Head coach Greg Brown has enjoyed an historic run over his six-plus years at the helm of Nova Southeastern's baseball program. He made an immediate impact in his debut in 2011 on the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., campus, taking the Sharks to their first-ever NCAA postseason. In 2015, he led NSU to its first Sunshine State Conference title.
And of course, there was the magical 2016 run.
Last season, the Sharks set a program record with 44 wins. The last one secured the program’s first national championship.
“Being a four-year guy here, I saw the upgrades from year to year,” senior catcher Michael Hernandez said. “First it started off not making the playoffs my freshman year, then sophomore year winning a conference championship. Then last year, winning that championship and putting it all together. It was a great feeling and hopefully we do it again this year.”
Now, the Sharks have gone from the hunters to the hunted. Sitting at 14-4, they have remained the No. 1 team in Division II since they defeated Millersville last May for the 2016 title.
“Everyone is going to bring their A-game after us,” Hernandez said. “We have a target on our back, being the No. 1 team in the nation and the defending champion. We go into every year just trying to compete, trying to be the best.”
Hernandez, like many of the experienced roster of returning players, credits Brown with the turnaround of the program. It isn’t his 212-98 career record nor his 2016 DII National Coach of the Year award that make Brown a special head coach. It's the environment and culture he's built that has led to the success.
“Oh man, he’s awesome,” Hernandez said of his skipper. “Just these four years, to see him develop with the guys that have developed here is awesome. He’s definitely a player’s coach and he connects with us on a level that I don’t think too many coaches do. He’s a special guy.”
A former catcher himself, Brown and Hernandez have formed a bond.
“He’s always giving me and the other catchers here little tips and tricks," Hernandez said. "Little tidbits of information that helped him out when he played minor league ball with the Marlins.”
During Hernandez's tenure under Brown, he has become known as one of the best defensive catchers in the nation at any level. He has caught the attention of scouts and Baseball America. He -- along with right-handed transfer Derik Beauprez and outfielder Brandon Gomez -- were among Baseball America's top 25 DII players to watch, all landing in the top 12.
“I’ve always been a defensive catcher first,” Hernandez said. “These past couple of years I have been developing my swing and understanding hitting mechanics more thanks to Coach Brown. Hitting is something I always work on, I take a lot of pride in it. Catching is definitely my strong suit.”
While the cast of this year's Sharks has many familiar faces, with 10 returning position players and 11 returning pitchers, they lost a student-athlete near and dear to them this offseason. Sophomore Dallas Perez -- who hit .246 with one home run for the national champions -- was killed in a car accident in the offseason. Behind the hashtag #DALLASSTRONG, the Sharks are playing this season for more than a trophy. They are playing for Perez.
"My heart is saddened," Brown told NSU Athletics in December. "There is a void. And there are harder days ahead. We will all mourn in our own way. Please know that there is no protocol and right or wrong. I believe life is about relationships and people. This pain will heal in time. Sharks Family forever. DP21 Forever."
Moving on, as Brown says, will be a process. Improving on the field will be, too. The addition of three Division I players may have made this team even stronger. Former Florida first baseman Jeremy Vasquez leads the team in just about every statistical category. Vasquez is tops batting average (.509) and tied for home runs (7) and RBI (25) with Gomez. Two right handers — starter Devin Meyer and reliever Beauprez — joined the Sharks pitching staff from Miami (Fla.).
Most importantly, they immediately fit in with Brown's family.
“I think the best thing about those guys is that they bought in from day one,” Hernandez said. “Here it’s very family and culturally orientated, and from day one they bought in and that has helped their success.”
It's moments like these that create a lifelong bond. A family. pic.twitter.com/65jPl7c0oA— NSU Baseball (@NSU_Baseball) November 18, 2016
The Sharks put themselves to the test right from the start. Last weekend they took two of three from then-No. 19 Lynn. This weekend, they head to South Carolina for a top five matchup against No. 3 USC-Aiken. It's an early season showdown between the best of the SSC and the top of the Peach Belt Conference.
“One thing about Nova Southeastern is that we love to compete," Hernandez said. "Like Coach Brown told us the other day, he puts the best teams on that schedule so we can give our best game to them. Eventually that helps us down the road.”
Nova Southeastern is no longer a perennial question mark but an annual threat for the title. Despite having the No. 1 ranking in the nation locked down, though, the Sharks have their eyes set on one thing: Bringing that trophy back to Fort Lauderdale one more time to celebrate.
“I think right now it’s about the end goal," Hernandez said. "We know that teams are going to come in here and throw their best pitchers at us to beat the national champions. But I think we are more focused on the long-term goal.”