'Helpless feeling': NCCU baseball players react to sudden elimination of program

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Since March, when the pandemic began, the North Carolina Central department of athletics has tried to manage the budgetary impact of COVID-19 by cutting costs by 30%. But Thursday, the school announced that wasn't enough and after this spring, NC Central will be eliminating its baseball program.

Players said this was a pitch they didn't see coming.

"We get this message from coach saying practice has been postponed for today; we have this meeting at 3 in the gym," said sophomore outfielder Nick Fajardo.

Fajardo said he and his teammates were worried the meeting was going to be about canceling the season because of COVID-19, just like last season. To his surprise, it wasn't just the season the school canceled - it was the program.

"We were all just sitting there in shock," he said. "I think many of us are still in shock now. It kind of just adds on to what's been a really rough 10 or 11 months. It's just a lot and I feel for all the guys and all the coaches and all the people that have come before us that have put all their effort into making the program what it is today."

Out of the 64 Division 1 baseball teams, 18 of those are Historically Black Colleges and Universities. NC Central is the fifth HBCU baseball program eliminated in the past four years.

"It's really important not to lose these great communities and these great programs that mean just as much as any other program, that work just as hard, that put just as much time and effort in," Fajardo said. "It's extremely disappointing to be losing something so historic and so important kind of for nothing done to save it."

The move didn't sit well with former star player Andrew Vernon either.

"I think it's so quick and cutthroat to just be like, we're going to cut it, this is it," Vernon said. "Sound the alarms, give people an opportunity to donate. I think you'd be surprised who would come out and really support and help the school."

The Eagles have had six players sign contracts with Major League Baseball programs since 2015, including Vernon, who became the first MLB draft pick from NCCU when he was selected in the 28th round by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2016.

"It's something that has grown from the ground up since we were there," Vernon said. "We were part of the first recruiting class that was there for (coach Jim) Koerner. It was something that we really help build. It's grown so much over the years and it was definitely something that's not expected."

Fajardo said the suddenness of the decision leaves players with a "helpless feeling."

"We kind of feel that as a school we haven't been supported enough, the baseball program hasn't, in terms of fundraisers being done, awareness being done," Fajardo said. "This was kind of dropped on us out of nowhere with us having very little to do with it. We feel like if we had known early, maybe we could've done something about it or spread awareness about it and gotten help, but because it was just dropped on us, it seems like we couldn't do anything about it, and it's kind of that helpless feeling that really aches at you."

Still, Fajardo said that as a group, this motivates the team even more for its final season this spring to prove to people that Eagles baseball does matter and that the university is making a mistake.

The university will honor all existing and new scholarships for baseball student-athletes who wish to continue studying at NCCU for the 2021-22 academic year. For student-athletes that consider transferring, under NCAA transfer rules, student-athletes are immediately eligible for competition when their institution discontinues the sport in which they practiced or competed.
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