The sweet sound of a baseball ringing off the bat is a sure sign spring has finally arrived for Niner Nation – along with widespread expectations for the Charlotte 49ers to be in the hunt for another championship run in 2011.
After capturing a share of its third regular season title in the past four years in 2010, Charlotte was selected as the heavy preseason favorite to win the 2011 Atlantic 10 baseball title by the league's head coaches.
As the 49ers prepared to host a two-game series on March 8-9 against Tennessee Tech at Robert and Mariam Hayes Stadium, Charlotte was already 9-2 on the season, and 9-1 at home. The 49ers have won 20 or more home games in six straight seasons.
Based on the 49ers’ record so far this season, those projections are right on the mark.
The Charlotte Knights will host the Charlotte 49ers men's baseball team in an exhibition game on April 5 at Knights Stadium. Both teams will use wooden bats and play under professional baseball rules.
"What a great opportunity for UNC Charlotte and our baseball program," said Charlotte head coach Loren Hibbs.
The game will be the first exhibition game the Knights have ever played against a collegiate program. A portion of ticket proceeds will benefit the Charlotte 49ers baseball program.
Coach Hibbs returns 21 players from last year’s championship squad, including six position starters and 11 pitchers. An added bonus is the return of redshirt senior relief pitcher Bryan Hamilton, who garnered Preseason All-America honors.
– Coach Loren Hibbs
"We like having the bulls-eye," said Hibbs, who is entering his 19th season at the helm of the program. "We've become accustomed to it. It's something we talk about with the players. It's nice to be respected by the others in the league and around the country, but we have to prove it on the field and take care of business."
The 49ers put together a 39-17 record in 2010, including tying school records with 29 home wins and 17 consecutive home wins. Since 2006, Charlotte has the eighth-best winning percentage in the NCAA Division I ranks, winning 69.6 percent of its games with a record of 199-87.
Hamilton, who battled back last season after missing most of 2009 with an injury, put together a 4-0 record last season with a pair of saves and a 2.01 earned-run average. In parts of four seasons, he has a 16-3 career record with a 3.13 ERA.
Charlotte has captured 96 conference victories in the five years of league membership, 10 more than the next highest team total in that span.
The 49ers have six players returning who hit better than .300 last season, led by senior second baseman Corey Shaylor, who was a First-Team All-Atlantic 10 performer and paced the team at the plate (.388). The entire outfield will return this season, led by Justin Wilson (.358 BA, 20 SB) and Cory Tilton (.318 BA, 27 SB).
Last year, Charlotte set a single-season attendance record, averaging 999 fans per contest. For the second consecutive year, season tickets in the lower level of Robert and Mariam Hayes Stadium have sold out.