WENTWORTH — The RCC baseball program will not shy away from top competition in 2020 and it’s a safe bet they won’t anytime in the future under 2019 NJCAA Division III Region 10 Coach of the Year Reece Honeycutt.
The Eighth-ranked Eagles, who open the upcoming season on Feb. 1 on the road against Wake Tech, have released their schedule for 2020.
RCC, who looks to secure their third straight appearance in the NJCAA Division III World Series and will open up against top-tier competition.
The young Eagles feature mostly freshman and will amp up competition early with games against Division II teams.
After a weekend home-and-home with Wake tech to open up the season, Rockingham will host Lenoir Community college for a nine-inning game on Friday, Feb. 7.
They will also Travel to Kinston for a doubleheader against the Lancers on Feb. 8 and will host a three-game home and home series with Guilford Tech starting Feb. 15.
Division II Montgomery College out of Rockville, Maryland will also head to Wentworth for back-to-back doubleheaders on Feb. 22 and 23.
Michigan-based Schoolcraft College will also head south for a doubleheader tilt on Feb. 28.
“We are throwing our guts to the wolves and just really going to test to see where we are early in the season,” said Honeycutt. “We want to see how we stand up to that kind of competition.”
The Eagles manager added that top-level competition early in the year only sets up success down the stretch.
“It’s important because they are going to see some better arms that we may or may not see in our conference,” said Honeycutt. “We are going to see some scholarship-type arms and that’s so important to us. It’s really not about the wins and losses early in the year, it’s just more to see who is willing to step up and who is going back down when challenges present themselves.”
The tough slate will continue into March, with a three-game set at home on March 14 and 15 against Div. III powerhouse Herkimer Community College out of New York.
The Generals have made six NJCAA World Series appearances since 2005 and compiled a 448-163 record over that span.
It was the Eagles though, who shocked the then #1 seeded HCC with a 9-1 win in the opening round of the 2018 Div. III World Series.
The Eagles, who went 22-8 at home last year, will have a distinct advantage in 2019.
Including conference play, the Gray and Green will host 33 games at David Gilliland Field this season.
“It’s awesome to play at home,” said Honeycutt. “We are just very fortunate to have our own field and a lot of the northern schools like to come down this way because it’s so cold up their way …”
Other non-conference series matchups include contests against Ferrum College, Prolific Post Grad Montreat College and Greensboro College.
Veteran pitchers return to mound, Hladliek to add experience in infieldThe Eagles will be led on the mound once again by lefty sophomore ace Drew Colvin — who struck out a team-leading 11.4 batters per nine innings last year.
The go-to arm held a 2.85 ERA in 2019, striking out 62 hitters in 53 2/3 innings pitched.
Also returning to the take the bump is sophomore righty Zach Bennett who flourished in starter and bullpen roles in 2019.
In 10 appearances, Bennett was 6-0 and gave up less than two runs per nine, striking out 32 in 34 innings of work.
Off the mound, the Eagles will bank on the leadership of defensive whiz Garrett Hladliek — the only returning starter from last year’s defending district and regional champions.
The shortstop, named to the 2019 NJCAA Div. III Region X All-Defensive team, stung 30 hits in 41 games played last season. In last year’s 31 wins he hit .291 and scored 21 runs.
The toughest pieces to replace for the Eagles will be the outfield trio of Gavin Taylor, Ausar Rankin and Chayce Aldridge.
The trio made up for more than 30 percent of the Eagles’ run production last season, all while hitting a collective .375 and swiping 85 bags.
Sophomore transfer Bennet Nooe will look to add veteran leadership after a season at Lenoir-Rhyne.
A Morehead High School two-time HSXtra.com all-area recipient — Nooe will add depth at several positions and power in the middle of the lineup.
The former Panther, who hit .400 with four home runs as a senior, will see a good amount of playing time in left field.
He will reunite with former MHS classmate Jared Simpson in the heart of the order.
A sophomore, the designated hitter and first baseman hit .357 in 15 games with the Eagles last season. In limited time, Simpson was clutch — drawing 7 walks in 28 at bats, while driving in 10 runs on 10 hits.
“Those two are really going to need to hold the middle of the lineup down for us,” Honeycutt said.
Sophomore JR Jensen will also contribute at second base. Offensively, Jensen has been good with the bat — hitting .346 and driving in eight runs, while striking out just five times in 26 at-bats last season.
With just a handful of returning sophomores, the Eagles will depend on a lot of young talent.
Incoming freshman Gabe Duncan will be depended on to add speed at the top of the order. The former East Lincoln High School two-year starter compiled a career .345 batting average in 50 games played.
Duncan, who can play in the middle infield or in the outfield, has amassed a .460 on-base percentage his senior year.
Behind Colvin and Bennett, freshman Dawson Salter of Lake Norman High School could see time in the rotation or as a key bullpen piece.
The power righty stands 6’2” and features a fastball near 90 miles per hour. He’ll provide some depth for a team looking to replace Clayton Day and Weston Kerley — who tossed 89 innings in a combined 11 starts.
Several other local players will also have an opportunity to make an impact this season.
Former RCHS hurler Jonathan Todd could contribute on the mound and behind the plate this year as a seasoned young pitcher and catcher.
At 6’4”, Todd was dominating at times as a senior for the Cougars last season — striking out 62 in just less than 46 innings pitched.
He’ll be joined on the active roster by former McMichael pitcher Izik Beasley — who nailed down three saves in 20 innings pitched last season for the Phoenix.
Those local players are just a couple freshman who are a part of the Eagles program.
Several others could also make the active 33-man roster.
“We have been really fortunate to use local high school kids and a lot of them are going to be big parts of what we want to do this year,” said Honeycutt, who credited great friendships with local coaches as a reason for recruiting success at home. “They’ll have big rols that are going to have to be stood up to and they’re going to be thrown into the fire.”