The Junior College Team Built by the Pandemic

The Junior College Team Built by the Pandemic

GASTONIA, N.C. — The recruiting pitch to play baseball at Gaston College required a vivid imagination last spring.

The community college, just outside Charlotte, was resurrecting an athletic program that had been dormant since 1972, so there wasn’t much to sell. The team would play at a rickety municipal ballpark with a dirt parking lot a few miles from its campus in Dallas, N.C. There were no uniforms, no team nickname, no team colors and no equipment — not even a bag of baseballs.

“I came in blind,” said Ahmir Cournier, a first baseman who grew up in New Jersey.

“I never really heard of Gaston,” said Gus Hughes, a pitcher from Greensboro, N.C.

“There was a lot of vision and trust,” said J.D. Yakubinis, a designated hitter raised in Charlotte.

Now, less than a year later, Sims Legion Park has a gleaming artificial turf field, and the locker rooms have been spruced up as part of a nearly $1 million makeover. Three sets of slick blue-and-yellow uniforms stamped with the Rhinos’ logo sit in each stall, along with spikes and turf shoes. Also at the players’ disposal are a weight room and top-shelf aluminum bats.

The team’s record entering Tuesday’s season finale, despite a four-game losing streak, is just as glittering: 40-9 overall to go with a division championship and a No. 9 ranking in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II poll. As a first-year program, Gaston is not eligible for the playoffs.

“It’s a pretty sick place to play,” Cournier said. “I didn’t think it was going to be like this.”

The Gaston College baseball team’s birth is in large part a story of the pandemic and how games and seasons lost to the coronavirus continue to leave their imprint on college sports. When the pandemic brought sports to a sudden halt in March 2020, the N.C.A.A. almost immediately granted athletes in spring sports — golfers, rowers, hurdlers and ballplayers whose seasons had just begun — an extra year of eligibility.

Months later, to ensure that the cash cows of football and basketball forged ahead, the N.C.A.A. granted all athletes an additional year of eligibility.

While that seemed like a properly charitable decision, allowing thousands of athletes who had been crushed by the unforeseen ending to close their careers with something resembling normalcy, it did not come without costs. The extra season meant fewer scholarships, fewer roster spots and less playing time for athletes further down the food chain, all the way down to the high school level.

The N.C.A.A. expects to have data on how many athletes have taken advantage of the extra season later this month, but it is difficult to imagine a sport that was more affected than baseball, whose pipeline was further clogged by Major League Baseball’s decision to cleave the 2020 amateur draft from 40 rounds down to five (it is now 20 rounds) and place a $20,000 cap on signing bonuses for undrafted free agents. That encouraged hundreds of players who might have signed professional contracts to return to school.

And so, even at a community college with a start-up baseball program that could offer only the cost of tuition and books and a chance to keep their baseball dreams afloat, more than a dozen former Division I players flocked to Gaston.

“If Covid doesn’t happen, maybe I play last year and I stay at Charlotte,” said Chandler Riley, the Rhinos’ left-handed-hitting third baseman, who grew up in Concord, N.C., and redshirted as a freshman last year at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Riley is batting .384 with a team-leading 50 walks, 35 stolen bases and 21 doubles, and signed a letter of intent to play at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., next season.

“It helped the older guys and hurt the younger guys that are coming in,” Riley continued. “Everybody’s trying to find a spot, and the freshmen aren’t getting the opportunities they used to get.”

Riley is one of four players who transferred from Charlotte. Three, including Yakubinis, who has a team-high 60 runs batted in, came from Appalachian State. Others arrived from Wake Forest, Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina, North Carolina-Greensboro, Gardner-Webb and North Carolina A&T. Two more, including Cournier, came from North Carolina Central, which shuttered its program after last season.

Finding them was up to Shohn Doty.

A little more than a year ago, Doty was home in Arkansas, tending to his ailing father and ready to put his long career as a college pitching coach behind him. But then he received an interesting proposition: How would he like to be the head coach at Gaston College?

“My first response was heck no,” he said.

The college president, John Hauser, was undeterred. He kept asking Doty what he would need, and then kept saying he would give it to him. Hauser had arrived at Gaston a few months after the start of the pandemic and believed his new college would benefit from restarting an athletic program that had been dormant for nearly 50 years — even if, under state law, no public funds could be used for athletics.

