College Corner: Coppin's Eagles keep flying despite challenges; will play in free, unique tournament in Washington this weekend - BaltimoreBaseball.com
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College Corner: Coppin’s Eagles keep flying despite challenges; will play in free, unique tournament in Washington this weekend

Photo credit: Troy Queen/Coppin State Athletics

Coppin State University head baseball coach Sherman Reed Sr.’s mind was racing when he walked toward the dugout after the fourth inning of his team’s season opener last month in Los Angeles.

The Eagles were playing the University of Southern California Trojans, one of Division 1’s most storied baseball programs, and Reed’s club was losing 22-0.

In his seventh year as head coach at the historically black, Division 1 university in West Baltimore, Reed wants his players to face the best, to test their mettle, to gain confidence, to get national exposure.

But to travel 3,000 miles to be down 22 runs in the first half of your season opener?

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“We got to about the fourth inning and it was 22-0, and I walked back into the clubhouse, leaving the third base line, and I’m saying, ‘Reed, what have you gotten yourself into, man?’” Reed, pictured above, recalled. “But the guys buckled down and then I think we shut them out the next four or five innings; the game ended 22-2. And we’ve been playing great baseball ever since.”

Coppin State lost all three games that weekend to USC, but the other scores were much more competitive, 6-2 and 9-4. In their first game back in Maryland, the Eagles dropped a 6-5, 10-inning nailbiter to Georgetown University.

Now, the Eagles are about to play in a four-game, three-day, one-of-a-kind tournament this weekend against Harvard University and Lafayette (Pa.) College at the Washington Nationals Youth Academy in Washington D.C.

It is, in a sense, one of the more important assignments of the year for Coppin, no matter what happens on the field. It’s the kind of event that potentially could have an impactful effect on the program for years to come.

At this moment, though, the Eagles are 0-4. That’s the current reality.

Yet Reed already believes his young team is better for their experience so far in 2017. It’s part of a bigger plan, as it often is with Reed, whose club was 14-38 last year, but won two games in the season-ending Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament.

“When you bring the number of freshmen that we brought in with the 2016 kids, one of two things are going to happen. They are going to go out there and, for the first times in their lives, they are going to get battered around a little bit, the pitching,” Reed said. “And they’re going to either come to conclude, ‘Whoa, I’ve got a ways to go to make it at this level.’ Or they are going to fizzle in self-pity, and then we’re going to find out a lot more about them on the mental end.”

Reed feels like he learned plenty about his team that weekend, lessons that can be used during conference play and ultimately in the MEAC tournament. His players, in turn, took their cue from Reed.

“When we were down 22-0, nobody was pointing fingers, nobody was arguing in the dugout. Everybody was staying positive, because it wouldn’t have helped if we all just gave up. It would have ended up being worse. I think that is a very positive aspect of our team; we tend to rally together when things are the worst,” said senior outfielder Barrett Arnold.

“I know obviously (Reed) has to go through a lot with recruiting and stuff like that. I’ve never seen him just give up, hang his head and say, ‘That’s it,’” Arnold said. “He continues to press forward, and I think we all take after that, whether it’s at practice, in a game, in the weight room. It’s definitely a testament to Coach Reed.”

A lack of black ballplayers in MLB and Division 1 colleges

For years now, Major League Baseball officials have recognized and attempted to combat a disturbing trend in its population: The dwindling number of African-Americans playing the National Pastime at the sport’s top level.

For each of the past two seasons, African-Americans have made up 8.3 percent of Opening Day rosters, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. That’s down significantly from, say, three decades ago, when 18.3 percent of Opening Day rosters in 1986 consisted of African-Americans.

This past year, roughly 60 percent of MLB Opening Day rosters were made up of white players, 28.5 percent Latinos, 8.3 percent African-Americans and 1.7 percent Asians.

Go to the collegiate level, and the discrepancy is more startling. According to the NCAA’s database, in 2015-16, African-Americans made up just 5.4 percent of Division 1 baseball rosters, up slightly from 5.1 percent in 2014-15. In comparison, 78.8 percent of Division 1 baseball rosters were white and 7.2 percent were Hispanic or Latino.

