After his freshman baseball season at Voorhees, Roberto Face considered whether to stay or transfer. On the surface, the decision seemed like an easy one: The program had been struggling for years, and the Tigers were coming off a 3-31 season that they finished with 12 players on the roster.
Rather than shy away from a challenge, Face decided to stay at Voorhees and try to be part of the solution to the program’s woes.
As it turns out, he made the right choice.
Before Face’s sophomore season, Voorhees hired Justin Thomas, a former relief pitcher at Division II Slippery Rock, as coach. Thomas came in determined to change the baseball culture and the fortunes of the program.
Thomas made an immediate impact, guiding the Tigers to 10 wins in 2015, then 14 last season. The Tigers reached a milestone in their recently concluded 2017 season: 20 wins and a .500 record.
As near as anyone at the Denmark, S.C., school can figure, Thomas said, the team hadn’t won that many games in about 15 years.
“It was more of a team mindset, more of a winning mentality,” Face said. “My freshman year, we were just there playing baseball and worrying about our personal stats.
“(This year) we were more together as a team. We weren’t just going through the motions.”
When Thomas first took over, he had a hard time getting everyone to show up for offseason weightlifting, and doing work outside of practice was practically a foreign concept to the players. But slowly, his philosophy took hold, and by the end of that first season, the players had bought in.
Now, Thomas said, it is not uncommon for him to see players in the cages between classes, early in the morning or in the evening.
“I’m proud of every last one of these guys who put on a jersey,” Thomas said, “not just this year but all three years I’ve been here. To see them grow as young men and as baseball players … it makes me feel good that I’m not steering them in the wrong direction.
“Not only are you doing things on the field, you have to do things off the field. It takes a lot of hard work without being seen.”
With his background, Thomas, obviously, is a pitching guy – “I haven’t picked up a bat since high school.” – but the Tigers were robust offensively. Shortstop Garrett Mack, a redshirt freshman, entered the final weekend of the season leading the NAIA in hitting (.549).
Freshman third baseman Darrius England was hitting .524. Redshirt freshman catcher Stephen Perez was hitting .435. Face was at .346, and super-utility player Joshua Jordan was hitting .313.
That’s not to suggest the Tigers couldn’t pitch a little. They carried a respectable 4.44 ERA – third among Association of Independet schools — into their final weekend. (Voorhees split four games with Trinity Baptist to close the season.)
The one area in which the Tigers struggled was defense. Fielding miscues, Thomas said, kept the pitching numbers from being better.
“When you’re a pitcher and there’s a lot of errors behind you, you feel like you have to do it all yourself,” Thomas said. “In games where our defense was more solid, our pitchers were better.”
When the Tigers put it all together, they achieved some program-building wins. They split a four-game series with Division II Kentucky State and also took a pair from Clark Atlanta, another Division II school.
Between late March and mid-April, Voorhees strung together 11 wins and was ranked in the Black College Nines Small School Top 10 for two weeks.
There remains work to do. Voorhees is still a ways off from competing with NAIA heavyweights like Edward Waters. Still, the program is light years from where it was just three seasons ago, and the bar will be raised again for 2018.
“I believe the expectation has been set,” Thomas said. “Each year I’ve been here, we’ve progressed not only in wins but in roster size and academically. Each person who comes here next year … we know we can’t do anything worse than .500. We can’t go back.
“It goes without saying that when we come back next year, we want to finish over .500 and make our conference tournament.”
Face will graduate and won’t be around to see it. But he said he is glad he stuck around to get the program pointed in the right direction.
“It feels absolutely great,” he said. “I believe I was successful because we got this 20-win season, even though we would like to get more.
“I believe with Coach Thomas they’re going to keep improving and keep the same mindset. We were only like a few innings away … just a few things that, mentally, we need to get right in order for us to get more wins. We were right on the cusp of being a 25-win team. They can do that in the future.”
Chuck Curti is a contributing writer for Black College Nines. He is a sports copy editor and writer for the Tribune-Review in Pittsburgh, Pa.