Off-seasons rarely go the way you think they will. This one certainly did not. At the end of the 2019 season it was clear that the build up to 2020 would be one of the most important in recent memory. Coming off a subpar season (21-31-1 overall, 11-18-1 C-USA), it would be important for the program to reload and bounce back. Then on June 14, 2019, Head Coach Loren Hibbs announced that he would be leaving the program after 27 seasons to become the Assistant Athletic Director of Baseball Operations and Player Development at Wichita State University, his alma mater. Hibbs and new WSU head man Eric Wedge have a long-standing relationship dating back to Wedge’s days as a player for the Shockers while Hibbs served on the staff of the legendary Gene Stephenson. While Wedge is no stranger to managing at the MLB level, this is his first time as a skipper at the collegiate level. There’s no doubt that Hibbs’ experience will be invaluable as the Shockers rebuild after a rough stretch in the years following Stephenson’s retirement in 2013. This is a great move for Coach Hibbs, but it immediately cast a shadow of uncertainty over the baseball program. Charlotte baseball would have its first new head coach in 27 years. Who would it be?
Charlotte 49ers Director of Athletics Mike Hill answered that question on June 29th. Hill tapped Robert Woodard to lead the program forward. A native of Charlotte, Woodard went to Myers Park before staring at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he is their all-time winningest pitcher. After a three-year stint in the Padres organization, he began his coaching career in Chapel Hill during 2011. He spent the 2013 campaign in Wilmington coaching the Seahawks’ pitchers before becoming the pitching coach, and eventually recruiting coordinator, at Virginia Tech. Woodard returned to his alma mater in 2017 where he led a nationally recognized pitching staff. Now the rookie head coach has returned to his hometown as the skipper of the 49ers. For a detailed introduction to Coach Woodard’s approach to the game, check out this interview from December of 2018 by clicking here.
Building a Staff
Woodard wasted little time in assembling his first coaching staff. He will work with the pitching staff himself, which freed him up to add a number of skill sets to the staff. Bo Robinson agreed to stay on with a promotion to Associate Head Coach. Charlotte fans certainly don’t need to be introduced to Bo. A local product himself (South Meck), BoRob was an All-American for the 49ers and has his #4 retired by the program. After an eight year professional career, Robinson returned to the Charlotte area to serve as an instructor at On Deck Academy, a baseball development program for prep players. Ironically, it was there that he coached a young Robert Woodard. Robinson returned to campus in 2012 and has been in the Niner dugout ever since. Retaining Robinson is a great start to the Woodard era. Bo is extremely well thought of in the local baseball community and is a natural salesman/representative for the 49ers brand. His presence also provides stability for the roster and recruiting efforts during this time of transition. In addition to all of that, Bo is an excellent hitting instructor that has played a key role in developing the bats of guys like Netzer, Nichting, Jarrett, Hampton, Yett, and others.
Woodard’s choice for assistant coach/recruiting coordinator is an unfamiliar name to many 49ers fans, but Toby Bicknell is a known quantity in baseball circles. Another local guy (Charlotte Christian), Bicknell is returning home after spending the last three years as Texas Scouting Director for Prep Baseball Report. After his playing career at Wingate, he coached locally at Providence and Myers Park, in addition to serving as an instructor at On Deck Academy. Among the players coached by Bicknell was, you guessed it…Robert Woodard. On the collegiate level, Bicknell has coached at Clemson, Davidson, Air Force, and Kentucky. To listen to an interview with Coach Bicknell where he shares his thoughts on scouting, recruiting, and more, click here. A fun fact about Bicknell’s time at the Air Force Academy: in addition to baseball, he taught Combatives and Water Survival. Umpires, you have been warned.
The final two spots on staff are both being filled by faces familiar to 49ers fans. Ross Steedley has been named as the third/volunteer assistant. Ross doesn’t need much introduction as he played catcher for the 49ers from 2008-2012, earning All-Conference honors in 2011. Off the field, 49er fans might remember Ross from when he co-hosted the Basketball Madness event at Halton Arena. Another local product, he played his high school ball at East Rowan. Steedley had been on staff at Garnder-Webb since 2015 and served as recruiting coordinator since 2016. Rounding out the staff is Tyler Simmons as Director of Player Development. Tyler transitioned into this role after being on staff at Charlotte since 2017 as third/volunteer assistant. Simmons is also a Charlotte native and played at Charlotte Christian under his father Greg Simmons, a NC Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer in his own right. Prior to joining the 49ers staff, Simmons enjoyed a 4 year playing career at Wingate.
What to Expect
On the Field- As mentioned earlier, Coach Woodard will also be taking on the role of Pitching Coach for the 49ers. Having two former catchers on staff in Steedley and Simmons, will certainly assist in handling the staff. Simmons served as the 49ers Catching Coordinator in previous seasons and Steedley worked with catchers as an assistant at Gardner-Webb.
