CCAC-Boyce baseball tries to overcome challenges
Bill Holmes has been coaching baseball for 22 seasons at the Community College of Allegheny County's Boyce campus, so he's well aware of the challenges the program faces every year.
It starts with finding players that fit the school academically, then keeping them eligible. Boyce doesn't offer athletic scholarships.
Holmes often has to work with a limited roster. The school couldn't field a team for the spring season a year ago because there weren't enough players.
“We had nine kids, but not all of them were going to be able to commit to playing in all the games,” Holmes said.
This spring has presented its own set of obstacles. A wet winter and late spring have made for poor field conditions.
“The field is firming up now. It doesn't hold rain real well this time of year because it's soft,” Holmes said. “Fall is a better season to play. The fields dry up better because they're dry from the summer. Water runs off them instead of sinking in.”
As a result, the Boyce Saints have played only four games this season.
“We got rained out twice this week,” Holmes said. “We've been rained out of about 13 or 14 games already.”
The Saints managed to get in a doubleheader at home last weekend against Butler County Community College. Butler swept both games, winning by scores of 11-7 and 6-5.
A schedule jammed with makeup games will make the next few weeks a grind for Holmes and his players.
“We only have two weeks left, so we may end up playing 12 games,” Holmes said.
“The last day you can play is April 27. Then you get into the conference playoffs and the regional tournament and things like that.”
Complicating matters even more for Holmes is his small roster. Boyce has only 11 players, and just five of them can pitch.
“It's tough,” Holmes said. “The only good thing you can say about it is that they're almost all assured of playing.”
Four local players are on the Saints' roster this spring. Three are Plum graduates — catcher/pitcher Greg Spynda and outfielders Tyler Mitlo and Nick Daley — and the other is Gateway alum Connor Olson, who Holmes says can play anywhere but catcher. All four are first-year players in the Boyce program.
Spynda played for Holmes on Plum's American Legion club. Holmes was head coach for Plum's Legion team for 30 years until stepping down in 2013.
“Spynda has been working hard. He's gotten a lot stronger since his high school days,” Holmes said. “He's throwing harder than he did when he played Legion ball.”
Holmes likes Olson's versatility.
“He was a starter at Gateway last year, and he's played different positions,” Holmes said. “He also played for the Legion team up there.”
Mitlo and Daley are still developing roles in the Boyce outfield.
“Nick looks like he's going to be a decent outfielder,” Holmes said. “But this is my first encounter with those guys, and we really haven't been tested enough to know what they're going to be like.”
Holmes has won 157 games at Boyce since taking over as head coach in 1996, and much of his success has come with local players. Holmes and assistant coach Alex Mellon can frequently be seen in the bleachers at high school games not far from the Boyce campus.
They concentrate their recruiting efforts mostly on players from Allegheny County. Boyce students who live outside Allegheny County are forced to pay a higher tuition fee.
“I try to watch a lot of the Gateway, Plum, Penn Hills, Riverview and Woodland Hills games. These are the local kids,” Holmes said. “We go to high school games and try to find out what kids are interested in going to community college.
“The main goal is to get kids who have actually played some baseball. You get a lot of kids who say, ‘I want to play ball,' and you ask them if they ever played before, and they say pickup leagues and things like that, so they don't know much about the game.”
Once a player chooses to come to the school, eligibility becomes a concern. Athletes must be full-time students to participate in school sports.
“A full-time student according to the NCAA is 12 credits, and then they have to have the grade point average to go along with it,” Holmes said.
“Some of the kids I had back in the fall weren't eligible in the spring. When you play in the fall, you have to pass 12 credits with at least a 2.0 (grade point average), and some of our young fellows didn't do that.
“Sometimes you get into a situation with young people where they don't want to take an ‘F' on their grade, so when it gets to a certain date they have the option of dropping the class so that they get an incomplete instead of the ‘F.' If that takes them below the 12 credits, then they're not eligible either. We keep hoping for the best every year.”
The baseball program at Boyce got started in 1971. It is one of six intercollegiate sports offered at the school, which has an enrollment of about 14,000 and is located on Beatty Road in Monroeville.
Boyce, a Division III school, is in the National Junior College Athletic Association. The team plays both a spring and fall season.
The Saints have seen their schedule shrink in recent years because some Pittsburgh-area community colleges have been unable to field baseball teams. Penn State's local branch campuses formed their own league.
In years past, players who attended one of the county's community colleges were permitted to play baseball for another CCAC school if their school didn't offer the sport.
“Now, because of the rules changes that have come about in recent years, if you want to play baseball at Boyce, you have to go to Boyce,” Holmes said. “It wasn't like that probably five years ago.”
Despite all the challenges, Holmes does his best to field a competitive team while also meeting the needs — academically and athletically — of his players. Boyce can be starting place for the most talented players to land a spot with a bigger program.
“If they have the talent, they can move on to a four-year school,” he said.
The direction of the Saints' 2014 season will largely be determined over the next few weeks. On the horizon are regional and district playoffs, with the ultimate goal being the national championships next month in Texas.
“You can make the county, and if you get lucky you can make a regional,” Holmes said. “If you win the regional, you're going to Texas for the World Series.”
The District D, Region 20 tournament is May 9-11 at Wolfpack Park in Youngwood, Pa.
The winner will join seven other district champions at the 2014 NJCAA Division III Baseball World Series May 24-29 in Tyler, Texas.
Dave Schrecengost is a freelance writer.