By Dennis Garcia
The University of North Carolina Greensboro baseball team was expected to have a steller season under first-year head coach Billy Godwin and a big part of that success was going to be the bullpen. Loaded with talent, depth and experience, the Spartans' relief corps was certainly expected to play a huge role in the team's success.
But the pandemic cost the Spartans and all of college baseball most of the season and the relievers were sent home, wondering what could have been.
Two of those relievers, left-hander Jack Voight and right-hander Israel Cordero, won't have to wait for the spring to be teammates once again as they will be important pieces to the Asheboro Copperheads' pitching staff this Coastal Plain League season.
Along with infielder Tom Grose, who prepped at nearby Southwest Guilford High School and who will also be playing for the Copperheads, the UNCG players are anxiously awaiting the start of the new CPL season.
"I expected to be done and now I get another year," said Voight, a 5-11, 160-pounder from Ankeny, Iowa. "I'm looking forward to getting back into a baseball schedule. We had high expectations this year with a lot of older guys coming back. I love the school and am really looking forward to playing close to home this summer."
Voight spent his first two collegiate years as a Woodduck at Century College, going 5-2 with 53 strikeouts in 36.2 innings of work his second season.
In his junior year at UNCG, he closed out the regular season ranked in the top five in four major statistical categories, including appearances (t-2nd-27), relief appearances (t-2nd-27), opposing batting average (3rd-.221) and earned run average (4th-3.97).
This season, he was 1-0 in eight appearances with 10 strikeouts in 11.2 innings pitched.
"You have to be really flexible and be able to flip that switch," Voight said about being a reliever. "You have to be mentally tough. You could have a bad day, but you have to be ready the next time. You could get the call and you have to be ready."
Voight, who spent the past few summers playing in a collegiate summer league in the Midwest, said his goals have switched since arriving at UNCG.
"In the JUCO level, a lot of your goals are individual goals," Voight said. "My goals are now more team oriented. You put a lot more emphasis on team goals."
Voight is working toward a degree in Economics and hopes to remain in baseball as a data analyst.
Cordero comes to UNCG after a year at Barry University and one at St. John's River State. The 6-1, 190-pound right-hander from Cooper City, Fla., made a team-high eight appearances on the mound for the Spartans this shortened season, allowing just one hit over his last 5 ⅓ innings pitched. He fanned two batters in a shutout inning against ranked North Carolina and finished the shortened season with a 2.89 ERA.
"I was really looking forward to playing this year at the Division I level and with the arms we had and the depth we had, we had a good team," said Cordero, who played with the Forest City Owls in 2018, sandwiched between two years in the South Florida Collegiate League. "I am looking forward to this summer."
Cordero has fought back from an injury after he suffered a stress fracture and had surgery in January of 2019. He said he is feeling 100 percent now and is anxious to show what he is capable of.
"I want to get back to my original velocity before the injury," Cordero said of hitting 92 mph in Junior College.
Cordero said he wasn't planning on playing summer baseball, but once the collegiate season was cancelled due to the virus, he said he knew he had to play.
"The CPL is a really talented league, it is stacked from my experience," said Cordero, who was 4-3 with one save and a 4.11 ERA in 2018 with the Owls. "I am way more mature than I was back then and my confidence is much higher. I know what to expect. This isn't my first rodeo."
Copperheads head coach Keith Ritsche said having the UNCG duo will certainly lift his pitching staff to the next level.
"Cordero and Voight were spring signee's shortly after the 2020 season ended," Ritsche said. "Coach Godwin and I spoke on the phone about these two and we knew right away they would solidify our bullpen this season. Voight and Cordero both were 'go-to guys' out of the bullpen and led the Spartans in appearances this spring. This will be incredibly important for us as pitch counts will have to be monitored closely to start the summer and many arms will need to be strategically utilized each night. Both have good control and a mix of pitches that make it difficult for opposing hitters the third and fourth time through their batting lineup. Cordero and Voight combined for 3.2 scoreless innings against UNC-Chapel Hill with four strikeouts earlier this spring, which is a good indication they can hold their own against CPL opponents."
Grose missed his entire senior season at SWGHS after suffering an ACL injury. He was cleared this past December and was looking forward to getting back on the field. That lasted for just a few months when the season was cut short by COVID-19.
"We were going to have a good year," said Grose, a 6-0, 190-pounder who appeared in four games for the Spartans, going 1-for-2 with a run scored. "I hated it for the seniors to have their season taken away. It was a shock."
Unfortunately, not being able to play is something Grose is used to.
"It's been a long time, but I am finally healthy now," he said. "I'm itching to get out there."
Grose said playing for the Copperheads will allow him to stay at home and sleep in his own bed.
Grose added he loves to compete and playing in the CPL will allow him to do just that.
"In high school, you're a big fish in a small pond and not everyone is as serious about baseball as you are," he said. "Now everyone is as good or better than you are and everyone competes and takes it seriously. The drive is there, which I love."
Ritsche said he's excited to have Grose in Asheboro this summer.
"Tom was an addition to the Copperheads roster this past fall at the very beginning of our signing process," Ritsche said. "Head Coach Billy Godwin spoke very highly of him as he was then still recovering from a difficult injury. This spring, Grose was quietly showing signs of being able to compete for playing time and Coach Godwin said that he worked himself into being his team's fifth infielder before the season was cut short. With former Post 45 and Copperhead standout Caleb Webster on the verge of becoming UNCG's all-time hits leader and starter at third base, it was difficult for Tom to get significant playing time as a freshman. That's why we are excited for Tom to play for us this summer, because we know he has the skills to play at this level as well as a high ceiling to progress."
The Copperheads are scheduled to start the new season at home on July 1.