When Hickory native John Markley joined the Winston-Salem State University’s baseball team in 2010, all bets were off.
“That first year was crazy – we almost didn’t have a team at all,” said Markley, referencing the fact that the school had to scramble to field a team in time to rejoin the CIAA conference. “But we were like a family – we kind of got to know each other off the bat.”
Over the course of that first season, Markley and his teammates fought for a position in the conference, battling a public perception that the young team didn’t have what it took to be successful while pulling off 30 wins.
“We started bonding and we started winning – people didn’t expect us to,” recalled Markley, who graduated last year. “It was probably the most fun baseball team I’ve ever been a part of.”
The team, the first WSSU baseball team in nearly 40 years, claimed the 2011 CIAA Championship and repeated that feat in 2012 and 2013 championships.
Marley and 18 other former Rams played in the school’s first Alumni Baseball Game on Sunday at BB&T Ballpark. Head Coach Kevin Ritsche conceived the game, which pitted alumni against current players – as a means of connecting his players to the team’s recent but storied past. Ritsche, a two-time CIAA Coach of the Year, said he invited players who represented WSSU prior to the program’s end in 1973, but received no takers, leaving the Alumni Game in the hands of recent graduates.
“The guys care about the program and want it to be successful, which in my mind is one of the most important aspects of having a program,” the College of St. Scholastica (Minnesota) alumnus said prior to the start of the game on Sunday. “…I know the alumni are going to be rusty, but they’ve got a lot of talent and I think they’ll give us a good run for the money.”
Fifth-year senior Paco Martin said he was proud to suit up for the Alumni team.
“This means a lot to me because I was here for two years. I helped to build up the program a little bit. I feel like I contributed to the growth of the program overall,” said Martin, a shortstop and native of the Dominican Republic. “I haven’t talked to those guys since we last played, so it’s kind of like a family reunion.”
Martin, the son of former Major Leaguer Norberto Martin, came to WSSU to play ball, and said the team has gotten better with time.
“I came here solely to play baseball, and it’s been amazing,” related the 22-year-old. “I feel like the team has grown a lot. We’ve gotten a lot more diversity, more talent of players, from that first year that we played.”
Seattle, Wash. native Aaron Hatch transferred to WSSU this year. The physical education major said he was drawn to the school because of the team’s reputation.
“It’s a winning tradition – good coaches, good program, great school,” said Hatch, a junior third baseman and pitcher. “…You build a family – I consider these guys my brothers – and it’s just a great experience.”
Hatch said he was eager to hit the field against the team’s former heavyweights.
“I’m excited,” he declared. “I just want to get out and play and enjoy today.”
In the end, current players bested the veterans, with a final score of 15-9. The game, part of the 2013 WSSU Baseball Alumni Day, was followed by a banquet.