When the Coker College baseball team took the field for its fall workouts a few months ago, coach Dave Schmotzer noticed something.
It wasn’t just another round of fall practice. The players remaining from the Cobras’ trip to the 2013 NCAA Division II National Finals looked as though they had a mission to accomplish.
“I know it has nothing to do with what happens when we start the season in February. We all know that,” Schmotzer said. “But we had three scrimmages, and for those three weekends, playing those games, we picked right up where we left off. I don’t know how that’s going to be, but I know we’ve got enough wisdom and experience from this team that wants to try to see if we can make another run at it again.
“And I’m not talking about winning another regional, but competing your best every day you’re out there and trying to see where it goes.”
Last May, a remarkable run through the Conference Carolina tournament and the subsequent Southeast Regional took the Cobras to Cary, N.C., and the D-II National Finals, an accomplishment that lands the Coker baseball team at the head of the list of the Morning News’ top sports stories for 2013.
It was, indeed, the most surprising story of the year in the Pee Dee.
The Cobras, for several years, had been just a run-of-the-mill program in the conference. In a preseason poll of Conference Carolinas coaches, they were picked to finish eighth in the league.
But Coker caught fire at the right time.
After getting swept at conference foe and perennial D-II power Mount Olive in a three-game series in March, Coker won seven consecutive games and went 20-3 through the end of the regional, where they never trailed and won four consecutive games to advance to Cary. It didn’t go well in Cary, though, where Coker bowed out in two games, losing handily to Tampa and Grand Canyon.
Still, the Cobras had, and still have, plenty to be proud of and look back upon.
What impressed Schmotzer the most, he said, was the process of how his group of players became the true definition of a team. They went into the season with several question marks but finished it with plenty of answers.
“It’s still an astonishment,” Schomtzer said. “And we’re still trying. The kids that are back from that chapter, they want to breed it, not milk it. That was a special thing, man. The spirituality that came out of that, it brought the school together like I had never seen before. It was pretty neat.”
Two players, especially, had a huge impact on Coker’s success. First baseman Fico Kondla, who is back for his senior season, hit a team-best .418 with 50 RBI, garnering all-conference and all-region honors after the season.
Closer Zach Loraine, now in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, had 15 saves and five victories.
Will the Cobras be able to recapture the magic this season? That’s the question. Coker has moved to the South Atlantic Conference, so it no longer has to deal regularly with Mount Olive, but there’s always Catawba, no stranger itself to going deep into the postseason and making the national finals.
But no matter what, Schmotzer and his program has something to build on when it comes to recruiting and developing.
“It’s another example of, if you don’t cut corners, and you don’t give up, and you don’t give in, and you have emotional intelligence, and you keep on working at it, there is a reward,” Schmotzer said. “You don’t know when it’s coming. It may not happen this year, may not happen next year, but it will happen.
“It just reinforces what can happen when you have a mindset of working hard at a goal. It was just a very special season in that manner.”
Coming Sunday: Politics in review