Remove historically black college rosters – which now often are a mix of black, white and Latino players — from the data and there were just 3.3 percent of African-Americans playing Division 1 baseball in 2015-16.

The true contrast comes when comparing Division 1 baseball to Division 1 basketball, in which 57.6 percent of the athletes are African-American, or football, where 47.4 percent of Division 1 participants were African-American in 2015-16, according to the NCAA. Whites made up 24.8 percent of Division 1 basketball rosters and 39.6 percent of football rosters.

The reasons for a decline in baseball participation among African-Americans have been well-documented: There are a lack of quality baseball fields and youth baseball organizations in urban areas, the rise of travel teams and showcase events can be financially prohibitive for disadvantaged youth (regardless of race), and, frankly, with dwindling numbers of African-Americans playing baseball at the pro level, there are fewer role models to inspire black youth to stick with the sport, at least in comparison to the NFL and NBA.

Collegiately, there’s an even more obvious reason for top athletes – regardless of race – to choose football or basketball over baseball: Scholarship opportunities.

In general, Division 1 football programs receive 85 full scholarships, basketball receives 13 and baseball, 11.7. Since most baseball rosters have 30 to 35 players, very few full rides are available.

“You can’t really avoid the fact that finances play a big part in this as well,” Reed said. “A lot of African-American kids lean on finding financial support for attending colleges. It doesn’t take rocket science for them to look around and figure if they play football or basketball they’re gonna get a chance to have all of their expenses associated with their education picked up. Whereas with baseball, you can be a fantastic baseball player and there’s just not enough money to go around.”

Consider that the MEAC, which consists of historically black colleges and universities, has 13 schools participating in basketball, 11 in football and just nine in baseball. Universities close to Coppin in the conference, such as Morgan State in Baltimore and Howard in Washington, don’t have baseball. So, the opportunities for African-Americans to play at traditionally black colleges aren’t as plentiful, either.

Selling opportunity, relationships at Coppin

Every collegiate baseball program has its challenges. So, you’ll get no excuses out of Reed, who grew up in West Baltimore and played collegiate ball at Towson University under former Oriole shortstop and coach Billy Hunter.

Yes, most of the talented players from the Baltimore area go elsewhere to play college baseball. Reed has just two players from Maryland on his roster – neither from Baltimore – and one from Washington D.C.

But high school kids wanting to leave their hometowns for college isn’t exactly a new development. Reed and his recruiting staff have taken advantage of that notion on the flip side.

The 34 players on the Eagles’ roster come from four different countries and 16 different states, including Hawaii, New Mexico and California. There are seven from Florida, and one each from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Roughly half of the roster is African-American, up from about 25 percent when he took over in 2011.

Sure, Coppin doesn’t have a baseball field on campus. It has to go to Druid Hill Park if the team wants to take full, outdoor batting practice and it plays its games at Joe Cannon Stadium in Anne Arundel County, about a 20-mile jaunt from Coppin.

But, Reed reasons, there are plenty of universities that don’t have baseball stadiums on campus. And Coppin now boasts a $136 million Physical Education Complex, built in 2009, that includes indoor batting cages and a turf field that the baseball team uses for defensive instruction.

If Coppin is fighting an uphill battle, part of it is its own history. According to baseball-reference.com, the university has never had a player selected in the MLB draft. The most famous ballplayer associated with the Eagles is the now-deceased former Orioles’ great Paul Blair, who was the head coach at Coppin from 1998 to 2002.

Under Reed, the Eagles have made the MEAC tournament three times in the past four seasons, but have yet to finish over .500 in the conference or in the regular season. They won just three games in 2015 and were 1-51 in 2012, Reed’s second year as head coach. That, in a way, was by design.

Reed brought in a strong freshman class – choosing not to recruit junior college that players that season – and had those young players form a bond on the field. The next year, the Eagles won 18 games, the largest, winning-percentage turnaround in the nation.

He believes the MEAC, as a conference, is getting stronger and is developing more talent. And members of his program are getting more looks to play after college, whether it’s in winter leagues or independent baseball.

Like Orioles manager Buck Showalter with minor-league free agents, Reed, who has a MBA from Johns Hopkins and a background in marketing, has chosen to sell opportunity to his recruits. Basically, “You’ll get playing time and be part of a tight-knit program if you come to Coppin.” Kids have bought into that sales pitch.

