Gaston College baseball headed to junior college world series

Gaston College outfielder Wade Kelly leads the team with a .342 batting average. Courtesy: Gaston College Athletics

Gaston College outfielder Wade Kelly leads the team with a .342 batting average. Courtesy: Gaston College Athletics

Gaston College’s baseball and softball teams are playing in the National Junior College Athletic Association’s College World Series this week, and the Rhinos are being billed as a surprising overnight success.

Overnight success? Sure.

Surprising? Well …

In their first year of eligibility, the Rhinos have reached the national championships in both baseball and softball, a remarkably quick ascent to the top of the junior college athletic world.

But this success is backed by serious investment from the school and the community, and the Rhinos are designed to keep it going for a while.

“I’ve had hundreds of friends call me in the last week and ask me, ‘How did you do it?’ ” said Shohn Doty, who wears two hats — baseball coach and athletics director at the two-year school.

“The short answer is that we have a really, really supportive college,” he said. “And the community has joined in.”

Taking it seriously

In January 2021, college President John Hauser announced that his school would revive athletics after a 50-year hiatus. Doty, 53, with 33 years’ experience in college coaching, much of it at the NCAA Division I level, was hired as baseball coach. He later became athletics director.

Doty has worked at a number of DI schools, including Charlotte. While at Old Dominion, he coached a right-handed pitcher named Justin Verlander, who has won the Cy Young Award three times.

Gaston College also tabbed Michael Steuerwald, another veteran coach, to head the softball program.

In late 2021, Hauser announced that Gaston College would lease Sims Legion Park from the City of Gastonia, and the school followed up by renovating the stadium.

“We put in artificial turf, renovated the locker rooms, and improved the concession areas,” Doty said. “It’s a totally different place.”

The school decided to live-stream all its games.

Doty got the go-ahead to hire two assistant coaches — Jacob Rand (Wingate) and K.J. McAllister (N.C. Central).

Active recruiters

The three coaches used their experience and hit the recruiting trail.

Outfielder Wade Kelly, who leads the team this season with a .342 batting average, is from Massapequa, N.Y.

“That was an example of having a contact in the business,” Doty said. “Someone I knew called me and told me that Wade was looking for a place to play ball.”

The Rhinos made heavy use of the transfer portal and landed a number of talented players from other schools.

Pitcher Kyle McKernan, a Marvin Ridge High product who is 8-1 this season with 76 strikeouts in 58.1 innings, transferred to the Rhinos from Virginia Tech. Sun Valley product Derek Vartanian, who is 9-0 with just seven walks in 73 innings pitched, came in from Guilford Tech. A couple players transferred from the Charlotte 49ers and other Division I programs.

And, Doty said, Gaston College has an advantage that other junior college programs don’t.

“We’re not the typical juco town,” he said. “We have more than a 7/11 here. Our kids can take advantage of being in a large metro area. They can go see the Panthers or Hornets play. That’s an edge.”

Then again, a lot of Gaston College’s players are homegrown. The roster shows 15 players from Mecklenburg, Gaston and Union counties.

“There is a lot of talent in the Charlotte area,” Doty said.

Still, the teams had to win, right?

Making it work

Doty’s squad went 41-9 last season as a first-year program, the Rhinos weren’t eligible for the junior college playoffs.

“Last year, our goal was to win 40 games,” he said. “This year, the number of victories wasn’t the most important thing. It was winning the region and district championships.”

Doty’s team has done it all this season. Gaston College is 49-11 and ranked 12th nationally. The Rhinos was the Region 10 championship, then followed by capturing the Eastern District title.

That required beating powerhouse Darlington Florence Tech twice on the final day of the tournament.

The Rhinos are the first team from Region 10 to reach the College World Series since Pitt Community College did it in 2010.

Doty said he and the coaching staff take pride in shepherding their players through two years of college, focusing on both athletics and academics, and helping them land a home for the rest of their college careers. He said 15 members of this year’s roster will play NCAA Division I baseball next year.

“We’re sending guys to DI programs,” he said. “And prospective student-athletes notice that.”

How far can the Rhinos go in the Division I College World Series, facing teams with more- established programs.

“Who knows?” Doty said. “But we’re going to Colorado to win, and we’re going to enjoy the experience too.”

The Rhinos in Colorado

Gaston College is seeded fifth of the 10 teams in the NJCAA Division I College World Series, to be played at Sam Suplizio Field in Grand Junction, Colorado. The Rhinos will face sixth-seeded Blinn College, from Brenham, Texas, in the first round. Their opening game is set for noon Sunday.

Charlotte-area players on the team:

Hayden Brandon, IF, Charlotte Christian

Landon Carr, P, Cuthbertson

Seth Christmas, C, Hopewell

J.J. DeVos, P, Hickory Ridge

Konni Durschlag, OF/P, Mallard Creek (batting .357)

Preston Hall, IF, Myers Park

Chase Ketner, IF, Cuthbertson

Kyle McKernan, P, Marvin Ridge (8-1, 3.24 ERA, 76 strikeouts in 58 innings pitched)

Adam Quintero, IF, Piedmont

Miller St. John, IF, Marvin Ridge

Trey Truitt, OF, East Mecklenburg (leads team in home runs, with 15, and RBI, with 65)

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle

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