Winston-Salem State, in an effort to increase scholarship dollars for its revenue sports, has decided to drop its baseball program.
The school made the announcement Friday afternoon.
Coach Kevin Ritsche, who has run the program for the past nine seasons, learned of the decision in an afternoon meeting with interim athletics director George Knox. In a later meeting with about half of the players present because of spring break, Knox told them about disbanding the program after this season.
Knox said a big reason for dropping baseball is that the CIAA no longer sponsors the sport.
“This was a university decision,” Knox said. “This was a tough decision to make when you have to tell student-athletes their fate.”
Knox said the budget for the baseball team is about $350,000 and that would be used to help other sports.
Knox said all of the players on scholarships will keep them until they graduate from WSSU.
“If a freshman is on scholarship and he decides to stay the next three years and graduate, he’ll keep that scholarship,” he said.
The baseball program, which is in its second season as an independent, is 14-7 this season. The team will play the rest of the season and will try to receive an at-large bid for the Division II regional playoffs. Competing as an independent in 2018, WSSU went 30-20 and did not make the regional playoffs.
Ritsche, along with hitting coach Rob Woodall, started the program from scratch in 2010 after the Rams rejoined the CIAA after flirting with going to Division I. In seven seasons in the CIAA, the Rams won six conference championships, one of the best stretches in conference history.
Heading into this weekend’s games, Ritsche, a six-time CIAA coach of the year, has compiled an overall record of 297-160.
Because WSSU doesn’t have a baseball field, it has rented BB&T Ballpark from the Winston-Salem Dash and the city since the program was brought back.
That has come at a hefty price. This year, the school rented the park for $42,000 to play 23 games, which includes practice time, according to Ritsche. WSSU’s final game at BB&T Ballpark will be played April 23 against Catawba.
The Rams have played and practiced there every season, something Ritsche said was a big advantage in luring some of the top players from our area.
Despite the news about the program being disbanded, Ritsche says he’s committed to this year’s team.
“My goals don’t change for the kids, and I’m just going to spend the rest of the season making sure that I give them all the support that they need and help them as much as I can.” he said. “It’s tough to build a program that has changed the image of WSSU athletics in such a positive manner for nine years only to see it disappear.
“I feel sorry for the kids and tried to convince administration to wait five weeks and let the seniors enjoy their last season and a chance to compete in the playoffs. I feel it was taken away prematurely and I’m sorry for that.”
The program has around five scholarships that is spread around to its 26 players, with most of those players coming from the Triad. Of the 26 players on the roster 14 are from the area.
One local player is center fielder E.P. Reese, who played baseball at North Davidson High and is a transfer from N.C. State and Liberty. Reese’s father, Ed, heard about the news and was blindsided.
“He loves it there and he loves the coaches and everything about the program and the school,” Ed Reese said. “It’s a shame this is happening. E.P. made the Dean’s List first semester and was doing well so this will hit him hard.”
Ed said the hope for his son is to have a good season so he could possibly get drafted by a team in major leagues.
“He’ll be playing baseball again next season somewhere, but it won’t be at Winston-Salem State now that this announcement has been made,” Ed said. “This really sucks for all those guys on the team.”
Before the baseball program was resurrected in 2010, it had been dormant for 32 years.
One reason WSSU reinstated baseball was to get back in the CIAA soon after deciding not to continue its trek to Division I and the MEAC. As part of the CIAA bylaws a school joining the league at that time had to offer baseball.
One highlight for the program took place in June when Randy Norris, a star outfielder, was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 19th round. Norris was a three-year starter from High Point who is at sprint training with the Giants in Scottsdale, Ariz.
This is the first time WSSU has cut a sport since 2012 when it dropped the men’s golf program. Knox, however, said the men’s golf program will be reinstated next spring.
“We are adding men’s golf, and that’s a sport we haven’t had here in awhile,” Knox said.