ASHEVILLE, N.C. – UNC Asheville head baseball coach Scott Friedholm has a plan for the future of the Bulldogs. It includes goals and marks for the short term, the long term and everything in between.
But sometimes you get ahead of the plan and that can be a good thing.
The 2017 season was a great representation of how that can happen as the Bulldogs made a great late-season run into the semifinal round of the Big South Conference Championship Presented by Hardee's after finishing tied for fifth in the regular-season standings. They made a lot of strides both on and off the field, those that can be quantified and those that are harder to see.
They did it after being tabbed to finish last in the preseason conference coaches poll back in February.
"I think we certainly took some steps forward as a program," Friedholm said. "Obviously it's nice to see results in the form of wins vs. losses, the conference tournament appearance and a couple of conference tournament wins, but I also think we took a step forward off the field in putting priorities in place and setting a culture and a tone for what we want this program to be.
"But that puts a lot of pressure on the returning players," Friedholm continued. "The guys that are coming back and those that are coming in need to continue to have a strong work ethic and not be satisfied with what we did this year. Now that they got a taste of what it is like to play in the postseason, hopefully they will work even harder to get back there and try to have some more success. A good way to look at it is to look at what some mid-majors are doing around the country this year and what they have done in the past. Obviously you don't have to look too far within our own league as Coastal Carolina won the national championship last year. But you also look at a team like Davidson this year winning a regional over a very good North Carolina team and we look at that as, 'Why can't that be us in the coming years?'"
In 2017, UNC Asheville did some great things on the field that were pretty obvious to those who have followed the program for some time. The Bulldogs made the conference tournament for the first time since 2012, won a game in the tournament for the first time since 2008 and took it another step further by winning multiple games in the tournament for the first time since 2007. They also won the sixth-most games in program history with 25 wins on the year.
But the successes and strides forward go even deeper as the Bulldogs were not swept in any weekend series during the regular season, the first time that has ever happened for the program. And with the Bulldogs' win over Liberty in an elimination game of the conference tourney, UNC Asheville can boast that they were the only Big South Conference team to beat every other program in the conference at least once in 2017. That's hard to do for any team no matter the conference.
"It's a great tribute to our guys and the work they put in all season," Friedholm said. "If you look around the country, I would say there are only a handful of teams that did not get swept and even fewer that beat every team in their league. It shows that our guys, when they go out and play good baseball, they can win any weekend and it doesn't matter who we are playing. Hopefully it's more than one game on a weekend, but you give yourself a great chance to make a postseason run when you aren't being swept."
During the season, the Bulldogs took series wins over Iona, UMBC and Longwood at home and also claimed road series over Presbyterian and Campbell as well as won two-of-three in Spartanburg in the second weekend of the season. The Bulldogs also posted a winning record at home (12-11) for the first time since 2012.
The 2017 Bulldogs went 11-13 in Big South Conference action, finishing tied for fifth in the league standings to earn the No. 6 seed in the league tournament. The 11 wins in conference action were the most since the Bulldogs won 12 league games in 2012.
Statistically, the Bulldogs saw a 10-year low in errors in the field and posted a 10-year high in fielding percentage as a team while the Bulldog outfielders are currently second in the nation for outfield assists with 18. The Bulldogs also caught 33 runners attempting to steal on them, a 10-year high. UNC Asheville's pitching corps continued to make strides as they combined for a 6.05 team ERA, the lowest under Friedholm's watch, and struck out 365 batters, the most in the last 10 campaigns. On offense, the Bulldogs posted the most stolen bases (56) since the 2010 team swiped 58 and had the most extra-base knocks (134) since the 2008 team recorded 178.
"It goes back to what we talked about all season and that is we played much better defense this year," Friedholm said. "There were stretches within the year where we got a little sloppy, but overall our defense was a step better this year and that's a tribute to Chris Bresnahan and what he does with our middle infielders, what Tyler Hinchliffe did with our outfielders and pitchers and what Jonathan Johnston does with our catchers and our offense. Our pitchers now know they can pitch to contact and our defense is going to make most of the routine plays for them. When our pitchers know that, there's a new confidence in them that if they throw more strikes and pitch to contact, the outcome is probably going to be better for them as well."
And they made those improvements with a very young team that featured as many as eight underclassmen in the lineup at any given time.
"The freshmen now have that experience of playing collegiate baseball and playing in some big situations and big games like conference weekends, the conference tournament, going on the road to N.C. State and nationally-ranked North Carolina, those types of environments," Friedholm said. "But it's also huge for our sophomores because they now have a year of teaching under their belts and while they will have to do it all over again next year, they won't have to do it by themselves. They'll have this year's freshmen helping them, so we'll have 18 to 21 guys helping 10 freshmen next year as opposed to six sophomores helping seven freshmen."
Granted, the Bulldogs will miss four key pieces from this season's team. While the youngsters stepped up big throughout the season when called upon, four seniors were essential in making the tournament this year and winning the 25 games. Joe Tietjen, Kyle Carruthers, Justin Woods and Spencer Orr all wrapped up solid careers with the Bulldogs and Friedholm recognizes what the quartet did on the field, in the dugout and in the locker room.
"What they did is hard. They committed to play for one staff and then had to play for a whole new staff after just their first year," Friedholm said. "They were all sophomores when we came in to the program, but they all got better which is a tribute to them and their hard work. Joe Tietjen didn't play a whole lot as a freshman before we got here and he then became our starting right fielder and then center fielder and was consistently batting in the three or four hole. He wrapped up a really good career for us and his accolades speak for themselves. Justin Woods revamped himself during his time. He was a third baseman when our staff got here and he also played a little bit of first base, but he found a place for himself in the outfield and turned himself into a pretty good relief pitcher as well. Kyle Carruthers, if you look at his numbers, they just kept getting better year by year. Again, his work with J.J. showed over each season. Then Spencer Orr went from being a relief pitcher our first year to a midweek starter to our most consistent starting pitcher this season. He gave us a chance to win every time he was out on the mound. Those guys will be missed, but hopefully they're confident in what they've left here as far as the culture that will continue on. Obviously there's still more work to do with that, but hopefully we'll continue to make those strides and move forward."
Following the season, Tietjen was named an honorable mention All-Big South player – the second all-conference nod of his career – and earned his second straight Big South Conference All-Academic Team honor. On top of that, freshman Brandon Lankford was named a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball News, a first for the program since 2004, and earned Big South Championship All-Tournament honors for his efforts during the tourney. During the season, freshman Chris Troost was named the Big South's first-ever Freshman of the Week and Lankford earned the honor the following week.
And all season, the Bulldogs kept things in perspective by raising over $9,500 for the Vs. Cancer Foundation, one of the highest totals since the Bulldogs began raising donations for the cause. UNC Asheville finished the year ninth in the nation amongst teams that participated in funds raised with much of the money staying in Asheville and going to Mission Health to help local children battling cancer as well as their families.
"That is a well beyond the realm of what we're trying to do here," Friedholm said. "We're just trying to win a few baseball games, but our guys have taken charge of this head on and made it our mission to see how much we can raise to help not only the hospital itself in building a new room for kids in that age range of 12 to 14 years old that are battling this disease, but also their families. Cancer affects every one of us, we all have a story about it. These kids and families are being hit way too early, but to see how they react and battle, it's life changing for everyone on our team. These kids are battling but are able to smile and they go in upbeat and positive and we like to be able to help them out."
With all the different forms of success and change that happened around the team in 2017, it's easy to see the upward trend that the program is on. It has Friedholm and his staff excited for next season and future seasons as they continue to build on the plan they have laid out.