“There are some better opportunities here for me to get some exposure,” said Arnold, the starting center fielder who transferred to Coppin after two years at Northern Kentucky. “I know for a lot of guys, it’s a comfort thing and Coach Reed makes you feel like you belong here. Let’s say you went to a friend’s house and their mom is very inviting and you feel like, ‘Hey, maybe I should be here. … I really belong here.’ That’s kind of how I felt about playing for Coach Reed. He has that belief in me that I can play to my ability.”

Arnold almost gave up baseball in 2016. He injured his shoulder diving back to first base on a pickoff play in the fifth game of last season. He had to have season-ending surgery and, he said, “after that, mentally I was so checked out.” He failed a course, delaying his graduation timetable. He considered not returning. But he prayed about it, and said he couldn’t let himself, his teammates or Reed down.

“Coach Reed has never given up, so it wouldn’t have been fair for me to say I wasn’t coming back,” said Arnold, who will graduate from Coppin in May. “To me, loyalty is huge. If I was able to come back and play, it was only fair that I did, and I’d give him my best shot.”

A one-of-a-kind tournament in Washington this weekend

Major League Baseball has attempted to boost interest in the sport by creating and maintaining more than 200 Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) programs worldwide. More than 260,000 boys and girls ages 13-18 participate in the programs annually and another 160,000 children ages 5 to 12 are served annually by a Junior RBI program.

All 30 major league clubs have supported RBI initiatives, and the league and the teams have designated more than $30 million in resources to increase baseball opportunities for underserved youth. The program has worked with other non-profits, including the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, to build fields and facilities throughout the country.

Reed thinks it’s a great development, but he’d like to see more regulation, 90-foot diamonds built in the Baltimore area. It’s his belief that there just aren’t enough quality places for teens to play baseball once they graduate from smaller diamonds. And that, he said, is a contributing factor for local kids switching from baseball to other pursuits. If they don’t have the proper facilities available, they are more likely to concentrate on another sport.

Reed would love for the Orioles and Major League Baseball to come together and build a youth academy in Baltimore the way the Nationals and MLB worked together to create the Washington Nationals Youth Academy at Ely Place SE, in D.C.

This weekend, Reed and his team will get a chance to play four games at the academy as part of the Headfirst Honor Roll Camps Collegiate Challenge from Friday to Sunday against Harvard and Lafayette.

The tournament was created by the DC Grays Baseball Club, a non-profit group whose mission is to support and promote inner-city and African-American baseball in the Nation’s Capital. The organization runs the Grays, who play in the Cal Ripken Summer Collegiate Baseball League, but it was looking for additional programming to feature at the facility.

Chris Spera, vice president of baseball operations for the Grays, devised the idea to host a free college tournament featuring Division 1 teams at the site. Both Division 1 programs with campuses in Washington – Georgetown University and George Washington University – play their home contests outside of the district.

So, this weekend’s games will be the only ones this year featuring Division 1 schools in Washington D.C. (For more information on tournament specifics, including times, click here.)

Spera began putting together the tournament about two years ago. At that time, Spera’s son was playing at Lafayette in the Patriot League for head coach Joe Kinney. Spera also was friends with Bill Decker, who had just taken over the head coaching job at Harvard in the Ivy League.

With his experience being around college baseball, Spera knew coaches in the northeast were often looking for early-season games in more southern locales – and given the academy’s quick-drying, synthetic field surface which can limit rainouts — Spera thought Harvard and Lafayette would be intrigued by the invitation. The third piece was bringing in an historically black college to play – that concept dovetailed with the DC Grays’ mission.

Coppin was a perfect fit. It wasn’t far from the district, there would be very few additional expenses for the university to incur — the non-profit is picking up field, umpire and equipment fees — and the Grays have had Eagles’ players on their summer rosters in the past.

“Coppin just made a lot of sense,” Spera said. “Given what the DC Grays do, we thought it was important to have (an historically black college/university) as part of this event.”

