(Photo of former Athletic, Landon Powell, courtesy of the Wiki Creative Commons)
When Coach Landon Powell got hired at North Greenville University four years ago, their record was 8-38. Last season, the Crusaders finished second in their conference, were ranked in the Division II top 25, and finished with a record of 38-15. Coach Powell has led his team to great success after playing pro ball for the Athletics, Astros, and Mets. His success in building his program in the past few years is mirrored by many other teams in the division such as Barton College, Belmont Abbey College, and Erskine College. Coupled with perennial top contender the University of Mount Olive, these teams have brought success to DII Conference Carolinas.
Conference Carolinas is in the DII southeast region along with the South Atlantic Conference (SAC) and the Peach Belt conference. When Coach Powell transitioned from playing to coaching, Conference Carolinas was easily the weakest of the three. Now, the Peach Belt is still the strongest, but Conference Carolinas isn’t lagging behind SAC any longer, with Coach Powell seeing improvements in every team every year.
“Conference Carolinas has made a huge argument to be considered every bit as good as the SAC and chasing the peach belt,” said Coach Powell. The southeast region of DII baseball, comprising of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida is one of the strongest, and Conference Carolinas plays a part in that success. One reason is the weather; teams can practice outside year-round. The other is the proximity to ACC and SEC Division I schools.
Most of the players at North Greenville transferred from a Division I school. For example, Tucker Burgess, Canaan Cropper, and Blake Hamilton, three of North Greenville’s returning pitchers transferred from Clemson, South Carolina, and Georgia respectively. Along with the pitching squad, transfers John Jones from South Carolina and Utah Jones (no relation) from UNC Chapel Hill will make up the starts of the team that once played in DI, but switched to DII for various reasons.
“There’s all kinds of things that happen that allow kids to decide to do something different,” said Coach Powell. “We have been a landing spot for a lot of those kids since I got here.” One reason DII has appeal is that players can begin playing the day they transfer. Players can go from sitting out to being in the lineup and getting experience instantly.
Coach Powell believes that the fact that he played professional baseball within the decade, as did his assistant coach John Coutlangus, is another factor that encourages players to give North Greenville a chance.
“There’s not a lot of former major league players coaching in DII so that gives us an advantage when it comes to developing these kids and helping them get there,” said Coach Powell. “You’re gonna get your advice from someone whose been there done that.” These factors combined with an increasingly more competitive conference make North Greenville a place where future stars can develop.
One of these potential stars is Connor Grant. Grant is a junior right fielder, hits in the 3-hole, and was ranked by College Baseball Daily as the 95th best baseball player in the country. Last season, Grant hit .338 for the Crusaders accumulating 40 RBIs along with stealing 17 bases.
Coach Powell hopes that his program will benefit players who want to improve their status and get drafted as well as those who simply want to play baseball in college and end their time there. This is why he took on the task of improving an 8-38 team.
“Our mentality was to build something from the ground up that has lasting power that these kids can be proud of that could make a difference in their lives,” said Coach Powell.
As far as his hopes for the season, he knows his team is looking at a competitive conference and a competitive region. What he hopes most is that they will put in the work needed to be competitive as well.
“I tell my guys to compete every pitch try to win every pitch,” said Coach Powell. “If you win that pitch maybe you’ll win that out. If you win that out maybe you’ll win that inning. If you win that inning maybe you’ll win that game. Keep competing, and one day you’ll look up and realize you’re in first place. You can’t forecast ahead or look in the rearview mirror you have to look at what’s in front of you every second.”