Every baseball season has a sound track. The artists on these sound tracks can vary by team. Songs like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” by Edward Meeker, or “Center Field” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, can be heard in most stadiums and Little League complexes across America. For the North Greenville Crusaders, the soundtrack this season could include songs from “The New Kids on the Block” as the Crusaders enter their first season in Conference Carolinas.
The biggest new kid on the block is first year head coach Reggie Reynolds, who will lead the Crusaders into their inaugural Conference Carolinas season. “It's a great opportunity for our players,” said Reynolds. “Having a conference championship and an automatic berth to the NCAA national championships to compete for definitely gives extra incentive throughout the fall and early spring practices. It gives us something to aim for throughout the season.”
NGU may be the ‘new kids’ in Conference Carolinas, but they are certainly no stranger to success on the field and in national competition. The Crusaders were 38-17 last season and had a 5-1 record against Conference Carolinas teams. North Greenville, which won the National Christian College Athletic Association’s (NCCAA) national title in 2010, was the national runner-up in 2011.
Despite their new status in Conference Carolinas, the Crusaders roster boasts loads of experience with seven seniors, including senior pitching ace, and two-time NCCAA pitcher of the year, Drew Provence. Provence was also a 2012, pre-season National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association 2nd team All-American. Also returning to the field for the Crusaders is redshirt senior, Markus Duckworth. Duckworth, a NCBWA 3rd team selection for the 2012 pre-season, suffered a pre-season thumb injury one year ago, which sidelined him for the entire 2011 season.
In 2010, Duckworth was second on the NGU baseball team with a .415 batting average; runs scored with 69, and led the team in stolen bases with 39. Duckworth looked to finish his collegiate baseball career in 2011, but the injury suffered in pre-season workouts, kept the senior sidelined for the season.
Duckworth is one of five seniors in the North Greenville starting lineup. These five seniors have headlined the two winningest seasons in NGU baseball history. In 2012, North Greenville’s version of the “Fab Five” will look to lead the Crusaders to yet another first -- A conference championship. “This group of seniors has accomplished a lot,” Reynolds noted. “I think they have won more games in two seasons than any group of seniors in NGU history. They have helped to change the mindset of the program, and they did it with hard work. On top of all that, they are great students, and awesome people.”
“This is the most talented team I’ve ever played on,” says Duckworth, NGU’s starting center fielder. “We have had a lot of success in the past, but come February 7th, what we did the last two years won’t matter. We are the new kids on the block and we have to prove ourselves.”
“Our seniors are character guys who have proven themselves, who have played in some big games,” says Reynolds. “Even though the stage of the game is changing, there is no better confidence builder than having big game experience, and they have it.”
PITCHING AND INFIELD: THE FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE
In 2011, the Crusaders ranked 5th in the NCCAA, boasting a staff ERA of just 3.74. The Crusader arms allowed just 146 earned runs in 351 innings of work. Among the five seniors is starting pitcher Drew Provence, who has certainly proved his worth in the past two seasons. In his two years as NGU’s right-handed ace, Provence has a 2.68 earned run average, registering 131 strikeouts and just 48 walks. In 172 innings pitched, Provence has allowed just seven home runs while anchoring a pitching staff that has led the Crusaders to two NCCAA World Series finals, that included a national championship in 2010, and a runner-up finish last season.
Joining Provence in a starting role are Derek Fulmer and Ryan Woodring. Fulmer, who doubles as the team’s starting left fielder, posted a 3-3 record in 2011 with a 3.32 ERA in 38 innings pitched. He is also one of NGU’s most productive offensive performers, chalking a .405 batting average, with 53 runs batted in last season.
Woodring has also worked his way into the starting weekend rotation for the Crusaders. As a freshman, Woodring compiled a 3.59 ERA as a midweek starter for much of the 2011 season. The bullpen, much like the team in general, will have no shortage of experience. Middle relievers Caleb Phillips, Sean Willingham, and Dylan Fulk have pitched a combined 61 innings, with a 5.85 ERA.
Nate Richards will enter the season as the squad’s #1 closer. In 2011, Richards amassed a 1.73 ERA in 41.2 innings pitched. Possessing an unorthodox submarine motion, he allowed just 15 walks last season while striking out 31 batters.
“I think the starting pitching has the possibility to be very solid,” said Reynolds. “We also have guys that can step up in middle relief situations. But, finishing games on the mound is a question mark for us right now. We have guys that I am confident can get the job done in that role, but it’s going to be key as to the success of our season.”
Pitchers are only as good as their defense however, and the Crusaders were solid last season committing just 78 errors in 542 fielding attempts. The NGU defense ranked in the top 10 in the NCCAA last season with a .962 fielding percentage. In the infield, Taylor Hollifield at third, and David Frazier, at short occupy the left side, while Andrew Lawrence and Allen Staton will command the right side at first and second.