The academy is located across from a housing complex in the District’s Ward 8, which, according to the 2010 U.S Census, is made up of 93.5 percent African-Americans. This weekend’s tournament will be another opportunity for residents of that area to see quality baseball for free – and watch baseball played, in part, by African-American college students. That’s not lost on the Eagles’ players.

“This tournament gives kids who might not be able to go to major league games a chance to see competitive baseball,” Barrett said. “I know them seeing African-Americans on the field kind of gives them an ‘Aha moment,’ like, ‘Whoa, there are African-American players playing Division 1 baseball right down the road from me.’ And it’s not costing them an arm and a leg to go see the Orioles or see the Nationals play. So hopefully people do come out and watch and have kids come and see that it is possible.”

As Coppin’s head coach, the bottom line of Reed’s job is to get as many wins each year for his program. But coaching any sport is always more than just wins and losses. So as much as Reed would like to get the Eagles their first ‘W’ of the season, he views this as a big-picture moment.

When asked if this weekend would be a success, regardless of final scores, if one inner-city youth discovers that Coppin exists or is inspired to stay with baseball because playing in college appears to be a tangible goal, Reed didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely,” the coach said. “Absolutely.”

 

BaltimoreBaseball.com’s Top Performers of the Week

(Compiled by Harrison Swartz)

A.J. Gallo, OF, Towson University

Redshirt Sr./Woodmere, NY/Lawrence HS

A.J. Gallo and Towson went out west to play Cal State Northridge and open up the season last weekend. The Tigers took three of four and, in the process, Gallo tore it up at the plate. He recorded a team-high six hits and seven runs, crossing the plate at least once in all four games. His best performance was in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader when he went 2-for-4 at the plate with a double, a home run and two RBIs. After one weekend, Gallo has three multi-run games and two multi-hit games.

Tommy Mee, OF, Johns Hopkins University

Sr./Ellicott City, MD/Wilde Lake HS

Johns Hopkins opened the season last weekend by splitting a doubleheader with No. 9 St. John Fisher Saturday and then earning a 6-0 win over SUNY New Paltz on Sunday. A big reason why they won those two games was senior captain, Tommy Mee. The 6-foot, 180-pound outfielder hit two home runs in those three games, including one in his first at-bat of the year. He finished with a total of five hits in 11 plate appearances, crossing the plate twice and driving in three runs. Through three games, he leads the Jays in hits, homers, RBIs and slugging percentage (1.091).

Noah Song, RHP, U.S. Naval Academy

Soph./Claremont, CA/Claremont HS

Noah Song, a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American a season ago, pitched like one Friday night in the Freedom Classic against Air Force. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound righty struck out a career high 13 batters, shattering his previous career high of 7. He threw seven dominant innings, allowing just five hits. Only one Air Force runner reached third base against Song, who was named the Patriot League Pitcher of the Week. His teammates, junior outfielder Stephen Born (Player of the Week) and freshman third baseman Jacob Williamson (Rookie of the Week), helped Navy sweep Patriot League weekly honors.

Matchup to watch this weekend

The Baltimore Invitational, which begins Saturday, features a trio of Maryland teams and some of the top Division 3 talent in the country. The tournament is hosted by both Johns Hopkins and Stevenson, but there have been several changes made to the original schedule due to projected cold weather in  the area.

Johns Hopkins will no longer face Frostburg State, but instead will host a doubleheader against the top-ranked teams in the country, No. 1 Cortland State and No. 2 Keystone, beginning at 11 a.m. on Sunday. As for Stevenson, its game against Frostburg State has been moved to Monday at 2:30 p.m. at Sugar Field.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. LarryBS

    March 3, 2017 at 7:59 am

    Very good article on Coppin, thank you. Interesting info on the RBI Programs, had not heard about them.

    • Dan Connolly

      March 3, 2017 at 9:39 am

      Thanks for reading, Larry

  2. GSISDANNO

    March 6, 2017 at 10:35 am

    Hi

  3. GSISDANNO

    March 6, 2017 at 10:38 am

    Great college baseball coverage. Keep up the good work. Dan

    • Dan Connolly

      March 6, 2017 at 1:15 pm

      Thanks. Glad you are enjoying it. Really hope we can build on the early momentum. I feel like there’s definitely some interest in it — and not lots of coverage.

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