On the heels of the program’s first-ever losing season (19-22), the College of The Albemarle’s four-year-old baseball team welcomes back just two players with any considerable experience.
It’s likely the most inexperienced team the Dolphins will ever put on the diamond, but an optimistic bunch that knows it can correct the mistakes of last year, even if they weren’t a part of it.
“We hit the ball well enough, we pitched near the top of the region, but when you average at or around two errors a game, at the end of the year, you realize you did it to yourself,” said second-year COA coach Milan Rasic, who welcomes 22 newcomers to the club. “We’re accountable to that, and we inherited a group with no every day position starters coming back, so the guys we had last year gave us a great effort, but we didn’t finish what we started.
“We played our best baseball in March and not the end of April.”
Rasic said it’s all in the preparation to have so many new faces ready for the season, which begins today with a doubleheader against Rappahannock Community College at Northeastern’s field.
Youth will get a long serving of road games beginning next week, as the Dolphins will play 15-straight away from Elizabeth City and won’t return until March 9th.
Two players expected to give leadership to the young squad are returnees Josh Howard and Josh Vales. Both are dual threats in the infield and on the mound.
They are part of a five-player sophomore class for COA, but Howard is certain they can steer the Dolphins away from mistakes that cost them a chance to compete in the Region 10 Tournament.
“We’ll be more fundamental all together,” Howard said. “Last year we made a lot of defensive mistakes, and I think we’ll be more collected on the field.”
With Howard and Vales, who played at Currituck, there’s also added attention to other players who can play a number of positions, such as Brandon Marsh and Travis Smetana.
Smetana, who should be the primary shortstop, will also have a spot in the pitching rotation and could become a breakout freshman.
“He’s (Smetana) got great blood lines, he’s the son of a high school coach who’s got a great background with a tremendous baseball IQ,” Rasic said of the Ohio native. “He’s another guy that comes to the park prepared. Nothing gets said, it gets done.”
Howard, Vales and Austin Lee will also get infield time, with Lee also making up a trio of brand new COA catchers, joining Cody Foreman and Jim Porter.
Another infielder, Dillon Cutler, might provide the team’s best chance at power behind the plate.
That will bode important with the team’s best returning hitter, Howard, holding just a .298 batting average from 2012.
“He’s (Cutler) a well put together kid that swings a strong bat and one of those guys that’s capable of potentially making the outcome of the game turn out positive with one swing,” Rasic said.
There’s inexperience at catcher as well as in the outfield, but there are guys who are capable of covering a lot of ground to shore up the defense.
Rasic points to former Currituck player Juwan Harvey as one of those examples.
“A good young athlete, and his ability to play the game will only be enhanced by the fact that he’s playing at a more competitive level now, and that’ll put a charge into him,” Rasic said.
It’s nearly an all-area outfield, with Harvey getting time alongside Northeastern’s Cameron Horn, Perquimans’ Alex Weaver, Camden’s Dustin Winslow and First Flight’s Cody Bostic.
Vales’ worth should shift more towards pitching to shore up COA’s rotation, although Howard is also set up to be one of the team’s best weekend guys once Carolinas-Virginia Conference games start in late February.
“Howard has proven that he can beat the best,” Rasic said. “He defeated Catawba Valley, a (NJCAA Division II) World Series team last year, then beat Brunswick, which was second in our region.
“He sets the tone by the pace and flow that he dictates on the mound.”
Former all-state pitcher Tyler Woodhouse of Camden also figures to be strong, as one of just three lefty pitchers with Marsh and Garrett Cartwright, a Northeastern grad.
Woodhouse was glad he stayed close to home and believes he can make an impact.
“I can get here in 10-15 minutes, and I wasn’t quite ready to be 3-4 hours away,” Woodhouse said. “I had some other opportunities where I could’ve gone and played, but I wasn’t ready to take those opportunities.”
Rasic is excited about so many area players on his roster, and added his first recruiting class can lay the groundwork for future success.
“This is a two-year work in progress that they have to look forward to, and they have ownership in this program,” Rasic said. “It’s tough to know where we’ll be a month or two months from now, so we hope we can grow and get to where we need to be to compete in one of the best junior college regions in the country.”