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Swing Away: North Carolina Central Returns to the Ballfield
By Chuck Curti
Updated: February 21, 2007
PIKESVILLE, Md. — Christmas came early for Dr. Henry White (pictured) this year.
When the North Carolina Central University baseball team took the field at Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Feb. 7, it was the culmination of a year-long process to bring baseball back to the school.
Actually, it was the culmination of a 30-year process; NCCU last fielded a baseball team in 1975. “It was just like being at Christmas, guys opening their first Christmas present,” said White, the head coach of the Eagles.
North Carolina Central is in the process of moving to NCAA Division I. In order to do so, the school had to add a varsity men’s sport. The administration decided to bring back baseball last February, and it chose White to build the program.
The Eagles will play a Division II schedule this season, then an independent Division I schedule in 2008. White ultimately hopes the program can re-join the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, where NCCU was a charter member.
White coached for two decades (1980-2000) as St. Augustine ‘s College in nearby Raleigh , N.C. There, he amassed more than 320 wins and managed St. Augustine ‘s to eight CIAA regular-season titles and five tournament titles.
“When I came in, I knew the area pretty well,” said White about his recruiting process. “I really wasn’t at a disadvantage. The biggest challenge was finding guys who wanted to commit to a new program.”
He did find the guys, 22 of them to be exact: 16 freshmen and six transfers. Players like Oliver Jenkins, Gene Suarez and Mike Cook were already on campus. But the bulk of the team was brought in from elsewhere.
The next challenge was, as White puts it, getting the freshmen to understand the college game. He said getting his players to pick up on the mental aspect of playing baseball was the toughest part.
“When we started putting in plays defensively,” said White, “they were totally unaware. The learning curve has been slow. Most of our errors have been mental errors.”
Heading into Wednesday’s game with St. Andrews, NCCU was 2-8, with its first victory coming in its third game, a 7-4 home win over Benedict in the first game of a doubleheader on Feb. 10. The Eagles added their second win on Sunday, an 18-9 thumping of Morehouse College .
Jenkins is the team’s leading hitter in the early going, and White is counting on him to be a team leader along with Marcus Fuller. A junior college transfer, Fuller isn’t playing this season, but his previous college experience is helping him serve as a sort of assistant coach while the rest of the players get their feet wet.
White knows that his team is likely to take its share of beatings this season, but he’s OK with that. Being a coach for so many years – he also was a successful basketball coach at the high school and college levels — he understands the learning process that some teams must endure.
That will be especially true for his inaugural group of Eagles baseball players. On top of that, White expects that teams will play NCCU a little harder because of his reputation as a winning coach. Still, he expects success to come sooner rather than later.
“Right now, I just want to be competitive every time we go on the field,” said White. “My timetable is when the young men begin their junior year. My goal is to just put the lineup card on the wall and say, ‘Guys, let’s go play ball.’
“By the time they’re juniors all that (mental errors) will be behind us. One day, I want them to look back on this (year) and laugh.”
For this season, and possibly the next, the Eagles have the luxury of playing in one of the nicest ballparks among historically black colleges. Durham Bulls Athletic Park is home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays Class AAA affiliate.
The Eagles will remain there until their permanent home at historic Durham Athletic Park , the former home of the Durham Bulls and site of the Kevin Costner movie “Bull Durham,” is refurbished.
NCCU’s refurbished baseball program, meanwhile, looks as if it is headed in the right direction, with many more “holidays” ahead.
“I’ve been happy with the fan support, the administrative support, everything,” said White. “It’s been way beyond our expectations.”