In the past two decades, the UNC Asheville baseball team has only won three Big South conference games in a row one time. Now, in a season shrouded by a pandemic, the 2021 Bulldogs beat Campbell, Radford and Presbyterian in consecutive series, adding another note to an historic season.
Coming into this three week homestand, the team was struggling to stay in the playoff hunt after getting swept by High Point, losing the series to Charleston Southern and dropping a close midweek game to USC Upstate. Now, their fortunes appear to have been reversed by beating some of the consistently skilled teams in the Big South through gutsy performances from veteran players and a new scrappy, fierce attitude.
“I feel like we’re hitting our stride right now. We’re playing good team baseball, pitching it pretty well, swinging it well. It’s just been three solid weekends at team baseball for us,” said junior starting pitcher Jacob Edwards.
The streak began against possibly the toughest opponent of the season, the Campbell Camels, who were chosen in a preseason Big South coaches poll to win the regular season title. The series started with a Saturday doubleheader, a newly common occurrence in a pandemic season. Also, the series was delayed a day due to COVID-19 issues within the Campbell team, leading to all of the Camel catchers to remain home due to positive tests.
The first game was marked by a dominant pitching performance from the freshman lefthander Justin Honeycutt. After the starter Brett Johnson gave up four runs in two innings, Honeycutt entered the game in relief and locked down the Campbell bats. The freshman threw five innings, allowing only one run and striking out 10 batters, earning him the Big South honor of reliever of the week. Senior reliever Ethan Tressler came in the ninth inning to finish the game, earning the save as the Bulldogs won 8-6.
After being dominated at the plate in the first game and failing to stop a five run comeback, Campbell got revenge in the second game of the double header, wiping the floor with the Bulldogs, 17-4.
The rubber match on Sunday saw the most intense game of the series, won from another collection of gritty performances from Asheville seniors. Fifth year senior Kole Harris got his first start of his career and did not disappoint. Harris, who traditionally worked as the closer in his previous seasons, threw four scoreless innings including a clutch bases loaded strikeout in the third inning. Senior Trey Jernigan came in relief for three innings only allowing two runs off the bat of one of the Big South’s best hitters, Campbell’s Spencer Packard. Tressler came in for his second save in two days and retired the Camels in order for the series win.
“I think this weekend, we’re gonna take two from Campbell for sure,” said freshman infielder Ty Kaufman, laying out a bold prediction before the series. “But once we get the offense working, and the defense clicks and I think we’re gonna be interesting to watch.”
With a chance to continue their success against Campbell, the Bulldogs faced the Radford Highlanders next weekend. Winning the series against Radford would be the first back to back series wins since 2016.
The series started with a Friday double header, with Radford taking the first game 11-6. The freshman pitching tandem of Johnson and Honeycutt proved less effective against Radford, as both gave up three runs in the first two innings. The early deficit was too much to overcome for the Asheville hitters and the Bulldog bullpen was unable to stop the bleeding.
The beauty of the double header came on full display, giving the Bulldogs to even the series on the same day, an opportunity they eagerly took advantage of.
Edwards, after having a rough start to the season, pitched his best game yet. The junior left hander pitched six innings with two hits and two runs. Edwards had pitched well in relief appearances in the previous two midweek games, which he said gave him a confidence boost coming into this game.
“I was kind of trying to shorten the game. I’ve thrown twice in relief this year and both times I’ve thrown really well but starting I’ve struggled,” Edwards said. “And in that Radford game my mentality kind of switched. I’m trying to throw one inning at a time. Trying to throw one inning six or seven times instead of thinking about trying to throw six or seven innings.”
In the sixth inning, a play at the plate led to confrontation between Edwards and the opposing catcher, Straton Podaras. Radford loaded the bases in the sixth, with Podaras being the go-ahead runner on third. A weak ground ball hit to UNCA first baseman Dominic Freeberger was thrown home to prevent the run from scoring, causing a collision between Asheville catcher P.J. Heintz and Podaras. Sliding into home, Podaras clipped Heintz’s achilles with his cleat, an action that Edwards felt was intentional, who quickly ran to confront Podaras.
“It’s a dirty slide. He tried to try to take P.J. out,” Edwards said. “These guys are my teammates and I’m around these guys every day. They’re almost like family and I see someone do something wrong to a guy on the team, I’m gonna stick up for him. I’ll be the first one in there and be the last one to get out.”
The encounter cleared the benches and was quickly dispersed by the coaches and umpires but a message was sent to both dugouts: this game just became personal.
It ended in dramatic fashion, as Radford tied the game 5-5 in the top of the ninth inning. The last chance Asheville had before extra innings was their power hitting third baseman Brandon Lankford.
“I was just thinking to get on base whenever I was walking to the plate,” Lankford said. “I wanted to see some pitches, not be too aggressive and just sit in one spot. And then whenever I saw some pitches and got to 3-1 count, I was just sitting on anything in the middle/inner half of the plate and I got my pitch and took advantage of it.”
The fifth year senior belted a walk-off homer, winning the game and setting the tone for the next last game of the series as he took an aggressive bat flip toward the Radford bench as his teammates surrounded home plate.
During the homestand, Lankford’s bat had been on fire, slashing a .416 batting average with two home runs and 10 RBI’s including going four for five in the second game against Radford. With his game winning home run against Presbyterian, he moved to 40 career home runs, two away from tying the all-time UNCA home run record.
“It’s exciting to win games, but a lot of it is probably due to our pitchers competing every game and keeping it close for the hitters to be able to score some runs and take the lead,” Lankford said. “I think all around as a team, we’ve been playing a lot better together the past few weeks. Everyone just seems to be coming together and just playing for the same purpose.”
The Bulldogs finished off the series against Radford with another dominating start by Kole Harris, this time going six innings with only one run allowed. The UNCA pitching overwhelmed Radford and UNCA won 5-2.
The final series of the streak against Presbyterian played out much like the previous two series, with one game being a difficult loss, redeemed by finishing out two close games.
The first game proved difficult for the UNCA hitters, who despite getting eight hits only scored one run. They lost the first game 6-1.
The next day with Edwards and Harris starting on the mound, the Bulldogs swept the double header with a flurry of home runs and commanding pitching. The first game, sophomore catcher M.J. Lucas blasted his first and second home runs of his career, and the first multiple home run game of the year for an Asheville player. With the game tied 5-5 in the eighth inning, Lankford came up to the plate and came up in the clutch again, hitting a three run lazer home run to put the Bulldogs on top 8-5.
In the first game, senior reliever Trey Jernigan had a career day, pitching 5.1 innings allowing only one run. Jernigan has quietly made himself a force to be reckoned with out of the bullpen, with this performance coming after a stretch of quality outings against Campbell and Radford.
The final game of the series proved to be a back-and-forth affair, with the Bulldogs coming out on top in the end after Honeycutt and Lucas RBI singles put the Bulldogs ahead in the seventh. Dominic Freeberger, UNCA’s multitool player, collected the save in his second pitching appearance of the day, after playing first base and hitting second in the batting order.
After the series, UNC Asheville moved to a 8-14 record with 6-5 record when playing at home. A winning streak like this has not been seen at UNCA since 2001 when Liberty, Elon and Coastal Carolina were in the Big South Conference.