Winston-Salem St. back and thriving
After 37 years, Rams baseball is reimplemented and succeeding
For nearly 40 years, baseball at Winston-Salem State only lived on in memories. Perhaps once in awhile those memories would be dusted off by former players, but the idea of the sport ever coming back to life after being dismantled in 1973 seemed unlikely.
Everything changed when the school decided to put the brakes on its transition to Division I. The thing is, to do that, it had to revive the baseball program because the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association requires all schools to offer the sport.
Revive, as it turns out, might be an understatement. All the Rams have done this season is command attention, winning 30 games, taking home the title in the CIAA tournament and punching a ticket to its first ever NCAA Division II tournament.
Odds are, not many on the outside looking in figured that much success was possible for a first-year team. The players, though, never doubted their ability to play at a high level.
“At the beginning of the season, we held high expectations. We expected to win right out of the gate,” junior catcher Michael Robbins said. “We knew we had the talent, but everything had to fall into place at the right time to make it happen.”
Head coach Kevin Ritsche deserves credit for instilling that positive attitude into his players. When he began putting together a roster, he told every player he talked to that winning was going to be the rule rather than the exception.
Turns out, he was right. And Thursday, at Clipper Magazine Stadium in Lancaster, Pa., the Rams (30-23) will be playing against 17th-ranked Mercyhurst (39-10) in the opening round of the Atlantic Regional.
“I think what drew (the players) here was that I told them all we weren’t going to spend three or four years losing while trying to build a program. We wanted to compete for a championship immediately. I preach the concept, ‘expect to win’ and it’s carried over into the way we practice and prepare ourselves for competition.”
Getting the program off the ground wasn’t easy, though. Ritsche was contacted by the athletic director last June about building a program and Ritsche, who has a background in baseball and has been a professor at the school since 2005, decided to take on the challenge.
“It was an extremely difficult task and very time consuming to get things rolling,” Ritsche said. “Everything had to come from scratch. Luckily, North Carolina has a plethora of talent and that is why the majority of the roster is made up of local student-athletes who grew up near Winston-Salem.”
Winning wasn’t always easy either. The Rams lost their first two games before piecing together a five-game win streak. They endured a few more losing streaks, though, including a two-game slide heading into the CIAA tournament.
But after falling 3-2 to St. Augustine’s in the opening game of the tournament, extending their skid to three games, the Rams won four consecutive games to claim the title, including two wins against St. Augustine’s (7-6 and 3-0) in the championship round.
Freshman shortstop Scott Wells said the success he and his teammates have experienced during this first season is special.
“Our accomplishments gave us a sense of pride for all of the hard work we have done throughout the year,” Wells said. “Despite the success, it’s only a stepping stone to what we have built as a program. Only a select few have a chance to play in a regional in their lives, so it’s something we are proud of and it’s something that motivates us to strive for excellence.”
Wells is hitting .308 and has knocked in 18 runs. Dominique Fitzgerald is batting .306 and has tallied 20 RBI while German Reyes is hitting .273 with 19 RBI. He has scored 28 runs.
Brandon Christ is 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA and 24 strikeouts. Brice Riverbark is 4-7 with a 2.71 ERA and has recorded 94 strikeouts.
The Rams aren’t the flashiest team in DII baseball. They are hitting just .250 as a team and have a team ERA of 4.13.
Yet, what the Rams will always do is work hard and strive to improve.
“Offensively, we struggle at times, but we are very scrappy,” Ritsche said. “We are not going to score 15 runs a game but we are 20-0 when scoring six runs or more. A lot of that has to do with our pitching. My pitching coach (Keith Ritsche) has done a phenomenal job of working with our staff and they have made drastic improvements since the fall.”
Ritsche admits he hasn’t spent much time pouring over a scouting report on Mercyhurst. He is more concerned with what his team has to do to be successful in the NCAA tournament and make a run at the college world series.
“In order to win the regional, we have to play 2-3-2 baseball (2 or less errors, 3 or more big hits and 2 or less walks),” Ritsche said. “If we do that in every game, we will playing in Cary next week.”
The players are approaching the regional with confidence as well. But no matter what happens this week, a foundation for success has been laid at Winston-Salem State. The Rams have exceeded expectations and understand what it means to accomplish so much in year one.
“Building a great program starts with how you perform in your first couple of years,” Robbins said. “Winning immediately helps bring in new talent who will help build a winning tradition.”
Wells summed it up best when he talked about the success of this season for the Rams.
“Our accomplishments have set a new standard at WSSU Baseball,” Wells said.
Not bad for a program that brought baseball back to life after 37 years.