He enlisted the help of Leonard Hamilton, the Florida State men’s basketball coach, who addressed Gaston College’s board of trustees, telling them how his two years playing basketball at Gaston in the late 1960s — before athletics were dropped — had been the gateway to his becoming the first Black player at Tennessee-Martin, eventually launching a coaching career that two years ago earned him a nomination to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“That’s the situation where we believe we have value — giving people the opportunity they might not get in Division I, Division II or Division III,” Hauser said, referring to N.C.A.A. divisions. “And why now, in a pandemic? Frankly, it was the ideal time. Everything is online, a lot of schools had canceled schedules, and increased eligibility meant the rosters at neighboring institutions were filling up. There was a backlog of talent — a really good supply chain.”

That need, Hauser said, dovetailed with interest in a community that had long supported minor league baseball and had produced the N.B.A. stars James Worthy and Sleepy Floyd.

Hauser started with five sports: baseball, men’s basketball, softball, women’s cross-country and women’s beach volleyball — which he thought could be a draw for the school’s 5,000 students. Hauser hired coaches with master’s degrees so they could be paid as teachers or staff members with stipends for their coaching duties. Doty is the assistant athletic director, while one of his assistants, Jacob Rand, is a C.P.R. instructor and the other, K.J. McAllister, monitors athletes’ academic progress.

The sports are also a training ground for a budding sports broadcasting program, said Caleb Stalcup, who oversees a multicamera, five-person livestream production of Rhinos’ home games that he expects next season will include announcers.

The college teamed with the city of Gastonia and Perfect Game, the youth baseball tournament organization, to finance the $990,000 renovation of Sims Legion Park, which will also be used for youth tournaments, bringing recruits right to the baseball program’s doorstep. Pitcher Zach Zedalis organized an online fund-raiser that brought in $1,200 for a weight room. An equipment manufacturer donated 10 bats, and the new outfield wall will be plastered with advertising by next season.

There are also plans in place to buy a pitch-tracking camera, technology that has transformed how pitchers design their repertoire.

It seems like a distant memory, but when Doty received his first two verbal commitments last spring, he walked into Hauser’s office and said, Now what? How do they sign? Where is the tuition money?

“We were literally building the plane as we were flying it,” Doty said. “In the fall, we had two practices, and then we played a game. I’m getting asked about the paint scheme in the locker room, designing uniforms. I’m 52 and I look like 102, but to put your stamp on something from the ground up, there’s no better feeling than this.”

A close second is seeing his players leave. Hughes, who threw the program’s first no-hitter, and pitcher Christian Baker have signed letters of intent at High Point University; Riley will be going to Campbell; and Zedalis signed with South Carolina in November before tearing elbow ligaments in February. Cournier is headed to Young Harris College, a Division II school in Georgia, and catcher Patrick Hogan is going to Catawba College, a Division II school in Salisbury, N.C.

Some may benefit from another year of development like Enrique Wood, a shortstop with smooth hands and a rifle arm; Yakubinis, who will undergo Tommy John surgery later this month and return to catcher; and Konni Durschlag, an undersized hitting machine who strikes out more than one batter each inning on the mound.

Then there are others, like Marlowe Iorio.

Iorio, a right-handed pitcher who tore elbow ligaments before his senior year in high school, spent last season redshirting as a freshman at North Carolina-Greensboro. His rehabilitation was hindered by anxiety about reinjuring his elbow, a bout with the coronavirus and wondering how he would fit in on a staff with so many pitchers four and five years older.

“I thought about quitting,” said Iorio, who came to Gaston because he trusted Doty, who had recruited him in high school. “My last start was my junior year in high school, and I just felt like baseball wasn’t a part of me.”

Doty encouraged him to push through the soreness to rebuild his arm strength and tinkered with his mechanics. The pitcher’s fastball has climbed to 91 miles per hour — a velocity that, Doty said, would surely make Iorio attractive to Division I coaches, who are always looking for arms.

But Iorio, who grew up in Maplewood, N.J., before moving to Chapel Hill, N.C., in high school, isn’t sure what is next. He has been admitted academically to North Carolina and is interested in studying sports science, and may decide to focus on academics. But he has a lot to cherish about this year: being healthy, productive, part of a winning team and doing it with teammates he likes.

“This has been the perfect place for me,” Iorio said. “It’s been a bridge to prove I can be a baseball player again.”