*This article was published on the Western Carolina Journalist*
Hard-work and dedication is something you expect from any athlete in the sport that they play. Even when it is their off-season, you should expect the training to continue.
Some may think it is too early to get out of bed at 5:30 a.m. and go outside when it’s 34 degrees on their day off. If you are the WCU baseball team, then it’s an everyday thing during the Omaha Toughness Challenge training week. This has become a tradition for the last 30 years at WCU and concluded their off-season training on December 1.
The baseball team, who finished the 2017 season with an overall record of 28-28 and 15-8 in the conference, is looking forward to a new season with new players, coaching staff and overall a new bonded team.
After losing 11 seniors at the conclusion of the 2017 season, WCU’s coaching staff didn’t take it as a setback, but more of a way to grow and get some of the younger players to step up and fill the roles left behind.
“Offensively we have a lot of guys back but they have to go to another level because we lost two key players, Bryson Bowman and Matt Smith,” said head coach Bobby Moranda. “We lost a lot of pitching, so the guys who were sitting back before are having to learn to be leaders and step up to match what we lost if not be better.”
Not only did the team say goodbye to 11 seniors but they bid their farewell to two crucial players to the draft and pro-ball signing as well.
Brett Pope, who was WCUs leadoff hitter and shortstop was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 22nd round of the MLB draft in early June. Brendan Nail, who was the Sunday starting pitcher signed in late July with the Red Sox organization.
“Two of the best players in the whole southeast and in the league is not coming back,” said Moranda. “I mean we’re really happy for them, but it’s a catch 22 because you are counting on that talent and that player to be in your lineup and your rotation and then they sign pro so it is tough to replace.”
One senior who graduated didn’t get too much of a break from Western Baseball before deciding to come back and be a volunteer assistant coach. Bryson Bowman announced his return the Cullowhee as assistant coach in August 2017 and, as Moranda said, he is a great addition to the staff.
“He has impacted our players a lot already. He has been outstanding…he can relate to the guys and has seen the other side as our situation as coaches and has a good connection and is a good buffer. He was an outstanding player as a 2-time All American and now we expect him to be an outstanding coach,” said Moranda.
Moranda said that Bryson has been a great help with recruiting since he has lived life on both sides of the field. He can help answer those questions that parents ask and bring up while persuading the players to choose WCU. Bowman graduated in May of 2017 with a degree in Business Administration with a concentration in sports management helping show that you can be an athlete and get that degree to pursue your dreams as well.
“We are not, and never will be, a ‘baseball factory,’” said Athletic Director, Randy Eaton, in a statement earlier this year. “What we will be is an athletic program that recruits good student-athletes, focusing on giving them a great experience that always culminates with a degree from Western Carolina University.”
Every year, the baseball team holds a Fall World Series right around the time of the MLB World Series. It’s a tradition that Moranda brought with him when he came to Western in 2007. It helps the coaching staff more accurately see who will be leaders and dominant players in the pre-season. The Fall World Series competition is between the purple and gold team and the teams are drafted, coached and played by all of WCU baseball. The winner gets bragging rights and to sit out of the workout and run up the hill to the Jackson County Airport.
After the conclusion of the MLB World Series, where the Houston Astros brought home the prestigious title for the first time in franchise history, WCU-baseball alumni and Houston Astros player, Tyler White paid a visit to his old stomping grounds of Cullowhee and was able to speak one-on-one with some of the players.
“Seeing Greg Holland who led the national league in saves who was just here 10 years ago and Tyler White was just here four years ago…to see those guys and they are in the big leagues that is inspiring enough for me. They are at the highest level,” said Moranda.
The fans are people who keep sports going. It helps a lot more to have a good fan base when you are in your field of play and need a little extra encouragement.
The Left Field Lunatics are a group of fans who have been behind the Cats for years now. Continuing to grow and make Fortress Cullowhee “the best and most intimidating environment in the SoCon, but in a manner that is not degrading [or] shameful,” said Robert Boylan one of the original LFL members.
When it comes to other spectators, the team is excited to get the place rockin’ this spring with a new sound system that was just installed and to help make the atmosphere really fun and enjoyable for everyone.
The schedule for the 2018 season is planned to be released in the coming weeks before Christmas, but until then Coach Moranda can leave you with an “it’s going to be one you want to stay in town on the weekends for.”