Morales, Dietrich headline Braves baseball
By Markus Franklin
Assistant Sports Editor
Ping. Ping. The sound of metal bats will soon permeate the air as the UNCP baseball team begins their 2008 campaign.
The Braves will be led this year by two seniors. Shortstop Jason Morales and center fielder Kevin Dietrich were both selected to the first ever preseason Peach Belt Conference team.
Both come off superb junior seasons where each of them batted over .300. Morales, who went to Pine Forest High School in Fayetteville, N.C., led the Braves in nearly every statistical category by hitting .362, registering 28 extra base hits, eight of them being homeruns.
Morales also had 50 RBIs and led the team in slugging percentage with .566.
Dietrich, who played high school ball at Providence High School in Charlotte and one season at Phieffer University before joining the Braves, was equally impressive with a .344 batting average, 24 extra base hits, five of them being homeruns, and a .507 slugging percentage.
Both said they have improved over the offseason to make themselves better.
Both played summer league ball. Morales played locally for the Fayetteville Swamp Dogs while Dietrich played for the New Market Rebels of the Valley League.
Both were selected to their respective league's All-Star teams at the end of the season.
Both said they have taken on a leadership role as seniors on the team.
"All of the guys listen to us when we speak up," Dietrich said. "If we have something important to say, they take note."
Morales agreed and said that even when he is on the bench and waiting for his turn to bat, he is always keeping his team positive.
Manager Paul O'Neil told the two young men during the interview that they both were going to be team captains for this year.
Both players took the appointment very seriously and look forward to leading their team in a successful campaign this year.
O'Neil is looking forward to this year, although he is worried about his pitching staff.
"There have been several injuries to key guys who pitched key innings for us last year," O'Neil said.
When asked if he had a dominant pitcher, the coach declined to comment on which player was his go-to guy "because at this time in the season it would be unfair to put that much pressure on any one man in the rotation."
Offensively, O'Neil is looking forward to the production from his players. Last year the Braves hit .298 as a team, but this year according to Coach O’Neil, "offensively we stack up to anyone in our conference."
The coach was quick to point out that PBC is one of the toughest conferences in Division II baseball.
"A team from our conference has come out of the PBC every year now to represent the conference in the College World Series," he added.
The preseason rankings for the PBC has Columbus State ranked No.1. The Cougars are also ranked No.2 in the nation in the D-II poll.
The Peach Belt Conference coaches' poll has predicted the Braves to finish eighth in the conference.
O'Neil said his team will have to grind out a lot of wins, but thinks his team is much more stronger and will be able to "hit the ball in the gaps with power" more consistently this year.
"Any team in the PBC can beat you three times in one weekend," O'Neil added.
"We have more productivity for power numbers, and we are bigger and stronger than we have been in the past few years," O'Neil said.
That will be a change from the previous years when the Braves had to rely on their speed, quickness and their ability to play small ball.
O'Neil plans to base his offense around Morales and Dietrich. Dietrich will lead off and Morales will bat third. The plan is for Morales to set the table so Dietrich can produce runs, so the Braves can jump out to early leads in games.
The Braves must rely on their explosive offense since the pitching staff is in limbo due to injuries and relative inexperience throughout the rotation.
Life as a college student
Both players are still students and that means that they have to work much harder than a regular student.
Dietrich is majoring in Exercise and Sports Science while Morales is majoring in Recreation Management. Morales and Dietrich are nearing graduation, but both players have to take early classes because practice starts at 2:30 p.m. each day.
The Braves coach put the two players schedule into perspective.
"Being an athlete means you have to have the ability to time manage. You have no free time and no luxury of fixing you schedule so you take this professor because you don't want to take the other one because he grades harder,” O’Neil explained.
“All of my players have to take early morning classes and, therefore, do not have much choice when it comes to their classes,” O’Neil continued.
"You have to learn to fit school around baseball," Morales added.
Both Morales and Dietrich are seniors and they know the end of their college career is over. However, they also know that their grades must not slip up so that their futures are not affected.
The Braves began their season by sweeping Anderson College in a three game series Feb. 2 and Feb 3. The Braves won by a combined score of 30-14 during the three games.
The Braves started out on the road for the first weekend of the season but come home for a key regional matchup against St. Andrews on Feb. 6.
Most of the games that the Braves will play this year are doubleheaders and each one of them expects to be a grind now that each of the doubleheader games will feature nine innings, unlike in previous years where the second game of a doubleheader would only have seven innings.
“It’s important that the new format was added. I like having all nine inning games being played. Hopefully, this will give the Chancellor more reason to let us play on Friday, Saturday and Sunday rather than squeezing it all into two days. This should make pitching depth a top priority now. Those two extra innings will show how good a team’s bullpen is,” the coach added.
O'Neil said that every team in the conference has to do that "so no one really gets an advantage, but that it is mentally taxing on both the players and the coaches."
O’Neil continued, “As for our team, I think the direction of our ballclub has really flourished over the last three years.”
Coach O’Neil thinks that he has the team that can make an impact this year.
“I think this team has man strengths. We are phyiscally strong as well as offensively. I think the only potential weakness this team may have is a lack of experience with our pitching staff. Only one guy is returning from last year’s staff, so we have a relatively young rotation,” he explained.
O’Neil feels confident about his team this season.
“As long as we improve each and every day, each and every game, I think we will have a great chance this season. The conference seems wide open this year,” the coach added.
"Each weekend is a grind, but that's what we as student athletes put ourselves through each and every season," Morales said.