Curtain Closes on NC Central Baseball at Durham Athletic Park
DURHAM, N.C. - There were plenty of endings on Saturday after North Carolina Central’s 6-1 win over Florida A&M at Durham Athletic Park.
On the micro level, it wraps up a regular season that saw the Eagles win their first-ever division title in the MEAC. It also wrapped up the regular-season careers of a whole host of NCCU senior players, plus record-setting righthander Austin Vernon, a surefire MLB draft pick this summer.
In the big picture, though, it was the closing of the curtain for NCCU games at its downtown home, Durham Athletic Park.
That obviously made Saturday’s game a bit of an emotional affair for everyone, but perhaps especially coach Jim Koerner, who took over ahead of the 2012 season as the program was transitioning into the MEAC, even if it didn’t quite hit him until it was over and he was asked to speak to the players, alumni and fans in attendance after the game.
“I was good up until they said, ‘here’s the mic, address the crowd,’” Koerner said. “I wasn’t ready for that. I thought I was going to be able to go back to the locker room, get changed and then I know we had the (postgame) cookout, (and) I was planning on saying something for the cookout. I wasn’t planning on doing it right on the field right then and my administrator gives me the mic and I’m like ‘OK, alright, let’s see what I can do here.’ It kind of caught me off-guard and then as soon as I was starting to formulate some ideas in my head I was like ‘man, I’ve got 15 alumni down the line, I’ve got these guys here, I’ve got my mom and dad here.’ Then it really hit me.”
Saturday was also the end of an era for Koerner, as he’s, at least for now, leaving the college game to become USA Baseball’s Director of Player Development.
That job will keep him in the area, as USA Baseball is based in nearby Cary, N.C., and it’s a soft landing spot after the jarring news that came in the preseason that his time at NCCU was going to end prematurely.
But it’s still certainly not a position Koerner thought he would be in, and it’s undoubtedly a difficult thing to do to have to let go of the hopes and dreams he had for building the NCCU baseball program when that’s been his sole focus since taking over what was then basically a ground-up building project.
“For anybody that’s ever started a program, and I feel like, for all intents and purposes, I started this program, the amount of effort it takes to build the culture, to build the history, to get people to buy in to what you’re doing, it’s enormous,” Koerner said.
Asked about his favorite memories of coaching his teams at The DAP, Koerner says there are just too many because his teams are comfortable there to the point that he’s had multiple ACC coaches tell him that they won’t bring their teams to play NC Central in Durham because the Eagles are too tough to beat in their home park.
He does, however, have a couple of memories that stand out. There was the time in 2018 when NCCU opened the season with a series win over Navy, even beating Noah Song in the first game of the series.
There was also the time it upset Campbell in a midweek game in 2013, a season that ended with the Camels going 49-10.
“I remember telling my strength coach (before the game), he goes ‘what do you think about today?,’” Koerner recalls. “I was like ‘well, I think we’re bringing a knife to a gun fight.’ That was my exact quote. We had a 78-82 (mph) righty throwing and he went out there and he dealt for five innings and we beat them. And my strength coach, on the field after the game, he’s giving me a stabbing motion and telling me ‘keep stabbing them, coach, keep stabbing them.’”
The painful irony of this being NC Central’s last season in college baseball is that it has the best team it has ever had.
Its 17-11 record in MEAC play is the best in program history, its 25-18 overall record is the best overall record by winning percentage in program history, it secured the aforementioned first-ever division title this season and in Vernon and righthander Ryan Miller, it has two legitimate professional prospects leading the rotation. This is also just the second time since the MEAC went to a six-team conference tournament format in 2015 that the Eagles have qualified for the event.
“No question, winning percentage-wise, 17-11 in conference, 25-18 overall, without a doubt this team is definitely the most successful,” Koerner said.
That’s also part of why the scenes at Durham Athletic Park on Saturday were as much celebratory as they were melancholy. Sure, Saturday’s game was the end of an era, cutting off the progress for a program that was showing plenty of it, but the team is playing really well right now and they’re itching to prove themselves on the national stage by winning the MEAC Tournament next week and earning the program’s first regional bid.
“If playing your best baseball at the end is any indication of how ready we are, then I think we’re as ready as we can be,” Koerner said. “If we’re not ready, I don’t know who is.”
Even in the rosiest scenario for NC Central from this point forward, there just aren’t that many games left, but at the same time, there’s plenty of reason for optimism that the good part is just getting going.