Belmont Abbey’s baseball history includes a stop and start to the program and a trip to the NCAA Division II World Series
By Richard Walker
Belmont Abbey College’s baseball program has the area’s oldest documented championship.
It also has had to deal with two stoppages of play, has advanced to a World Series while producing three eventual major leaguers.
The school claims a 1892 championship when the school was named St. Mary’s College and produced its first major leaguer in 1919.
As a junior college, the school didn’t have teams during much of World War II and later stopped the program again for 17 years as a senior college.
Since returning to the sport in 1990, the Abbey has produced two more major leaguers, emerged as one of the top small college programs in the country and advanced to a NCAA Division II World Series.
The 1892 title wasn’t documented in any newspaper report of the era, but it was chronicled by one of the school’s students. William Abbatichio and his brother, both of whom were from Pennsylvania, played on that championship baseball team and Abbatichio’s diary of the school year discussed his year at the college in addition to the baseball championship.
Less than 20 years later, when the school had been renamed Belmont Abbey, the school produced its first major leaguer in pitcher Hal Haid. The nephew of Abbot Leo Haid, who founded the school in 1876 and for whom the current Haid Theatre is named.
Hal Haid, who played at the Abbey from 1912 to 1915, played professional baseball from 1917 to 1937 and spent all or parts of six seasons in the major leagues with the old St. Louis Browns, the St. Louis Cardinals, the old Boston Braves and the Chicago White Sox.
Howard A. “Humpy” Wheeler, the man for whom the school’s Wheeler Center athletic facility is named, coached the school’s baseball team from 1930 to 1960.
One of his former players, Gastonia’s Ted Crunkleton, coached the Abbey to 161 victories from 1961 to 1972 and appearances in three straight national tournaments – the 1966 and 1967 NAIA District 26 playoffs and the 1968 NCAA Division II national tournament.
Crunkleton also recruited all sorts of professional baseball talent to the school as six players who played for the Crusaders from 1967 to 1972 were drafted by major league teams – pitchers Wayne Sullivan, Edward Layman, Mark Connor and Henry “Penny” Holmes and infielders John Hickey and John Adeimy. Adeimy also was the 1969 American Legion national player of the year for West Palm Beach, Fla., Post 12.
Citing economic reasons, the school chose to shut down the baseball program following the 1972 season.
The Crusaders didn’t return to the diamond again until 1990. With eventual Davidson College coach Dick Cooke and eventual North Gaston High principal George Conner as the school’s head coaches, the Abbey slowly but surely built its program into a perennial winner.
Pat Dolan and Kermit Smith guided the Crusaders to back-to-back conference regular season titles in 2001 and 2002, respectively, before Smith took the Abbey to its best season in history.
An at-large invitee to the NCAA Division II South Atlantic Regional in 2008 hosted by eventual national champion Mount Olive, Smith guided the Crusaders to their first national tournament win in a loser’s bracket game. Former East Gaston High standout Michael Raymond was winning pitcher in that historic 3-2 victory over Conference Carolinas rival Erskine.
That set up the 2009 season that ended in the NCAA Division II World Series at the USA National Baseball Training Complex in Cary.
After winning the Conference Carolinas regular season highlighted by a home series win over Mount Olive, the Crusaders had to win five games in three days to take the league tournament title and an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II national tournament.
Behind the power hitting of first baseman Daniel Kassouf, the Abbey outscored its four regional opponents by a 38-21 score at USC-Aiken to earn its World Series appearance. Kassouf took regional MVP honors and was joined on the all-regional team by outfielders Justin Vazquez and Patrick Atwell and pitcher Andrew Morton.
In Cary, the Abbey went 2-2 and was eliminated by eventual national champion Lynn, Fla., 7-5. In the Crusaders’ wins, Spencer Sobol had the game-winning RBI in the bottom of the ninth in a 5-4 victory over Grand Valley, Mich., State and Morton fired a seven-hitter with nine strikeouts in a 9-2 victory over Mesa State, Okla.
Smith would leave to take the job at Lander, S.C., and later NCAA Division I Appalachian State, after guiding the Abbey to a senior college school-record 229 coaching victories. His successors – Scott Brickman and Chris Anderson – have continued the winning tradition with 104 and 199 wins, respectively. And Anderson guided the 2018 Crusaders to one win from another World Series appearance.
The Abbey’s resurgence in baseball in the 2000s coincided with the school’s first professional players since the program got restarted – and it also produced the school’s second and third major leaguers.
Rene Barreras (1999-2002 at the Abbey) signed a free agent contract with the Seattle Mariners.
Jaymie Russ (2000-03) was a free agent signee of the Miami Marlins.
Morton (2007-09) signed a free agent contract with the San Diego Padres.
Tyler Powell (2008-10) was a 34th-round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Cody Stull (2011-14) was a 29th-round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics.
Anthony Dimino (2013-15) was a 28th-round draft pick of the New York Mets.
Kyle Halbohn (2016) was a free agent signee of the New York Yankees.
Matt McGarry (2015-18) was a 34th-round draft pick of the New York Yankees.
Former East Gaston High standouts Jason Cline (2004-07) and Michael Raymond (2005-09), former Myers Park standout Jordan Cudney (2009-11), Kassouf (2008-09) and Vasquez (2008-11) signed with independent league teams.
And Alex Castellanos (2007-08) and Emilio Pagan (2012-13) were 10th-round selections of the St. Louis Cardinals and Seattle Mariners, respectively, before making the major leagues.
Castellanos became the school’s first major leaguer since 1933 when he played in parts of two season for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 and 2013.
And Pagan was promoted by the Mariners in 2017 and has also played for the Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays and San Diego Padres in his four-year major league career.