“Headed Down South to the Land of the Pine…”

Greetings college baseball fans!

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Back in the ol’ college playing days.

All the way from “warm” and “sunny” Winston-Salem, North Carolina (those of you in the southeast region of the country can sense my sarcasm), my name is Chris Constantine with the Winston-Salem State University baseball program and I welcome you all aboard for the ins-and-outs of the 2014 college baseball season.

Before I go any further, I figure I should probably introduce myself and give you guys a little insight into my background.  Currently, I’m an assistant baseball coach at Winston-Salem  State University. After finishing up my collegiate playing career here last season in 2013, I returned to the program this year to make the transition from being a player-in-2013 to becoming a coach-in-2014.

It’s funny, as a player, I would yearn all day for batting practice, the greatest part of any day when your only job is to shoot line-drives into the gaps and drive some balls out of the park. Now, as a coach, batting practice is still easily the best part of any day, just instead of trying to keep the ball out of the air and away from the fielders, my goal is to smoke groundballs to the shortstop and stroke towering fly balls for the outfielders to catch. On gamedays, instead of grabbing a batting helmet and walking up to the plate, I toss on the ol’ coaches’ helmet and head on down the line to give signs as the third-base coach (something that I can assure you I still need plenty of time in front of the mirror practicing).

As a college player, I patrolled the outfield for the Winston-Salem State Rams and saw my senior season end one game shy of traveling to Cary, NC to play for the NCAA Division II College World Series. Three days after suffering a heartbreaking loss in the Atlantic Regional, I signed a professional contract with the Taos Blizzard and hopped on a plane to New Mexico to embark on the beautiful grind known as “independent league baseball.” For those unaware with the various ranks of professional baseball, the independent minor leagues function in ways that are similar to Single A, AA, and AAA, with everyone working towards the same goal of progressing through the ranks until they either make it to “the show” or ride their baseball careers for as far as their talent, skill, and luck will take them. On my team alone, we had about 10-12 guys who had played with MLB organizations the previous year and then a handful of others who had their contracts purchased by MLB clubs after the end of the season. Needless to say, my summer was filled with long days at the ballpark, evpic 7en longer bus rides throughout the country, and an overall incredible experience.

What lead me to coaching?

Growing up, I always thought coaches had the best jobs in the world. Maybe it was because I had some overly energetic coaches, or maybe it’s because these guys’ jobs actually do rock. But while some people wake up and spend their entire days behind a computer screen, baseball coaches get to spend their entire days out on the sunny ball-fields, hitting fungos ‘til their hands are blistered and throwing batting practice ‘til their arms fall off. (Could there be anything better???)

Within days of making my collegiate coaching debut, however, I quickly learned that my dreams of endless hours on the diamond would not be fulfilled so easily, as there was far more involved with coaching than simply working with the players at the field. In fact, within the realms of college coaching, player development seems to comprise of only about 10% of the actual job, with about 90% of the time being devoted to office work (what’s up with that!?). Whether it’s managing fundraising efforts, searching for the next big recruit, or even making sure all the guys on the team are attending their classes, it seems there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get all the work done. Even with such duties I’m not complaining though, it’s still a pretty sweet gig.

Anyways, with all that out of the way, enough about me and on to the juicy details of our 2014 season thus far.

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Just a quick view of our frozen tundra of a field right now. C’mon weather!

As I sit here and write to you, snowed in from the “Snowpocalypse 2014”, it is with my deepest regret that I must inform you that after 7 games into the 2014 season, the Winston-Salem State University Rams sit a disappointing 2-5.

Ending the 2013 regular season ranked #23 in the nation with the 10th highest winning percentage in the country (39-13 overall record), we came out this year preseason ranked #30 in the nation by College Baseball Lineup. After dropping 3 games on opening weekend to #5 University of Mount Olive, and then going 1-2 against #14 Millersville University, we quickly vacated the baseball polls and found ourselves sitting with a 1-5 record. We picked up a 5-0 win last night against Bluefield State University which should hopefully send us back to our winning ways, but with North Carolina receiving more snow than the North Pole, it looks like we have a better chance of having a snowball fight this weekend against Mercyhurst University than we do to play an actual baseball game.

