Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier asst. sports editor
After winning the program’s first and only Southern Athletic Association (SAA) title two years ago, Berry baseball is looking to reclaim their spot at the top of the conference.
Despite failing to retain the SAA championship last year, Berry still had a strong showing, their 28 wins placing them just one shy of their record from the title-winning season. Now, with a team having seen very few players leave, they are ready to return to the top.
“My first years here it was, I think, ten seniors each year,” senior pitcher Ben Coker said. “Last year was only four. So knowing that the same guys are coming back was a big positive for us, because we could look around and see we’re not really losing much, so we can just take another step forward and get better.”
While few players left, 17 freshmen joined the roster, and Coker said he expects them to play a vital role in the team’s success.
“I think they’re going to contribute a lot, because there are some holes that need to be filled,” Coker said. “The main thing they’re going to help us with is just pushing the guys that are ahead of them to keep getting better.”
According to junior third baseman Spence Johns, strong leadership is needed to make these new players feel at home, a role he has taken to heart.
“Even though we didn’t lose a lot of guys numerically, we lost some leadership, so leadership roles are going to have to be filled,” Johns said. “It’s important and I’ve kind of graduated into that role. Freshman and sophomore year it’s a bit harder to be a leader, it’s more by actions, but this year I’m more vocal. I know the guys who graduated; even though we only lost four, they were super vocal, so we need that.”
Johns is not the only one to have stepped up, as Coker said he does everything he can to help the younger pitchers.
“I’m trying to work with young guys as much as I can,” Coker said. “I’m kind of centered on pitching, being a pitcher myself, so I deal with those guys a lot. It’s kind of like my little kids in my eyes, I’m kind of the big father to them, so I try and mentor them, build them up as much as I can, show them what helped me when I was younger, show them what’s going to help them down the road, just help out like that.”
Head coach David Beasley said he was happy with the effort shown by his players and emphasized how important good leadership is too a baseball team.
“What’s the difference between good and great? It’s a small amount,” Beasley said. “If you look at the teams we’ve had in the past that have been great teams, that’s what they had. They had all the same characteristics that this team has, but they had great leadership. It was a sense of family where they played for each other, not for themselves, so that’s one of the things that we want to make sure we do this year. We’re representing the school, we’re representing each other and we want to go out and we’re going to compete every day to put ourselves in a position to win.”
Once that team mentality is settled, it will then be a matter of fulfilling the team’s potential, according to Beasley.
“I see the potential for this year’s club to be really good,” Beasley said. “I don’t know that we are yet, but that’s something that we’re working on. Talent-wise, as far as what Coach West, Coach Greer and myself want, we want kids that are super talented and we have kids this year that have a lot of talent, we just have to bring it out.”
And if the team does achieve its potential, Johns said they would not be settling for just the championship.
“We want to win the conference tournament, because winning the conference tournament gives us an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament,” Johns said. “Berry baseball has never made the NCAA tournament. We transferred from NAIA to NCAA in 2010 and we’ve never made the tournament. My freshman year was the first year we won the conference, so we want to do that and we want to be the first team that makes the NCAA tournament.”
Berry’s baseball team will start its season by hosting Maryville College on Tuesday, Feb. 4 at 3 p.m.