by Staff Writer
by Cliff Mehrtens
Summer leagues are college baseball’s version of rust prevention.
The Lake Norman Copperheads, with a roster of 28 players hailing from the Carolinas to Massachusetts to Arizona, is a first-place team in the Southern Collegiate Baseball League. It is one of many nationwide circuits that help players maintain their skills without the pressure of a college season.
“It’s laid back, definitely,” said Lake Norman pitcher D.J. Jauss, who’s from East Carolina University. “It’s hot, so it’s easy to break a sweat. And it’s wood bats, which pitchers like.”
Despite the relaxed atmosphere, and absence of aluminum bats that benefit hitters, the intensity ratchets when the games begin.
Lake Norman is 13-11 and led the SCBL’s East Division by 1½ games heading into a July 6 home contest at Hopewell High.
The goal is to improve between college seasons. Copperheads coach Derek Shoe routinely communicates with college coaches about how their players are doing. He balances that with the goal of winning.
“The goal is to work on anything that didn’t work for you during the school year,” said pitcher Kasceim Graham of New York’s Albany University. “It’s not so much to play for stats, even though you’d like to do well. It’s more to work on your upcoming season when you get back to college.”
Still, many of the Copperheads’ statistics are among the league’s best.
Leadoff hitter Nolan Gaige (Albany) leads the SCBL in batting average (.443), runs batted in (16), runs (18), hits (31) and triples (four). Michael Green (UNC Charlotte) is hitting .364, Brett Armour has a .321 batting average and is second in the league with 15 RBIs, and Brendan Doolan (Rhode Island) is hitting .327 with 10 RBIs. David Lee (Bethune-Cookman) has 13 RBIs, and his team-leading three home runs all came in the same game.
The Copperheads lead the league in hitting (.289) and runs (130). They’re second in ERA (3.58).
Lake Norman plays its home games at Hopewell High School.
“The obvious goal is for the guys to get extra at-bats and innings and go back (to college) better,” Shoe said. “Sure, we want to win games, but we want to make sure they’re all a little better than when they got here.”
The league plays doubleheaders on weekends and two games during the week, which often gives the players three off days weekly. Some work at camps and clinics. About half the Coperheads live with host families during the 42-game regular season, which runs through July.
Graham said his hosts, Jill and Craig Mondo, “treat me like I was one of their own.”
Jauss lives with Scott and Kim Crosbie and their children ages 7, 10 and 12.
“They’ve been like little siblings to me,” said Jauss, a Roxbury, Mass., native. “A lot of fun.”
Graham and Jauss said they don’t like the 85-pitch limit that pitchers have in a game, but they understand it’s meant to prevent overuse. It’s forced Shoe, and all teams, to develop pitching depth.
Nine different Copperheads have a victory on the mound. Some are pitching in roles they likely didn’t have at college. And they’re all soaking in a new league (only two players are back from last year’s squad).
“It’s fun because you get to meet new people, experience new things and expand your horizons,” said Graham, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native. “It’s nice to hang out with different people and learn new things.”
Last season, the Copperheads won the league championship.
“It’s laid back and we try to maintain that atmosphere, but once they get between the lines, it’s all business,” said Shoe, who is in his fifth season as coach.
Copperheads general manager Jeff Carter, who founded the team eight years ago, said the squad has been successful because of integrity.
“The type of kid we bring in, well, they’re good people first,” he said. “Obviously, they’re good college players. Derek (Shoe) has done a good job blending them together.
“It works on an organizational level because we put a lot into it. We have volunteers cooking, we have host families, etc. The players see that effort and don’t want to fall short. And our (Copperheads) youth program has players who are batboys, or some are in host families. Our players want to be good role models.”
The SCBL has North Carolina teams in Asheville, Pineville, Morganton and Statesville, and South Carolina teams in Clemson, Spartanburg and Fort Mill.
The bus rides aren’t too demanding, and with plenty of off days, the players aren’t overworked.
“The most satisfying part is seeing kids succeed, go back to their college teams and contribute because of the confidence they’ve developed here,” Carter said. “It’s a different dynamic than college for a lot of them. Some might not be leaders on college teams, which often rely on seniors. They change to that role here during the summer.
“There’s not as much pressure on them. But they didn’t get to be Division I or II college players without that competitive streak.”
Shoe said the Copperheads are settling into their roles a month into the season. It’s not an easy transition for them, or him. He hasn’t seen most of the players until they arrive.
Most of the Copperheads might know only a player or two on opposing teams, so it’s a learning experience for most everyone in the league. But the goal is the same fine line for all – win games and improve your skills.
“We’ve gotten better crowds every year,” Shoe said. “Last year when we were playing in the championship series, we had huge crowds and it was great. The guys loved it, and the fans were getting into it. It was fun for everybody.
“I hope that’s carried over some. Hopefully as we get toward the end of the season, everybody will get that playoff fever again.”