Recruiting local talent to the EMU Royals baseball team is one of coach Ben Spotts’ priorities. From left: Martin Clark (Broadway High School), Logan Phelps (Spotswood), Ryan Hedrick (Turner Ashby); Ryan Henschel (Stonewall Jackson), Julian Bussells and Ryan Tierney (Warren County), Aaron Cook (Luray), Tristan Childress (Waynesboro), Kyle Armstrong (Riverheads), and pitching coach Kevin Chandler (Harrisonburg). (Photo by Emma King)

Safe at home: Royals baseball coach Ben Spotts makes local recruiting a key contributor to success

Eastern Mennonite University head baseball coach Ben Spotts has a simple recruiting philosophy: Do not lose local athletes to other Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) schools. That’s a tough goal, considering the proximity of three recruiting rivals in the Valley: Shenandoah University, ranked 11th in Division III; Bridgewater College; and Division I James Madison University, currently carrying six local players on its roster.

But EMU’s growing success, including a recent upset of Bridgewater’s highly touted team, suggests that Spotts’ recruiting philosophy—and his mission for the Royals program –is helping the Royals compete at a higher level.

Of the 42 players on the Royals roster, 12 are from the Shenandoah Valley.

The wealth of local talent has deep roots: a love of baseball has often been passed down through the generations of Valley families. And there’s the rich local history of the game: The Valley Baseball League, which dates to 1897, and the Rockingham County Baseball League, dating to 1925, have offered both playing and spectating opportunities for decades (until becoming a collegiate league in 1961, the Valley League was open to any player).

Valley baseball players

“There’s not much else to do in the Valley but play ball,” jokes Martin Clark, a sophomore pitcher who graduated from Broadway High School.

Others from Rockingham County (and listed by their respective high schools) are freshman pitcher Logan Phelps, Spotswood, and sophomore catcher Ryan Hedrick, Turner Ashby.

From the northern Valley region come senior pitcher Ryan Henschel, Stonewall Jackson; freshman outfielder Julian Bussells and junior pitcher Ryan Tierney, Warren County; and sophomore catcher Aaron Cook, Luray.

The southern Valley is represented by freshman pitcher Tristan Childress, Waynesboro, and senior outfielder and pitcher Kyle Armstrong, Riverheads.

This group of mostly underclass local talent symbolizes Spotts’ recruiting strategy—and it’s one factor contributing to a significant turn-around in the program’s history.

When Spotts first started in 2013, the games were sparsely attended. Now on game days, cars line College Avenue, the small hillside behind the home dugouts is crowded with fans and their lawn chairs and blankets (and usually a few dogs, too), and the concession trailer does good business.

More and more wins

In 2011 and 2012, EMU managed only 11 wins. Most ODAC schools would look at their schedules before the season started and etch a “W” next to EMU’s name. In 2013, after Spotts arrived, EMU jumped to 15 wins. Last year, the Royals finished the season with a 20-19 record, notching their first winning record since 2002 (that year, the team was led by Erik Kratz, currently a catcher for the Kansas City Royals). It was also just the third 20-win season in program history.

According to Spotts, who came to EMU after spending 14 seasons at Bridgewater College, the ODAC has improved in competition, commitment level and facilities in the past five to seven years. He speculated that the ODAC could be one of the top three Division III conferences in the country. In a recent poll, two teams in the 14-team conference, including Randolph-Macon at seventh, are ranked in top 20 (Bridgewater was ranked 19th until dropping out during the March 24 polling).

Ryan McAlister ’14 saw the struggling program turn around under Spotts’ guidance. He arrived at EMU in 2011 from nearby Turner Ashby High School and one of the state’s most consistently competitive baseball programs (TA teams have earned six AA state titles and several graduates have gone on to professional careers in Major League Baseball).

“Going from a very competitive school in high school, to my first year here – winning 11 games and losing 28 – it was a lot different than being on a winning program,” said McAlister, who currently coaches the junior varsity team at his alma mater.

Planned, disciplined practices

Then Spotts took over. McAlister, along with the other players, took a liking to their new coach. Practices felt productive, and team chemistry began to feel cohesive.

Under Spotts’ coaching, McAlister earned All-State and All-ODAC honors. In his final season, McAlister batted .365 and held a .447 on-base percentage. He tied for the team-high in runs scored with 35, and led the team in stolen bases with 13.

Spotts is “thorough and disciplined, and he’s got a plan,” says Dave McAlister, who hardly missed one of his son’s home games. “He’s organized. He’s a good fit for EMU, and EMU’s a good fit for him.”

Of his son’s progress on and off the field, McAlister says EMU was an excellent choice: “At EMU, Ryan picked up what we might call maturity things.”

Tristan Childress, a freshman pitcher, has entered the legacy that McAlister left behind. He was also recruited by Bridgewater, but Spotts proved to be a deciding factor, Childress said, adding that he found the energy Spotts brings to the field “convincing.” Perhaps more importantly, Childress said the senior leadership were just as positive about the program and the upcoming season.

Recruiting coachable, motivated students

When recruiting players, Spotts says he looks for coachable and motivated student-athletes “who want to be a part of the campus community and are committed to being a part of the academic and athletic community at EMU.”

“These players are committed to making our baseball program on of the top in the ODAC,” he said, “and they understand the hard work and year round commitment that is involved in competing in a college baseball program.  I continually talk about our team and each player leaving their mark on our program in a positive way.”

In the previous two seasons, seven players have earned All-ODAC Academic Awards and one player, Jonathan Estrada, was named to the ODAC/StellarOne Sportsmanship Team.

As for future recruits, Spotts says he’s always on the lookout for local talent. A common misconception among prospective students, he says, is that EMU is only open to those of the Mennonite faith.

Like the game of baseball, EMU is “open to all faiths,” he says. “Come visit. You may not come here if you do visit, but you’ll think hard about it.”