It wasn't a secret that for the better part of two decades, the baseball team at Coppin State University was struggling badly.
When head coach Sherman Reed took over the program in 2011, expectations were extremely modest, and it was not hard to see why. The team had won a total of 18 games the previous four years, including two winless seasons, and just seven games in the conference.
After hitting the recruiting trail hard during his first two seasons, Reed brought new success to the team. The 2013 and 2014 campaigns featured back-to-back double-digit wins, a feat that hadn't been accomplished in several years.
But 2015 brought more losing. The Eagles looked more like the Coppin State of old rather than a team on the rise, winning just three games and losing their final 13.
But Reed could see beyond those results. Coppin was the youngest baseball team in Division I history with seven freshmen starting. And as Reed started recruiting players for the 2016 season, he preached patience to prospective players instead of dwelling on the recent record.
"It was really nerve-wracking, because coming off a three-win season, even if you have kids semi-interested, you have to wonder if they kept up with the record [and] whether or not these guys would stick to their commitment," Reed said.
Four years later, just five of the 16 players Reed brought in ahead of the 2016 season are still with the team, but they have become the most successful group in program history. Those five players are pitchers Jahmon Taylor, Devin Rivera Ozuna and Aaron Rea and infielders Erik Crossman and Nazier McIlwain. Rea is a redshirt junior, while the rest are seniors.
Heading into this year's MEAC tournament, the group had accumulated 70 wins, which is the most in Coppin history during a four-year stretch. In 2018, the quintet played a vital role in the Eagles claiming their first North Division title in 22 years.
They have piled up accolades and shattered school records that will stand long after they are gone. And finally, this year they led the team to a winning record in the regular season -- 24-22 -- for the first time in decades.
"These guys came in when we had won no championships in decades," Reed said. "We had no prior success recently. They came in believing that was going to change. They never took it lightly, the legacy they want to leave."
Finding those players wasn't easy, especially when looking in the local talent pool. Reed found out quickly in his first year that local players didn't want to play for the Eagles, and a lot of phone calls went unanswered.
That meant Reed had to look to other places, sometimes hundreds of miles away, for players to fill his roster.
"When you have decades of losing seasons, there's a generation of folks in the area that haven't witnessed success at Coppin," Reed said. "They can't imagine anything but what it's been. So, we decided to go more national."
One of the few players who seemed interested was Ozuna, a pitcher and outfielder from Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. Reed heard about him after Ozuna's cousin, who also attended Coppin, told the coach he had talent but wasn't getting recruited heavily.
Two days later, Reed went to one of Ozuna's games and clocked his fastball at 87 mph for the entire game. Ozuna had already committed to VCU but later signed with Coppin.
"I was just happy for the opportunity," Ozuna said. "I know Coach has to get that kind of thing from people all the time. I didn't pitch that much, but he came on the day that it was my turn in the rotation."
Ozuna has become one of the Eagles' best starting pitchers. His 3.04 ERA was the lowest mark among starters on the team during the regular season, and he led the rotation with 68 innings pitched.
"He never looked back," Reed said. "It's been a great decision for him, and it certainly worked out for us."
Crossman, an infielder from Anaheim, Calif., is an example of Coppin's national brand of recruiting. Like most of the players Reed recruited, Crossman saw a chance to play early in his career with the Eagles, but his first two years were a struggle. Despite his talent as a shortstop, he barely managed to keep his batting average at .200.
It got to the point where Reed gave Crossman two options: get better or explore other options.
"To be honest, I agreed," Crossman said. "I needed to get better, because my sophomore season was pretty bad. I was really just riding pine, and when I did get in there, I didn't really perform."
After what Reed described as a "come-to-Jesus meeting," Crossman worked on the mental aspects of the game and stopped worrying about failing in front of his coaches. Now, he's become one of the more consistent hitters in the lineup, posting a .270/.372/.362 line with 28 runs this year.
He's also become one of Reed's favorite all-time players.
"I was almost on my way out of here," Crossman said. "But he stuck with me and believed in me, and that means a lot."
When these seniors first came to Coppin, they knew the situation they were getting themselves into. They were all very aware the team wasn't a winning program. But that didn't keep them away.
"I think the first step was acknowledging that challenge and stepping up to it," Taylor said. "We couldn't be ones to walk away or feel defeated. We had to have the confidence and the will to compete and get better."
The team immediately improved from its three-win season in 2015. The class won 14 games in 2016 and advanced to the semifinals in the MEAC tournament, which was unheard of for Coppin.
But the group didn't really hit its stride until 2018, when the Eagles won the North Division with a 18-4 conference record. After starting 1-11-1, Coppin State won 19 of its next 29 games. Eighteen of those wins were against conference opponents.
Despite the team's rough start, the players kept their confidence because they felt they were better than their record.
"That was the key," Rea said. "We knew we could win these ballgames. If you looked back, you could see we weren't getting killed by these teams. And Coach Reed kept telling us that we were still the team to beat. On paper, we were a team that could go far."
It was after a 12-2 win in a doubleheader against Maryland Eastern Shore that the effort and belief started to pay off.
"Everything just started working," said McIlwain, who broke Coppin's all-time hits record. "It all started clicking. There was no quit in the team. In prior years, whenever we got down, we weren't confident enough in each other. It was, 'Here we go again.' Even when we started off 1-11, we didn't let that affect us, we knew we were a better team than that."
Reed said the group wanted to be the catalyst for change within the program.
"They came in wanting to leave a legacy," he said. "We often tell our guys, 'Shame on you if you're on a team and you're not able to imagine being a part of doing something that hasn't been done before.' They didn't come here to be a part of what was the past."
Coppin State has had an unprecedented amount of success with these seniors, and it's enough to earn some bragging rights. But they don't see it that way.
"It isn't just the senior class that's winning these ballgames," Rea said. "We have young guys who are working hard to get these wins. It's a blessing. It feels good, but this team's mindset right now is trying to win a ring. That's all we think about."
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Coppin State Athletics
Issue 254: May 2019