Tarboro’s River Bandits are 2-0 when it comes to league championships.
In 2020, amid nearly empty ballparks brought about by COVID-19 attendance restrictions, the Bandits finished 29-11 and won the Carolina Virginia Collegiate League (CVCL).
In the off-season, Tarboro made the move to the Premier Collegiate League (PCL) along with three of the former CVCL squad, added a new coach, finished 28-13 — and won another league championship.
Unlike 2020, the crowds started to show up in Municipal Stadium in 2021.
A year ago, a good crowd might have approached 75 fans — and there was at least one game against Edenton when there were more fans on hand for the visiting team than the River Bandits.
Not this time around.
While it took some time for the crowds to increase, that’s exactly what they did.
A so-called good crowd a year ago was more then norm in 2021 and, by the time the All-Star Game was held in Tarboro, the numbers were growing and the fans were getting more involved.
Over the final half-dozen or so games, the crowds were generally in excess of 300 — with a couple approaching 500.
And it was an involved crowd — cheering the players by name, jeering at the umpires when they felt it was needed and openly supportive of the River Bandits.
The River Bandits started the season by winning eight of their first 10 games.
They ended it the same way.
But it was almost like it was two different teams, as the one that started the year was vastly different from the one that finished — although it was a team effort that put the River Bandits in a position to win the title.
To understand summer collegiate baseball — the wooden bat leagues, if you will — one has to understand that it is an extended baseball classroom. One where college coaches want players to work on specific areas so as to be able and improve their respective game when they return to campus.
“You coaches want you to work and get better,” Head Coach Vince Fondacaro told the squad at the start of the season. “We want you to work and get better and win a championship here so you can help your team win a championship next spring.”
Tarboro played long ball and swung for the fences. They played small ball and bunted to reach base and advance runners. They stole bases and they ran delayed double steals.
They did whatever it took to win.
Down the stretch, what looked to be a wonderfully deep roster at the start of the season suddenly started to look thin, as players went home.
Some were expected because of prior arrangements.
As the delta variant of COVID-19 began to get traction, the Canadian government called players home — not just those with the River Bandits, but all Canadian players.
That shrunk the roster by four.
And the Ivy League, which hadn’t played college baseball since March 2019, called its players back to campus in hopes of developing a string fall season.
There were two more.
By the time all was said and done, the 35 player roster at the start of the year was down to 17 by the time the league championship game rolled around.
And five of those had most recently played high school ball in the spring.
Gone were the games where the starting pitcher threw a couple of innings before giving way to six or seven relievers who would throw an inning apiece to get pitches.
As the playoffs rolled around, it was gut check time.
The River Bandits delivered.
After Greenbrier won the first-round playoff game, the Bandits found themselves with their backs to the wall.
Will Smith normally played third base. Against Edenton in the first elimination game, he was asked to pitch.
He threw 8 1/3 innings as the Bandits ended Edenton’s season, 2-1.
Then, needing to win back-to-back games against the Knights, Jack McIntosh threw a complete game on the roads to take a 6-1 win.
McIntosh threw just 93 pitches in the win.
Then, in the east title game, recent graduate Ryan Cornelius threw a complete game to earn a 4-1 win and send the Bandits against old CVCL foe Wake Forest for the PCL title.
It was Will Smith time again.
Smith pitched eight innings, scattering six hits and striking out seven as the River Bsndits came from behind to win, 4-3.
For his efforts, Smith, who also batted .454 for the championship tournament, was named tournament MVP.
Like the title, it was also the second time in as many years for the Bandits to claim the league’s MVP.
On the season, Tarboro had several players among the league’s batting leaders.
Anthony Sherwin ranked second in OPS at 1.163. Levi Aguila finished fourth at 1.034.
Sherwin was second in the league with a .423 batting average, while Aguila was fourth at .362.
Sherwin was also third in the league in slugging percentage at .592 while Michael Dolberry led the league in RBI with 20, while Pete Cosentino was third with 18.
While the crowds grew this season, an area that still needs to grow is that of host families.
Put bluntly, while Edenton is roughly half the size of Tarboro, there were 22 host families that supported the Steamers while the River Bandits had to rent rooms in a dormitory at N.C. Wesleyan to provide housing. Additionally, three players stayed with a family in Washington.
The host family is a key part of the collegiate summer program — and it’s one that needs to grow if the River Bandits are to remain in Tarboro.
And based on the increased attendance, fans are understanding the value of the team to the community.