A three-year starter at short, Frazier is the lone senior in the infield. In 2011, Frazier fought off various injuries, but still had a solid year at the plate, hitting .262 with 36 RBI’s and seven extra base hits. In the field, Frazier had a solid fielding percentage of .935. At the ‘hot corner,’ Hollifield posted a .836 fielding percentage. Lawrence is not a new face to the Crusader line-up. He played sparingly at first base last season, spending a majority of his time as the team’s designated hitter. Allen Staton will be the lone freshman in this year’s opening day starting lineup. Staton was an All-Region player at Laurens High School his senior year.
Senior Anthony Foulk is a rock behind the plate, as he has held the starting spot behind the dish since his freshman year. He has started a credible 151 games for NGU.
THE OUTFIELD: EXPERIENCE DEFINED
In the outfield, the Crusaders will be the definition of experience. Derek Fulmer, John Reinholz, Adam Taylor, and Markus Duckworth will be the last line of defense or North Greenville. Taylor will be a fixture in right field for the third season, while Duckworth will move to center and Fulmer will stand in left. Reinholz, who became the team’s starting center fielder in 2011 after the injury to Duckworth, will play center when Derek Fulmer is on the mound, moving Duckworth to left field.
The Crusaders will rely heavily on senior leadership this season as they face some of the top teams in NCAA Division II baseball. “We have played several of the Conference Carolinas teams in the past, but this season, we will be facing their weekend starters,” says Coach Reynolds. “In the past, we have faced everyone’s midweek, 4th and 5th starters. Moving into the league this season, we will be facing the top of their staffs every time out.” Among the Crusaders’ opponents this year in conference is Mount Olive. The Trojans are ranked 5th in the pre-season NCAA Division II poll and first in the Southeast Region.
Every year, coaches look to their bench to find contributors, and this season, Coach Reynolds will do the same in spots throughout the season. Nate Richards will have a great opportunity to become the Crusader’s permanent closer with departure of Brian Giles. Richards was a setup guy last season for Giles. Redshirt Junior Griffin Spires also has a chance to make an impact this season on the mound. Spires posted a 12-7 record at Airport High School in Columbia, tallying 203 strikeouts in three years as a varsity pitcher. He spent two years at USC Salkehatchie before transferring to NGU in 2010.
“Spires is a guy who will have a great deal of opportunity on the mound,” Reynolds explained. “What he does with his opportunities will determine a lot for us throughout the season.”
Newcomers Allen Staton and Frank Polino are also expected to make an impact. Staton will split time in the infield and will also be on the mound in spots. He will come into the season as NGU’s starting second baseman. Polino, a junior transfer from Canisius College, will be a solid backup for Foulk behind the plate, while also adding power to the NGU lineup. He hit .313 at Canisius, with one home run and 4 RBI’s in 48 plate appearances.
AT THE DISH: THE CRUSADER OFFENSE
Offensively, the Crusaders are solid from 1 to 9. The returning starters from a season ago hit a combined .307 from the plate with 63 doubles, and 15 home runs. Adam Taylor led the team with a .413 average and 6 home runs. His .413 average was the 4th best average in the NCCAA while Derek Fulmer, the teams cleanup hitter ranked 8th in the NCCAA with a .401 average.
“Our lineup should be solid this season. Frank (Polino) will be our designated hitter, and adding Marcus (Duckworth) back into the lineup will give us a lot of speed. Fulmer and Taylor have been very good in the middle of the order, and David Frazier is healthy this season. I expect him to have a solid year. Andrew Lawrence had a good year last year and I expect his success to continue.”
Coach Reynolds is optimistic about his first year as a head coach. “It’s a great opportunity,” remarked Reynolds. “When I first got into coaching, my goal wasn’t to be a head coach. Sometimes the Lord puts us into situations that we never would have thought about. This is a great group of guys, and I have fun working with them on a daily basis. That makes this opportunity even more special.”
According to Reynolds, the strength of his team this season, however cliché it may sound, is the character of his players. “I’ve seen a lot of our guys through several seasons now, and I’m proud of the way they go about their business on a daily basis. There is no trade for that.”
Heading into the new season, there are still many unknowns for the Crusaders. Is the rotation set? Is the offense going to perform like it should? Do we have the best players on the field? Will we get hit with the “injury bug”? These are but a few of the questions that race through Coach Reynolds’s mind every day. What is known however is that North Greenville will field one of the most talented teams in program history this year, and will also burst into its first NCAA Division II conference race also.
The rest? As Natasha Bedingfield so elegantly wrote, “The Rest is Still Unwritten”.