Bo Robinson will continue to serve as Hitting Coach and working with the infielders. The All-American 3rd baseman will continue to put his mark on the 49ers offense and defense. Steedley also served as Hitting Coach at Gardner-Webb and will also contribute on the offensive end. Coach Bicknell has experience in many different areas at the college level. He served as Hitting Coach and Defensive Coordinator at Air Force, Offensive & Defensive Coordinator at Davidson, and coached hitters and infielders during his time at Clemson.
Recruiting – As with any staff transition, it will take some time before Woodard’s plan for the program will be fully realized. Still, certain priorities are already emerging. First, recruiting, recruiting, and recruiting. You can’t teach talent and Woodard’s hires have made it abundantly clear that he intends to land his fair share of it for the 49ers. In addition to himself, Robinson, Bicknell, and Steedley all have experience as recruiting coordinators. That’s a lot of recruiting experience. Bicknell’s addition is particularly interesting, as he is well-traveled in national recruiting circles. We may well be preparing to cast our nets even wider out on the trail. Bicknell’s recent experience in Texas is intriguing since the Conference USA Baseball footprint spreads into Texas with Rice and UTSA being annual foes. It’s also worth noting that Steedley’s efforts are curtailed by NCAA rules that govern the conduct of volunteer assistants, but having his experience can only help.
Niner fans are used to hearing Will Healy and Ron Sanchez talk about the importance of aggressively recruiting our home market. You can add Woodard’s name to the list. Just look at the staff he has assembled. Each member is from the region and already possess deep ties in the local baseball community. Not that the 49ers haven’t been recruiting the Charlotte area. A quick check of the rosters from previous years will prove that. However, Woodard appears to have doubled-down on the strategy. This staff was built with Charlotte in mind. Charlotte fans should be excited about how this staff plans to capitalize on the amount of baseball talent coming out of the region each year.
Analytics – For most, analytics in baseball came to the forefront when Michael Lewis’ 2003 book was adapted to the big screen in 2011’s Moneyball. The use of data analytics has been and continues to be a source of debate. Any Niner baseball fans unfamiliar with the concepts should probably think about doing some research. Now, don’t get us wrong, it’s not like the program hasn’t been using data analysis in recent years, because they have. However, fans should expect an expansion of the 49ers analytics program. Don’t be surprised to see the Niners employ more aggressive defensive shifts and utilize pitching strategies designed to induce ground balls hit into the teeth of that defense. If you want to do some homework on Woodard’s experience with analytics we suggest starting with this 2018 Baseball America article here. From there, you might want to look into the two books mentioned in the article: Travis Sawchick’s Big Data Baseball and Brian Kenny’s Ahead of the Curve. Both books are highly informative and will change the way you watch baseball if you have yet to brush up on analytical baseball.
Player Development – As previously mentioned, Tyler Simmons now has the title of Director of Player Development. While that’s a new role for the program, it is not a new position. This is the former Director of Baseball Operations position added to the staff last season. Focusing on successful player development will only serve to enhance the product on the field and increase results out on the recruiting trail. The good news is that some of the infrastructure needed, such as the new indoor practice facility, is already in place.
In an effort to enhance the program’s player development efforts, the staff has traveled to St. Louis to spend time at P3 (Premier Pitching Performance). P3 works with prep, collegiate, and professional pitchers to develop the physical, mental, and technical aspects of their game. In addition to their staff, P3 has recently installed a biomechanics lab to help pitchers focus on their mechanics and throwing efficiency. This looks to be time well spent and should pay dividends for the program going forward. Read more about P3 here.
What Does it All Mean?
February feels very distant right now, but it will be here sooner than we think. In the meantime, Fall practice should be very interesting. That should include two more exhibitions against regional DI teams, an option that the NCAA made available last year. If you recall, the 49ers scheduled games against Davidson and at Virginia Tech. The game against the Hokies was cancelled after Hurricane Florence struck the East Coast. Alas, Niner Nation had to settle for a blowout win over Davidson at The Hayes.
As we move closer to Fall practice, we’ll provide you with more information regarding the team and what to look for as the Woodard era begins. In the meantime, we believe the take-away from this Summer to be that Mike Hill is serious about baseball. You would expect that from someone that spent 25 years at the University of Florida. He began demonstrating commitment to the program soon after his arrival with the addition of the operations position. Now, signs point to continued investment in the program. Assembling this staff took resources. So did sending the staff to St. Louis. Keep in mind that the administration is set to release its comprehensive facilities master plan in the coming months. There are bound to be upgrades for baseball included in the plan. A video board, a beer garden, and upgraded lights wouldn’t be bad places to start, but we’ll see how it shakes out. This looks to be a promising time for Charlotte Baseball. Let’s get going.