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Bryan Hill has no interest in reflecting upon a 2017 season that saw the Wilson Tobs stumble to their worst on-field performance since the franchise was reincarnated as a Coastal Plain League summer collegiate baseball outfit 21 years ago.
Hill, the former assistant coach for the Tobs who went on to direct the Edenton Steamers to a trio of East Division championships and the 2015 Pettit Cup Championship, wasn’t a part of those league- and franchise-worst 37 losses. And his initial roster upon return to the confines of Fleming Stadium reflects it.
Only one player in Chowan University right-hander Cody Smith is back for the Tobs. Smith, a recent Chowan graduate, returns to the club under a new Coastal Plain League rule that allows up to four seniors to play on a roster. While underclassmen are not allowed to play summer baseball for their college coach — Hill serves as the Hawks’ pitching coach — Smith is exempt from the NCAA rule having exhausted his collegiate eligibility.
“Last year was whatever that was,” Hill said prior to Tuesday’s 5-4 exhibition game loss against the Catawba Valley Stars. “I wasn’t here, and I don’t really care about it. I care about the guys this year and the town of Wilson, since I’m from Pitt County. It’s right beside us, and I did coach the Tobs previously. So I’m excited to bring a winning culture back over here and see what these guys can do. I think I’ve a good group of guys and a great coaching staff, and Mike’s (Bell) done a great job since taking over as general manager of filling those seats. There’s nothing better than playing in front of a bunch of people and giving them a win.”
Hill has posted time as Wilson’s interim head coach in his previous stint, taking over the reins of the club in 2012 when Jason Immekus resigned in the middle of the season en route to a 21-34 record. On Hill’s first full-season staff in Wilson will be Francis Marion pitching coach Jim Leggett as well as Ole Miss student manager and bullpen catcher Collin Brinkley. Originally from Greenville, Brinkley will join the Tobs after the Rebels, given the No. 4 seed in the Division I regionals, conclude their season.
The Tobs open the regular season Thursday night in Fleming versus the Peninsula Pilots.
Hill’s plan over the course of both exhibition games is to have all 18 rostered pitchers toss one inning. The lone exception will be junior right-hander Sean Deely from Wilmington (Delaware) University, who is slated to be the Tobs’ opening-night starter against the Pilots. In 57 2/3 innings for the Division II Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference Wildcats, Deely, who threw a bullpen session before Hill and Leggett on Tuesday afternoon, struck out 54 batters with a 2.65 earned run average. Against conference foes, that ERA figure dipped to a scant 0.86 in 42 innings.
While careful to note that changing circumstances could force a switching of roles, Hill reported that the Tobs’ arms are fully aware of their specific assignments to open the season.
Toeing the rubber against Hill’s former Edenton club on Friday night at Hicks Field will be 6-foot-6 lefty Tyler Grauer from Indiana State, while Appalachian State freshman right-hander Jason Cornatzer hurls against the Martinsville Mustangs in Fleming on Saturday night alongside East Stroudsburg righty Carson Freeman in what Hill terms a “stack start.”
Grauer made 15 relief appearances for the Sycamores last year, notching two saves with a 3.52 ERA. Cornatzer, a product of Waxhaw Marvin Ridge, made nine appearances for the Mountaineers, posting no record and logging a 3.55 ERA in 12 2/3 innings.
“Each pitcher will get five days of rest — which is what their college coach would like to hear as well,” Hill said. “With those stack starts, it gives those guys small amounts to throw, but the same amount of rest.”
Joining the Wilson starting rotation at a later date will be N.C. State left-hander David Harrison, a Rocky Mount High product. A total of six players, including Harrison, are currently tied up with action in the NCAA regionals.
Arms who could factor into late-game situations include right-hander Luis Acosta from Texas Rio-Grande Valley and junior right-hander Eddie Tavarez from Peru State in Nebraska. Tavarez, from the Dominican Republic, has a fastball that can touch the mid 90’s. Junior left-hander Jared Gallagher of Central Connecticut State was 3-0 in 15 relief appearances. Hill said Smith projects as a closer at the professional level. Two-way players who could factor into the rotation include Missouri Baptist right-hander Caleb Dean, who played the first eight innings of Tuesday’s game against Catawba Valley in the outfield before coming in to close in the ninth.
This Wilson team, by design, will gravitate towards veteran players.
“I like the older guys because they are experienced,” Hill said. “We do have a couple freshmen, but a majority of our players are juniors, redshirt juniors, redshirt sophomores. They’re older guys who have been around and done it. They’ve played summer ball in the past, so they know what it’s like to grind it out.”
In the Tobs’ opening exhibition win over the Fuquay-Varina Twins on Sunday night, sophomore Brenton Doyle from Shepherd University was 4 for 4 with two RBIs and three stolen bases from the leadoff spot. He hit .416 with 16 doubles and 13 homers, driving in a whopping 67 runs for the Division II Rams.
Some of the key pieces for the Tobs offensively and in the field have yet to report. Patrick Frick, a Wake Forest sophomore, is expected to man the shortstop spot after holding down the spot in Atlantic Coast Conference play for the Demon Deacons. Frick hit .290 with 12 doubles and 31 runs batted in. Troy University’s Rigsby Mosley, the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, is one of the six Tobs embroiled in regional play this weekend. After redshirting in 2017, the left-handed bat has hit .330 to date for the Trojans with 47 RBIs.
Hill’s preference is to move those two pieces towards the top of the lineup once each report to Wilson.
From top to bottom, the roster was constructed with the Tobs’ new four-team division in mind, which includes Edenton, Peninsula and Martinsville.
“We’re in a good division that’s going to have a lot of good pitchers in Peninsula, Edenton and Martinsville,” Hill said. “A wide array of fields to play in, too. Edenton’s field is very small, and (Fleming) is about average size. Peninsula’s is big, as well as Martinsville. We’ve got to have guys that can do all things with speed, power and contact. We made sure we checked out all those boxes and had a pretty versatile offense.”
As a revamped coaching staff and roster takes residence in Fleming Stadium this season, salivation towards the first Pettit Cup championship may be tempting. However, Hill cautions such talk, particularly for a team coming off a non-playoff campaign, is premature.
“We want to win as many games as possible and see where we end up in the playoffs,” Hill said. “Once we get to the playoffs, then yes, that’s what it is. But you’d like to take it one little thing at a time and make sure we make the playoffs first. Once we get to the playoffs, try to win the playoffs.”