In 2018, the Coppin State baseball team won its first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference North Division championship in 22 years. The Eagles entered this season ready to answer one big question: Could they do it again?
So far, so good. Coppin State’s 15-6 conference record has the team leading the North Division.
“I just think that because Coppin baseball has been down for decades, I think the general feeling may have been that it was a fluke,” manager Sherman Reed said. “And when we looked at how tough those games were for us last year and how hard this team battled, we did really want to prove that last year was not a one-time situation where things may have just gone our way or maybe we played above what our capabilities were.
“So when the players showed up on Sept. 16 for the first day of practice, it was just a different environment. As a coaching staff, I think we were really holding the guys to the fire because we knew that on paper, we were equally good — if not better than — last year.”
The Eagles are proving that they are no one-hit wonder. Their 24 victories are a school record, surpassing the previous record of 21, first set in 2005 and matched last year. Baseball America’s latest projection for the 64-team NCAA tournament includes Coppin State in the Los Angeles regional.
“We know in our own minds that we’re good and that we deserve to be here,” senior pitcher Devin Rivera Ozuna said last week. “But we don’t take that for granted. We implement that and try to show that in every game that we’re here for a reason, not just for that one season.”
This year’s group of seniors became the winningest class in program history with 70 victories so far. The accolades are nice, but the players have higher aspirations.
“I think guys aren’t as worried about that,” senior infielder Erik Crossman said. “We’re more worried about just trying to get a ring because we just want to win regardless. A lot of the guys knew we were good last year. So I think it’s partly because we were trying to prove ourselves, but I also think we have a lot of new guys in big roles, and a lot of them weren’t even part of it. So I think it’s more about just trying to win games in general.”
Last season’s team went 21-23-1 overall and 18-4 in the MEAC, shattering the school’s single-season mark of 13 conference wins. But after earning the top seed in the league’s tournament, Coppin State was bounced in the semifinals by Bethune-Cookman, losing in 10 innings.
Both Rivera Ozuna and Crossman said they still remember the anguish on the faces of the seniors who had played their final college game, and Reed said he hopes those memories continue to drive the players.
“We want the guys to remember how hard it stung when we lost that game because we’re pretty much intact,” Reed said. “We really do want them to remember how the hurt felt so that they will put themselves in position to try to prevent that from occurring a second time.”
The Eagles lead or rank second in the MEAC in most key offensive stats, including runs scored, batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage, with junior first baseman Justin Banks sparking the club. The transfer from Napa Valley College (Calif.) leads the league in batting average (.417), slugging percentage (.625), on-base percentage (.511), RBIs (42) and hits (60) while ranking second in doubles (15) and home runs (five).
“I didn’t anticipate this much success,” Banks said. “It just wanted to help contribute and do my job. I definitely credit all of my success to [hitting] coach [LynDon] Watkins and [assistant hitting] coach [Matt] Blevins. I just follow what they say, and it works.”
On the mound, Coppin State ranks third in ERA (4.78).
Rivera Ozuna is 8-1 with a 2.71 ERA. Senior Jahmon Taylor is 3-4 with a 3.59 ERA and leads the team with 66 strikeouts, while redshirt junior Aaron Rea rounds out the rotation. Fortified by a bullpen headlined by senior long reliever Branden Redfern (2.93 ERA) and junior reliever Corey Treyes (school-record 18 career saves), Reed’s confidence in the team’s starting pitching is high.
“We could all put three of those guys’ names in a hat and pull out a starting pitcher, and they all would be equally able to take the tag as the ace,” he said. “That’s how good those guys are right now.”
One overlooked aspect is the team chemistry. Two starters from last year’s squad — right fielder Caleb Duhay and left fielder Andres Santana — have been replaced by freshman left fielder Matthew Day (.278 batting average, 16 steals) and redshirt junior right fielder Carlos Alviarez (.296, 27 RBIs). And 27 of the 30 players live in several on-campus suites.
“We eat all of our meals together, and we’re spending a lot of time together,” said Crossman, who lives with junior pitcher Anthony Martinez. “I would say that we’re not really teammates. We’re more like brothers. It’s like you’ve got 30 close brothers. So it’s a really good group, and the guys that are off-campus are on campus all the time. So they’re always here.”
Banks, who joined the team in the fall, has quickly adapted to his teammates’ expectations.
“We know our abilities,” he said. “Nobody here thinks that was a fluke. We’re a great team, and there’s so much talent here and so much will to win that we’re just trying to go back-to-back. We really have nothing to prove. I think we’re one of the most talented teams in the nation.”
The Eagles have four more games left in the regular season before the MEAC tournament begins May 15. Rivera Ozuna said this year’s team is the best he has been connected to, but acknowledged that there is room to grow.
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“We’re at the point where we just have to go full-throttle,” he said. “This is where we really have to kick it into the next gear and hit our stride.”