College Baseball: Steedley a leader for 49ers
By Mike London
CHARLOTTE — Always a challenge, the NCAA baseball tournament turned into an epic adventure for the Charlotte 49ers as they watched the selection show unfold on Monday afternoon.
Champions of the Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament, the 28th-ranked 49ers (42-14) assumed they’d stick close to home at one of the regionals in the Carolinas. Instead, they were dispatched to Tempe, Ariz., to join Arkansas, New Mexico and Arizona State. The 49ers couldn’t have been more surprised if the brackets had them playing on the moon.
“We were shocked to go to Arizona,” said Charlotte’s all-conference catcher Ross Steedley, the former East Rowan standout. “It’s going to be fun out there, but this makes it hard on our parents and fans. We’re going to be playing in front of about 25 people who are for us. If we’d gone to Chapel Hill, Columbia or Clemson, or even Virginia, we’d have taken a pretty good crowd with us.”
Tempe is 2,000-plus miles from Charlotte. The 49ers planned to fly out this morning at 11:30 a.m., with Atlanta as their first stop. They were anticipating a three-hour layover in Georgia before making the last leg of the journey to the Land of the Sun.
“We’ve played games one time zone away this year, but this will be the first time we’ll play where there’s a three-hour difference,” said Steedley, a 2007 East graduate. “We’ll be facing some serious jet lag.”
Despite the travel obstacle, Charlotte has a chance to advance. It has turned in a banner season. Steedley leads the team in slugging percentage and batting average (.349).
Justin Roland, a 2008 East graduate, is in his second year as the starting shortstop. A redshirt in 2009 due to injury, he was a Freshman All-American in 2010. A .260-hitter, he anchors the defense, is one of the national leaders with 22 sacrifice bunts and is tied for fifth on the team with 32 runs.
Shive, a 2009 East graduate known for his pitching in high school and American Legion, has been in the lineup down the stretch at first base and has batted .306 in 24 games.
“Ryan Rose, our sports information guy and broadcaster, calls us the East Rowan Connection, and there was a game in the conference tournament where all three of us had a double and an RBI,” Steedley said. “Justin’s the perfect No. 9 guy and is the hottest hitter on the team right now. And it’s been great to see Corbin get a chance. He gives us some right-handed power.”
Steedley is listed as a redshirt junior, but he graduated recently with a degree in communications. He enjoys talking about everything except his medical charters. He’s had to overcome several setbacks, most notably shoulder surgery which cost him the 2009 season (he took a medical redshirt) and all but the final weeks in 2010.
“People talk about how often I’ve been hurt, but it’s really just two minor knee surgeries besides the shoulder,” Steedley said. “There also have been nagging hamstring injuries, but I don’t know many athletes, especially catchers, who haven’t had a hamstring issue.”
When he’s 100 percent, there’s no question Steedley (6 feet, 199 pounds) is a stud. After sharing the Rowan County Player of the Year Award in 2007, he was good enough to start opening day at catcher for the 49ers as a true freshman in 2008.
He hasn’t had the best of luck since, but his comeback this year has been strong.
“I expected to play well,” Steedley said. “I’d put in the work and the time.”
While he’s often Charlotte’s reliable cleanup hitter, Steedley’s greatest value is calling pitches and handling the staff. Charlotte’s hurling has been phenomenal — a 2.43 ERA (ranked fourth nationally) and 11 shutouts.
“I called pitches all four years in high school, for Coach (Allen) Wilson, and then for Coach (Brian) Hightower,” Steedley said. “I’ve also called pitches here, and it’s something I really enjoy. It’s a great feeling to have the game in your hands.”
Charlotte is making its fifth trip to a regional. In 2007, when Ross’ brother Spencer was one of the team’s stars, the 49ers won twice in the Columbia Regional. That’s the only time the 49ers ever won a regional game. Charlotte’s last regional appearance was in 2008, when the 49ers went 0-2 in Raleigh.
Charlotte and Arkansas are pitching-and-defense teams and both will have aces throwing in the opener. Andrew Smith, Atlantic 10 Pitcher of the Year, will be on the mound for the 49ers.
“Our pitching is strong, and there’s been lower-scoring games this year with the change in the bats,” Steedley said. “You don’t see 19-18 games anymore. You’ve got to small-ball a lot more, but that’s fine. I think now the college game is baseball the way it’s meant to be played.”
Spencer Steedley is currently in the pro ranks. Drafted out of Charlotte after his senior year in 2007, he’s made several minor-league all-star teams and is now with the Minnesota Twins’ New Britain farm club in Double A.
Ross may have a chance for his own pro career, and he’s eligible for next week’s draft.
“Spencer tells me I can catch at a high level, and even though he’s my brother, he’s going to be truthful about something like that,” Ross said. “I’ve also caught John Maine (former UNCC standout and former Mets hurler), and he said he liked throwing to me. We’ll just have to see, and if nothing happens, then I’ve still got some good options.”
He’s got a spot on the West Virginia Miners in the wood bat Prospect League this summer if the draft doesn’t work out. Jim Gantt also has kept a spot on Rowan County’s coaching staff open for him. Steedley also has made applications to graduate schools.
But first things first. Right now, there are pitches to call in a regional a long, long way from home.
“Arkansas is a tough opponent,” Steedley said. “But I feel good about our team. We’ve got a nice mix of experience and young talent.”