in,” Riley continued. “Everyone is trying to find a place and freshmen are not getting the opportunities they used to get.”

Riley is one of four players to have moved from Charlotte. Three, including Jacobinis, who has 60 mileage on the team, came from Appalachia. Others came from Wake Forest, Charleston South, Coast Carolina, North Carolina-Greensboro, Gardner-Webb, and A&T North Carolina. Two more, including Courne, came from central North Carolina, which closed its program after last season.

Finding them depended on Sean Dot.

A little over a year ago, Dot was at home in Arkansas, caring for a sick father, and was ready to leave his long career as a college football coach. But then he got an interesting suggestion: How would the head coach of Gaston College wish him?

“My first answer was no,” he said.

College President John Hauser was overlooked. He kept asking Dot what he needed and then saying he would give it to him. Hauser arrived in Gaston a few months after the pandemic began and believed his new college would benefit from restarting a sports program that had been dormant for nearly 50 years – even if state law could not use state funds for athletics. .

He enlisted the help of Florida State Men’s basketball coach Leonard Hamilton, who appealed to Gaston College Board of Trustees and told him how his two years of playing basketball in Gaston in the late 1960s – before athletics collapsed – were the gateway to him. The first black player in Tennessee-Martin, he finally started his coaching career, having won a nomination at the Basketball Hall of Fame two years ago.

“This is a situation where we believe we have value – we give people a chance that they could not get into Division I, Division II or Division III,” Hauser told NCAA Divisions. “And why now, in a pandemic? Frankly, it was an ideal time. Everything is online, many schools have canceled their schedules and increased authority meant filling out lists in neighboring institutions. There was a lot of talent – a really good supply chain. ”

Hauser said the need was sparked by interest in the public, which has long supported minor league baseball and produced NBA stars James Worth and Sleeping Floyd.

Hauser started with five sports: baseball, men’s basketball, softball, women’s cross-country, and women’s beach volleyball – which he thinks could be a raffle for the school’s 5,000 students. Hauser hired coaches with a master’s degree so they could be remunerated as teachers or staff, on a scholarship for their coaching duties. Dot is an Assistant Director of Sports, while one of his assistants, Jacob Randy, is a CPR instructor, while the other, KJ McAllister, oversees the athletes’ academic progress.

The sport is also a training ground for a new sports broadcasting program, said Caleb Stalkup, who oversees Rhinos’ multi-chamber live streaming of five home games, which he expects to include speakers next season.

The college teamed up with City of Gastonia and Perfect Game, a youth baseball tournament organization, to fund the $ 990,000 renovation of Sims Legion Park, which will also be used for youth tournaments and bring newcomers to the doors of the baseball program. Pitcher Zak Zedalis set up an online fundraiser that brought in $ 1200 in weight at the gym. The equipment manufacturer has donated 10 bats and the new outer wall will be plastered with ads for next season.

There are also plans to buy a field tracking camera, a technology that has changed the pitcher design repertoire.

It seems like a distant memory, but when Doty took his first two verbal commitments last spring, he walked into Hauser’s office and said: Now what? How do they sign? Where is the tuition money?

“We were actually building the plane when we flew it,” Doty said. “We had two trainings in the fall and then we played a game. I am asked about the coloring scheme of the dressing room, the design of the forms. I’m 52 years old and I look 102, but there is no better feeling than putting your stamp on something. “

It’s close to leaving his players. Hughes, who threw the program’s first non-shot, and pitcher Christian Baker signed letters of intent at High Point University; Riley travels to Campbell; And Zedalis signed a contract with South Carolina in November before elbow ligaments were broken in February. Cournier attends Young Harris College, Grade II School in Georgia, while Patrick Hogan attends Catawba College, Grade II School in Salisbury, NC.

Some may benefit from another year of development, such as Enrique Wood, shorts with sleek hands, and a rifle arm; Jacobinis, who will undergo surgery on Tommy John later this month and return to the catch; And Connie Durslag, a small-scale hammering machine that strikes more than one piece of dough on a hill.

Then there are others like Marlowe Yorio.

Yorio, the right-hand pitcher who cut his elbow yoke before graduating from high school, spent last season wearing a red jersey to a freshman in North Carolina-Greensboro. His rehabilitation was hampered by a re-injury of his elbow, a collision with a coronavirus, and a curiosity as to how four and five-year-olds could fit into so many pitcher states.

“I was thinking of quitting,” said Yorio, who arrived in Gaston because he trusted Dot, who picked him up in high school. “My last start was in my junior high school and I just felt like baseball was not a part of me.”

Doty encouraged him, shifted the pain to regain arm strength, and stopped his mechanics. The pitcher’s fast ball went up to 91 miles per hour – a speed that, according to Dot, would definitely make Iorio attractive to Division I coaches who are always looking for weapons.

But Iorio, who grew up in Maplewood, NJ, before moving to Chapel Hill, NC, high school, is not sure what will happen next. He is academically enrolled in North Carolina and is interested in studying sports science and may decide to focus on academics. But he has a lot to learn about this year: Be part of a healthy, productive, winning team and do it with teammates he likes.

“It was an ideal place for me,” Iorio said. “It was a bridge to prove I could still be a baseball player.”

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