University City

Charlotte 49ers baseball players star for summer wood-bat teams

Collegiate baseball players can draw attention from major-league scouts during thespring season.

But their true auditions for playing at the next level may come in summer, when many play in wood-bat leagues that foster a greater feel for the professional game.

Fourteen Charlotte 49ers are playing in such leagues this summer. Redshirt senior outfielder Des Roberts and sophomore infielder T.J. Nichting made their respective league’s all-star teams, drawing even more attention to their abilities.

“It’s really exciting,” said Roberts, a native of Bellevue, Neb., who played his first season with the 49ers in 2014. “It’s always nice to make an all-star team, whether it’s in the spring or the summer. You want to prove that you can play with guys that are from other schools.”

Collegiate wood-bat summer leagues are spread nationwide. If the minor leagues are a breeding ground for the major leagues, consider the summer wood-bat leagues a preview of the minor leagues.

Summer teams fill rosters by researching players’ talents and contacting their college coaches. Players sign an agreement for a specific team, like a contract, though no money is involved.

Charlotte coach Loren Hibbs says he gets calls from teams starting as soon as their summer seasons are complete. Those phone calls continue through the college spring season, and even after. When players are drafted in June and sign professional contracts, they forfeit their eligibility to play for the summer college teams, opening spots for others.

“We have a good reputation for guys in the program that have played at a high level,” said Hibbs. “It becomes a matter of us trying to figure out the best situations for our guys. We want guys to get repetitions where they can develop. We don’t want guys in situations where they can get hurt, such as with arm issues.”

The leagues are sanctioned and regulated by the NCAA. Teams can sign as many as four players from any college team.

Most teams arrange for players to live with host families so they don’t have to worry about everyday living expenses. Hibbs has fond memories of his host family when he played for the Anchorage (Alaska) Glacier Pilots in summer 1982 while he was a college player at Wichita State.

Roberts, who plays for the Thomasville HiToms of the Coastal Plain League, originally had plans to stay with a host family but decided against it so he could live in Charlotte and work out with the 49ers strength and conditioning staff.

Like many 49ers this spring, Roberts’ production came on strong at the end of the season. Hibbs and his staff tweaked Roberts’ swing a bit, and he finished with a .246 average and 23 RBIs.

Through 23 games, Roberts led the HiToms with a .358 batting average and 18 RBIs. The Coastal Plain League selects its all-stars through fan voting, and Roberts was picked as a starter for the West team.

But days before the July 14 all-star game, Roberts bowed out of action because of an injury to his right shoulder. He’s been diagnosed with an over-used rotator cuff and isn’t allowed to throw for the rest of the summer. Roberts said he is relieved he still can be used as a designated hitter.

“I personally prefer wooden bats to aluminum,” said Roberts. “You get a true feel for the swing. A lot of us college guys want to play professionally, and being able to use wooden bats prepares us for that.”

Nichting was named to the South squad for the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League all-star game. Through 32 games for his hometown Hamilton (Ohio) Joes, Nichting was leading the league with 28 RBIs and was second with a .379 batting average.

As a 49er this year, Nichting was named to the Conference USA all-freshman team. He led Charlotte in at-bats (198), hits (56) and doubles (13)

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