Central District Alumni Find Home at VSU
By JACOB VAUGHAN, Sports Editor
Feb 22, 2013, 16:11
ETTRICK – Virginia State University baseball coach Merrill Morgan believes he knows the recipe for success, and it calls for mostly local ingredients.
A Dinwiddie native, the veteran coach has made a habit of recruiting the talent-laden Central District. Of the 22 players listed on the Trojans’ active roster, 12 plied their trade in the high school league that stretches from Dinwiddie County to northern Chesterfield.
Josh Markins (photos courtesy of VSU Athletics).
Those players have received 149 of the Trojans’ 174 at-bats through six games this season.
“It’s very feasible for us to recruit this area, as far as the budget goes and things of that nature,” Morgan said. “And there’s a lot of talent in the area, so we don’t have to go out of state as much to get very good players.”
Graduates from five of the district’s eight schools have migrated to the Division II university on the outskirts of Petersburg. Among the Trojans are five former Dinwiddie High School standouts, three from Colonial Heights, two from Meadowbrook and one from Thomas Dale and Matoaca.
Though they used to vie against one another for district supremacy, many played together on travel teams before reuniting at the collegiate level.
“It’s not really weird,” said former Colonial Heights slugger Joshua Markins, who leads VSU with a .435 batting average. “I actually feel right at home. I’ve been with most of these guys all my life.”
Markins’ comfort level is starting to show at the plate.
He hit for the cycle in VSU’s season opener against Clark Atlanta on Feb. 9. The infielder ripped a single in his first at-bat followed by a double, home run and triple, respectively.
“It’s a good feeling,” Markins said of the accomplishment. “It means you’re seeing the ball well and hitting it to all parts of the park.”
Markins, a sophomore who bats second for the Trojans, is part of a star-studded class of up-and-coming contributors that spurred VSU to a 24-19 record and a third-place finish in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association last season.
Markins’ fellow sophomores include Nick Christopher and William Tapp from Dinwiddie, Matoaca graduate Tyler Coleman and Meadowbrook’s David Johnson. Christopher regularly leads off for the Trojans, Coleman bats third and Tapp sixth.
Morgan said the second-year players have shown signs of maturation so far this season.
“You can see it in their at-bats now,” Morgan said. “They’ll take a few more pitches. They were a little eager to just swing at anything as freshmen, but now they’re thinking a little more.”
The Trojans have slipped to 3-3 after winning their first three games. Morgan said he is using the early-season non-conference outings to evaluate the team’s six freshmen, four of whom played locally in high school.
Of that group, Morgan identified Colton Gunn as particularly promising. The former Dinwiddie pitcher preserved a no-hitter through four innings of his second start before surrendering four hits in the fifth.
“We think he’s going to be very special,” Morgan said.
Freshmen Brandon Schilke (Colonial Heights) and Corey Grant (Dinwiddie) have also made appearances for the Trojans. Morgan said the program’s budding reputation as a landing place for Tri-Cities talent has produced “a domino effect” of prospects opting to join their high school teammates in Ettrick.
“Once one player comes and likes the program, they tell their buddies,” he said. The blend of proximity and familiarity has swayed several players to choose VSU over larger schools, according to Morgan.
“I’ve definitely gotten a few steals,” Morgan said. “I’m not sure if [the area] is under recruited because most of these guys have been recruited by bigger schools. They just decided they wanted to stay close to home.”
Christopher said the resulting combination of former foes and teammates has made playing college baseball “better than I could ever have imagined.” The 2011 Central District Player of the Year likened the team’s close-knit nature to a brotherhood.
Still, high school allegiances live on – at least in a light-hearted capacity.
Christopher and his Dinwiddie teammates won district titles in 2010 and 2011, narrowly beating out Matoaca squads led by Coleman.
“We won it my junior and senior year,” Christopher said. “So I have bragging rights on him, and I always bring that up.”