Now, to our record. While a 2-5 record to start off the season certainly isn’t ideal, it certainly isn’t anything for anyone to panic over either. Graduating ten seniors from last year’s record setting club that ranked top-ten nationally in nine different offensive categories , it’s no doubt that the coaching staff had their work cut out for them in replacing nearly every spot in the lineup.

After a tireless search of the country and many wireless minutes spent on phone calls, this year’s recruiting class brought forth a team with far more talent, athleticism, and depth than 2013’s senior driven group. Headlined by a handful of big-name transfers and a few key freshmen, the 2014 Rams combine speed and strength, with a pitching staff able to pound the zone with the best of ‘em, to create a dangerous squad that has the potential to win the conference championship for the fourth straight year and finally end the Rams drought of Regional wins to carry the team to Cary, NC for the Division II College World Series.

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Back-to-Back-to-Back CIAA Conference Champions and 3 straight appearances in the Atlantic Regional.

But if this year’s team is easily the most talented rendition of Rams to take the diamond, why are we sitting 2-5 and tied for the worst start in program history?

Really, there’s no good answer for that question, except to say that when you build a new team, sometimes it can take a while for everything to gel and come together. With guys still getting used to playing alongside each other and learning their roles, the coaching staff is still experimenting with different combinations of lineup cards and calls to the bullpen. (Through seven games of the young season, we have yet to have the same lineup twice.)

But still, as I said, there is nothing for anyone to panic about.

Looking at our very first game of the season against Mount Olive, we managed to out-hit the #4 team in the nation and get 16 guys on base, all while putting up 4 runs in 6 innings against a lefty All-American pitcher who may be the very best arm we’ll see all season. Normally, when you have a day like that at the plate, you end up walking out of the ballpark with your head held high and a check in the W column, however, on this day, we ended up the  loser of a 9-5 battle.

Fast forward one weekend series later. After winning Game 1 against #14 Millersville University, Game 2 of series brought us a 7-4 loss in which we stranded 12 runners on base. I repeat, a 7-4 loss in which we stranded 12 runners on base. 12 baserunners!

Consistently getting double-digit hits and guys on base should lead you to victories, numbers like that just don’t lie. However, while we did succeed in getting runners into scoring position, what we failed in was timely hitting; getting that one big base knock when you really need it. (Think of David Ortiz this postseason. With his team failing at the plate all series and down 5-1 in the 8th inning, he gets a first-pitch fastball and smashes it just beyond the glove of a tumbling Torii Hunter and over the fence for a grand slam to win the ball game and live on forever in Boston folk-lore. TIMELY HITTING.)

Sometimes in close ballgames against top competition, you can do everything you need to do, when in reality, all you really need is a just little “David Ortiz timely hitting magic.” With just one or two big hits, we could easily be sitting in a totally different situation at 5-2 or even 7-0, but without them, here we are at 2-5. As we continue to progress throughout the season, it’s no doubt that our guys will continue to get more comfortable with their new surroundings and all the pieces of the puzzle will fall into place. By the time mid-season comes around, I can guarantee my blogs will have a different tone and the Winston-Salem State Rams will be rolling in the wins.

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Senior RHP Scott Wells (and our field with no snow).

In the mean time, I look forward to keeping you guys posted with all the current events not only with Winston-Salem State baseball, but also college baseball as a whole. I thank you for taking the time out of your busy lives to read this blog and I hope to see you all again soon!

(PS. I just read that Derek Jeter announced that he is retiring after the 2014 season, what an end to an era.)

I’d love to read and answer any of your questions or comments. You can shoot me an e-mail at: cconstantine112@rams.wssu.edu

Check out my team on Twitter at: @WSSU_Baseball
Or follow myself at: @c_const31

(Really cool tweets from both accounts, I promise.)

Until next time,

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Chris Constantine
Assistant Baseball Coach
Winston-Salem State University