Charlotte baseball takes to Tom and Lib Phillips Field at Robert and Mariam Hayes Stadium beginning Friday as team practice officially starts for the 2011 season. The 49ers won 20 games in Atlantic 10 Conference play, which included the 2010 league title, the program's third in five years of A-10 affiliation. Earlier this month, the league's head coaches put Charlotte first on 10 of the 13 ballots cast to install the Niners as the preseason favorite to repeat.
"We like having the bulls-eye," said Charlotte head coach Loren Hibbs, entering his 19th season at the helm of the program. "We've become accustomed to it. It's something we talk about with the players. It's nice to be respected by the others in the league and around the country, but we have to prove it on the field and take care of business."
Charlotte has captured 96 conference victories in the five years of league membership, 10 more than the next highest team total in that span.
The 49ers have six regular position players returning who hit better than .300 last season, led by senior second baseman Corey Shaylor, who was a First-Team All-Atlantic 10 performer and paced the team at the plate (.388). The entire outfield will return this season, combining for 62 stolen bases between the three of them.
On the mound, Charlotte returns all three weekend starters from a year ago, with a combined 16-8 season record. The 49ers also add a pair of weekend starters from 2009, both returning from injury. Those five pitchers, along with a number of talented young players, will be among the pool that produces the starting rotation this season. The combined record of the remainder of the returning pitching staff is 13- 5. Five other players logged at least one start in 2010, giving Charlotte experienced options on the hill in 2011. Senior Bryan Hamilton will continue to work on the back end, with a combined 16-3 record and nine saves in his previous seasons in Charlotte green and white. He was named a preseason All-American by both the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and College Baseball Lineup. It is no coincidence that all three of Charlotte's A-10 regular season titles have come in seasons in which Hamilton was healthy and pitched the entire year.
"Our process doesn't really change each year as we start practice," said Hibbs. "This part of the season is all about building our foundation from strength and conditioning to fielding our positions to hitting and pitching. But we can't win anything in January. We understand what we have to do this time of year and we haven't tweaked our formula much as the years have gone by."
Charlotte hosts 27 of its first 32 games this season, hoping to use the home field to generate early wins in 2011. Charlotte also hosts the second and third-place teams from a year ago (and overall in the previous five seasons) in the first two conference weekends, with Rhode Island visiting the Queen City for the final weekend of March and Xavier coming to town to start the month of April. The 49ers will then play four of the next six conference weekends on the road. The Niners also drew the league open weekend in the final week of the season, choosing to fill that series with a trip to Dallas to face the nation's top independent program, Dallas Baptist, before the A-10 Tournament in Camden, N.J. in late May.
"We've always recruited junior colleges in the Midwest," said Hibbs. "That's why we put Missouri (in Charlotte February 25-27) and Dallas Baptist on the schedule so we can be in those areas. We've also got some additions on the schedule that will help the RPI. And we're always trying to give our fans a chance to see good teams and watch us play 30-35 games at home."
And so far, the fans have responded. Last year, Charlotte set a single-season attendance record, averaging 999 fans per contest. To date, Charlotte has already sold more season tickets than last year's record, with three weeks to go until the home opener to start the season. Just a few seats remain in the lower level, with some upper level season tickets starting to go. Ticket plans start at $49 per seat, giving fans a chance to lock in the Missouri series, along with home games against North Carolina, Wake Forest and other quality baseball teams playing in Charlotte.
"Our ticket sales and marketing have been outstanding," added Hibbs. "We have a nice stadium and a good atmosphere and people have been coming out and watching us. It helps in recruiting and hosting other outside events and in our player development."
The most notable change to the atmosphere at the ballpark this season will be the sound of the bat. It was been widely publicized that the NCAA has changed the rules on bat composition, moving to a composite material that more closely mimics a wooden bat than in years past. The sound is less metallic, something that fans and players alike, will have to get used to. This new bat has taken away some of the power from the game, and should put more emphasis on defense and the running game, forcing team to manufacture more runs rather that sit back and crush home runs out of the park on a regular basis.
"We're going to have to move around and try to speed the game up our opponents," said Hibbs. "A lot of programs will have to feel their way through how the new bats are going to change the game. Pitchers and catchers controlling the run game and your own ability to run and steal bases the right way will be important to winning games when the season starts. Our philosophy doesn't really change. We have a lot more guys that run and put the ball in play consistently. We have worked more on controlling the run game and we also think there will be more bunting so we will continue to work on fielding our position."
That formula has served Charlotte well in the recent past. Time will tell if that success will continue into 2011.
Charlotte opens up at home with Coppin State, starting Friday, February 18 at 4 p.m.