PEMBROKE — The 2019-2020 sports year for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke was a remarkable one, not only for what happened on the field, but also what happened off.
From domination in the Mountain East Conference, to announcing a change in conference for the 2021-2022 year and a global pandemic prematurely stopping what could’ve been a standout spring, this year was perhaps one of the best in the athletic department’s history. Here’s a look back at the top 10 stories from this past year.
1. Conference Carolinas move
After nearly 30 years in the Peach Belt Conference, UNCP will compete in a new athletic conference starting in the 2021-2022 academic year when it joins the Conference Carolinas. The Braves were a member of the conference from 1976 to 1992.
The announcement came in April, and joining UNCP in the transition to the new conference is Francis Marion to bring the Conference Carolinas to 13 members. The change fills a geographical void that the Peach Belt Conference wasn’t able to fill. The two schools were outliers in the Peach Belt and join a league that will have 11 schools in North and South Carolina once they join.
Travel savings was one of many positives for the move.
“Moving to Conference Carolinas we have 15 sports under the same umbrella, all pulling for the same goal and then you look at how many teams in Conference Carolinas support those championships,” UNCP Director of Athletics Dick Christy said. “Now wrestling, and track and field, and indoor track and field, and volleyball, and all these sports that may not have had a lot of in-league competition, they have robust championships and they have a great chance to have an awesome experience.”
2. COVID-19 cuts sports short
The second week of March brought everything to a screeching halt by the spread of COVID-19. With three teams either en route or on site at NCAA winter championship events, the call came down from the national level that all winter sports championships would be canceled.
The spring sport season was then ended shortly after the call for the winter championships, ending five UNCP seasons prematurely. The baseball team was on an 11-game win streak and sitting in second in the Peach Belt Conference standings, while the softball team was set to open Peach Belt Conference play the Saturday after the season was called on that Friday and the Braves had won nine of their last 10 games before the shutdown.
The women’s golf team was in California competing in the second of its two tournaments on the west coast and the track and field teams had competed in one event before the season made it to the finish line.
3. Domenique Davis signs as an UDFA
For the first time in UNCP football’s history since returning to the field in 2007, a player from the program signed to join an NFL team as defensive lineman Domenique Davis signed an undrafted free agent deal with the New York Jets. Davis had seen increased attention from NFL scouts and teams later in his career at UNCP and he was one of 15 the Jets called the Saturday after the NFL Draft was over.
He will be the fourth UNCP player to compete in an NFL mini-camp, and the first since 2017. Davis missed out on several opportunities to work out in front of teams ahead of the draft because he had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder that he played through in the 2019 season.
“It was expected because I didn’t have a pro day, didn’t go to the combine, and I didn’t accept any of my invites to the games because of my surgery,” he said. “But I always knew what the outcome would be — just being real with myself, and not really caring about all the other stuff. Some of the undrafted players are the better players anyway, so I don’t mind being the underdog.”
Davis had 41 tackles, with six tackles for loss, as a senior for the Braves.
4. Joshua Chepkesir becomes an All-American
Sophomore Joshua Chepkesir became the first UNCP cross country men’s runner to place in the top 10 at the NCAA national championships in 40 years when he finished sixth to earn All-American status in November. The native of Kenya was the first All-American cross country runner since Gary Henry won the 1980 NCAA championship in a time of 29:32.
Chepkesir’s pace was 29:55 seconds and made him the second runner to break 30 minutes in a 10k in program history, and the first since Henry’s feat.
To earn a berth at nationals, Chepkesir defended his NCAA Southeast regional individual title as well as his Peach Belt Conference title that he won at Lumberton’s Luther Britt Park in late October.
Chepkesir also was a national qualifier in the 3,000- and 5,000-meter runs during the indoor track and field season, and didn’t get a chance to compete in Birmingham, Alabama when the NCAA canceled the championship.
5. Wrestling wins conference and regional championships
A year after falling a few points short of winning the NCAA Super Regional team title, the Braves came back in 2020 to win the event while as hosts to close out the month of February that started off with the Braves winning the Mountain East Conference championship in their first year competing in the league.
Nick Daggett, Tyler Makosy, Kaleb Warner, Garrett Hill and Nick Kee were individual conference champions when the Braves won the Mountain East by 8 1/2 points over West Liberty on Feb. 1.
The Braves hosted the NCAA Super Regionals for the first time since 2014 on Feb. 29, and they had six wrestlers punch their tickets to the NCAA championships that were canned the day before wrestling was set to start. Daggett, Makosy, Warner, Kee, Logan Seliga and Brandon Sloop all finished either first or second at the regional. Nine of the 10 wrestlers that UNCP entered into the event earned a spot on the podium.
6. Men’s basketball championship and coaching change
The Braves continued their dominance over the Peach Belt Conference in 2020 as they earned the third regular-season conference title in four seasons under interim coach Tony Jones. UNCP rallied off a 24-6 record and won 14 of its final 16 games.
Senior Akia Pruitt became the first UNCP player to win Peach Belt Player of the Year, and also the first player in conference history to post 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a career. Jones was named Coach of the Year in the conference.
UNCP announced in March that former assistant coach Drew Richards, who spent the 2019-2020 season at Lander where he won the Peach Belt tournament title, would take over the program. Richards served on the staff as an assistant from 2014-2019.
7. Indoor track and field wins title
For the first time in the program’s short history, UNCP’s women’s indoor track and field team won the Mountain East Conference championship.
Erman Jepleting won event titles in both the 1,600- and 800-meter runs along with Aly Hudspeth’s title in the High Jump, to lead UNCP to the conference crown. The men came in second at the event.
Jepleting was named female track Athlete of the Year and UNCP director of track and field Dr. Peter Ormsby was was named MEC women’s indoor track and field Coach of the Year.
8. Women’s swimming championship
The UNCP women’s swimming team won the Mountain East title in its first year in the conference, while its top athlete and coach earned personal honors.
Freshman Nathalia Silva broke a school record in the 1,650-yard freestyle relay to meet an NCAA qualifying mark and help the team to the title. The Braves set 23 school records at the event.
The following week, the conference announced that Silva was named the Mountain East Conference’s women’s Swimmer of the Year, as well as the league’s Freshman of the Year, and coach Oscar Roverato was selected as the MEC Coach of the Year.
9. Ethan Baucom HR record
To follow up a PBC Player of the Year season in 2019, Ethan Baucom made the most of the short season in 2020 as he launched nine homers, which was among the highest total in all of Division II baseball.
His seventh in a game against Barton in March put him on top of the program’s all-time home runs list. It was the 47th career blast for the Rockingham native and he finished the 2020 season with 49 career homers.
10. Brittany Bennett all-time wins for softball
Brittany Bennett started her seventh season with the Braves as they hosted the UNCP invitational. The Braves opened with a 3-1 record, and the third win coming over West Virginia State gave her the 153rd win of her career to put her at the top of the program’s wins list.
All of Bennett’s wins have come in Pembroke as she has helped the program to a pair of above-.500 seasons in 2015 and 2016.
UNCP Athletics Tyler Makosy picks up the NCAA Super Region II team trophy after the Braves claimed the title in February. Makosy made a return trip to the NCAA individual national championships, along with five teammates in March before the championship was cut short.
The Robesonian file photo UNCP’s Joshua Chepkesir runs during the Peach Belt Conference Championship at Luther Britt Park in Lumberton in October. Chepkesir, who also won in 2018, won the race by over a minute, breaking the conference championship record by 18 seconds. He would go on to be an All-American.