A year ago, there was little to indicate that Norfolk State’s Denathan Dukes could contend for a MEAC batting crown. But as the cliché goes: What a difference a year makes.
Dukes, a sophomore, heads into the weekend leading the conference with a .408 batting average. It’s a far cry from his freshman year when he hit just .056 in limited action.
When Dukes arrived on campus last year, coach Claudell Clark knew what kind of a player he was getting. Dukes was first-team all-district and all-region as well as all-state honorable mention as a senior at Osbourn Park (Va.) High School.
From a physical standpoint, it was as though he had been built rather than born. A sleek 6-foot-2, 180 pounds with speed and a strong arm, he was a natural in the outfield.
There was just one catch.
Norfolk State’s outfield was manned by an experienced group of seniors, so Dukes was relegated to the role of understudy. He appeared in 16 games, getting only 18 at-bats and one hit.
“He was a tremendous athlete coming out of high school,” said Clark. “Once we saw him and got him on campus, we definitely knew we had something. The growth process was slowed somewhat. We had a senior outfield and a senior team last year. The opportunities for growth and development were just not there as much as we wanted.”
As 2015 arrived, spots in the Spartans’ outfield were up for grabs. Dukes showed improvement, but when NSU took the field for its season opener against North Carolina Central, he was not in the starting lineup.
He didn’t even play.
Dukes’ first appearance came in the fifth game of the season as a pinch hitter. He drew a walk.
For the sixth game, he was penciled into the starting lineup and delivered a 2-for-5 performance and scored a run.
He hasn’t been out of the lineup since.
In addition to leading the MEAC in batting, Dukes ranks second in slugging (.535), second in on-base percentage (.465) and third in runs (25). He also has played a key role in the Spartans turning their season around.
NSU, ranked No. 4 in the most recent blackcollegenines.com Division I poll, is one of the hottest HBCU teams in the nation, putting together a nine-game winning streak to boost its record to 15-10. In that stretch, Dukes is hitting nearly .500 (16 for 33) with 15 runs and five RBIs from his leadoff spot.
“(Last year) was tough for me, but I adjusted,” said Dukes, who also was a standout quarterback in high school. “I kind of learned from it. It helped me grow and become a better player and break out this year.
“I learned to always keep working hard regardless of whether things are good or bad. Whenever your opportunity comes, you’ve got to make the most of it.”
Dukes admitted he did consider playing football in college. After talking it over with his parents and coaches, he decided baseball was the best fit.
It appears as though he made the right choice, and Clark believes Dukes is just beginning to scratch the surface.
Clark said Dukes is capable of hitting for more power and can learn to hit to all fields more regularly. Dukes also continues to grow in his knowledge of situational baseball and how opposing pitchers try to work him.
“They (coaches) preach going opposite field and using the whole field,” said Dukes. “When I came in as a freshman, I was kind of just pulling the ball and pulling the ball. Then I started letting the ball get deep and working it up the middle and opposite field, and that’s helped me get more hits and get on base more often.”
Defensively, his height and speed allow him to cover a lot of ground, and his arm strength is an added plus. In one recent game, Clark said, Dukes gunned a ball from his left field spot to throw out a runner who strayed too far off first base.
“He just fits the outfield, fits the mold that colleges and even one day, if he continues to progress, what pro teams are looking for in terms of outfielders,” said Clark.
Dukes said playing professionally is one of his ultimate goals. But he’s got something more immediate in mind: He wants to help Norfolk State baseball make history by winning its first MEAC title.
Entering the weekend, the Spartans lead the MEAC North Division with a 12-3 mark and appear to have a realistic shot at the championship.
Dukes said the thought of winning the MEAC batting crown isn’t on his mind. He’s more concerned with what he can do to improve and, in turn, help the Spartans improve.
“Baseball is a team game,” he said. “I’m more focused on bringing something special to this school rather than individual accolades.
“I’m still working hard trying to find ways to get better. There’s always room for improvement. But it’s mostly just staying within myself and not trying to do too much and just keep playing the way I’m playing and helping my team out and motivating everybody on my team to play their best when it really matters.”