Less than two percent of high school athletes ever play Division One sports in college, one of the highest levels of athletics besides professional sports leagues. With intense competition drives the need for the best players, and opportunities for players to shine where they couldn’t before.
After 2019 season, the UNC Asheville Baseball team lost numerous players to transfer and graduation, depleting the team of many experienced and significant role players. As the new season approaches, the coaches have recruited six Junior College transfers along with a new class of freshmen to bolster their roster.
The choice to recruit Junior College players is a change of strategy for the coaching staff under Head Coach Scott Friedholm. In their sixth season at UNCA, Friedholm and Assistant Coach and Recruiting Coordinator Chris Bresnahan have been reluctant to add JUCO players to the roster until this season.
“We wanted to when we first got here to make the culture and the team ours,” said Bresnahan, “And freshmen are easier to do that with, they’re more impressionable, they’re not as stuck in their ways as junior college guys. So it was easier to kind of mold, guys because they’re in your program for longer. We felt like we’ve gone to a point where the culture is close to where we want it. And we felt like we could start going after some junior college guys to get better talent.”
The culture he speaks of is one that focuses on winning above all else, and JUCO players often come from places where there is only one option: win or go home.
“I mean coach said first day there, I don’t want you if you don’t want to go D1 or want to get drafted. You know, this is here for you to come in here, grind, and get out and go to the D1 program. So with that mentality, there were guys that bought into that and actually went for it. And those are the guys that went on and play division one baseball and got drafted,” said Pitcher Chris Banks, speaking about his time at Catawba Valley Community College.
Coming out of highschool, Banks didn’t have many college teams seriously considering him for their roster but he was determined to play at the next level. He learned from one of his former teammates about Catawba Valley. He had found success there and was able to transfer to UNC Greensboro, and after learning this Banks had his opportunity to make it UNCA, where the east Asheville native had always wished to end up.
There are multiple reasons why players choose the Junior College route to make it to the next level. Most of the time it out of necessity, like in the case of Banks who didn’t have many prospects, but used his grit and love of baseball to pursue his dreams. Other times some players may not have the grades, a history of criminal actions or may simply not have the finances to commit to minimal scholarships or walk-on roster spot. Junior Colleges offer a path that allows these players a second chance to prove themselves without financial risk.
Junior College baseball teams are a different beast than a Division I baseball team. The NCAA regulates practice times, grades and roster sizes for Division one teams, constraints that JUCO’s don’t have to strictly abide by. Roster sizes often begin the season huge, sometimes with 60 players, and are whittled down to a manageable size by opening day. Players can practice and lift weights everyday making baseball there number one priority.
JUCO players have a stigma surrounding them because of their journey to Division one, often labeled as “JUCO Bandits”, implying that because of their non-stop focus on baseball in Junior College in lieu of grades and structure, they have forced their way onto a roster instead of being recruited. While this is often said in jest, the players are seen are less intelligent and not able to receive good grades at a 4 year university.
“Usually, you know, when you get a scholarship to division one, it’s pretty easy to ride it out for those four years. But when you’re at a JUCO, a lot of guys don’t even commit to like late spring of their sophomore year. So it’s just, you know, it’s a lot of not knowing what’s gonna happen in the future and you gotta just keep grinding keep grinding and that’s the whole point is just to get better,” said Pitcher Alfedo Silva who transferred from Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California.
Silva’s journey to UNCA has been long and full of constant adjustment. He was originally on the roster at University of St. Mary’s in Leavenworth, Kansas before transferring to Golden West.
“A lot of people were being content with being average there. There really wasn’t a winning culture set in baseball program. And I just felt like I didn’t, I didn’t really like I didn’t like living in such a small town,” said Silva. “It’s definitely not easy. This was my third school. I’m kind of used to the whole bouncing around thing, but every year, it’s hard. You don’t really get your feet you don’t really get acclimated to about spring, right when you’re about to leave, and then you leave. You got to get acclimated again.
Like Silva many JUCO players have gotten used to the uncertainty of their position and the grind of the long baseball season. But sometimes the grind is too much, as the UNCA baseball team has already discovered this year. Junior College transfer catcher Caleb Strader left the team abruptly in the fall, just a few days after the teams first intersquad scrimmage.
“I think it was a personal decision,” said Coach Bresnahan. “He just didn’t want to go through the practice and the lifting in the morning and the class and the study hall. It’s just there’s a lot more demands going from a junior college where you’re kind of just doing whatever you want, sometimes taking online classes not even taking real classes or taking a full academic load. Classes here in Asheville aren’t the easiest classes they take. And then having a structured lifting program and a structured practice, and I think there’s just a lot more than what he can handle.”
Strader has not talked to any coach or player since his sudden departure about the reasoning behind his decision.
Seasons don’t just end when one player leaves and Bresnahan said he has been pleasantly surprised by the character and leadership brought in by the transfer group.
“I think a lot of people are starting to realize like, okay, this is legit, especially because like I saw something one of my former coaches put out that 32 former, JUCO guys played in postseason MLB postseason this year, which I thought was pretty cool,” said transfer shortstop Sebastian Dunn, “I think the more that information gets out there, the more you know prominent they’ll become. JUCO baseball is on the rise for sure. It will change a lot in the next 5-10 years.”
A transfer from Florida State College Jacksonville, Dunn has made it a goal in his time at UNCA to change the culture surrounding junior colleges with determination and winning games so that they are always welcome in Asheville baseball. If those goals are successful, the coaches are sure to keep their new well of talent open for a long time to come.