Feb. 18, 2010

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Melendez Re-Writing Bethune-Cookman History

By Sean Ryan

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder


There was a time when Mervyl Melendez (left) had to give a history lesson when he introduced himself to recruits, coaches and parents.


In his early days as coach of his alma mater, Melendez often would have to start by explaining where Bethune-Cookman College was. And he’d have to share that the school played Division I college baseball in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). He’d also talk about the school’s history, from its founding in 1904 by Mary McLeod Bethune as the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls to its relationship with the United Methodist Church.


“When you told someone you were the head coach of Bethune-Cookman, they’d just look at you,” Melendez said. “What does that mean? I don’t know what Bethune-Cookman is about.”


Times have changed.


Melendez, entering his 11th year as coach of the Wildcats, leads a program that has won four straight MEAC titles and 12 of the past 14. The blank looks when he mentions Bethune-Cookman University – the school reached university status in 2007 – are a thing of the past.


“It is the case now, and I would not have told you this seven or eight years ago, we’re getting phone calls from players who want to come here,” said the 36-year-old Melendez. “In the past, we’d have trouble getting them to come here.


“It’s a lot different. One reason why is that Bethune-Cookman has become a household name in college baseball.”


To the casual fan, the Wildcats may continue to be a secret. To the coaches around the country, Bethune-Cookman has become a team not to be taken lightly.


The Wildcats won two of three at Miami late last season before dropping one-run decisions to Florida and Jacksonville in the NCAA tournament. They’ve beaten several of their Sunshine State brethren and more than held their own against national powers.


“Coach Melendez and his coaching staff have done a great job at Bethune-Cookman,” said UCLA coach John Savage, whose Bruins edged the Wildcats 2-0 two years ago in the MLB Urban Classic and meets them again this weekend. “We know that they are a tournament-type team and that Saturday’s game will be a tremendous challenge. We are looking forward to playing them.”


Kevin Cooney, who spent 21 years at Florida Atlantic before retiring in 2008, witnessed the transformation first-hand.


“I remember when playing Bethune-Cookman was a guaranteed win,” he said.


Things began to change in 1993 when the school hired Brian Rhees to lead a moribund program that had won an average of seven games the previous seven seasons. According to Cooney, Rhees promptly began recruiting the Florida junior colleges and began bringing a more diverse group to Daytona Beach.


Melendez, a native of Carolina, Puerto Rico who moved to Florida when he was 13, came in and starred as a third baseman and relief pitcher, batting .342 for his career and hitting a bases-loaded double to lead the Wildcats to an NCAA tourney play-in game against Georgia Southern – even though the Eagles won the best two-of-three series to reach the tourney field, it marked the first NCAA Division I postseason win for a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). Melendez became the school’s first Black College All-American.


After winning nine games in his first year, Rhees led the Wildcats to three straight years of 25 or more wins. When he left to take over at Arkansas-Little Rock, Richard Skeel continued the momentum and made an important hire as an assistant – Melendez.


“They were really good,” Cooney recalled. “There was always a solid pitcher or two and some position guys who could run and play defense. They also were the best dressed team on the field. I don’t know if that was Mervyl’s or Richard’s influence, but they looked sharp.”


In July of 1999, a 25-year-old Melendez was hired to replace Skeel, now the senior associate athletic director at Stetson. Despite going 33-27 and winning the MEAC crown in his first season, Melendez admitted it wasn’t always easy.


“At the beginning, it was trial and error,” he said. “I was feeling my way on how to establish my own philosophy…I was extremely tough in the beginning. I needed to earn their respect.”


Added Cooney: “Mervyl was young when he got the job but knew the game and was a tough competitor. He had a tight hold on the reins sometimes, but his kids usually responded to his style.


“As he got older, I saw Mervyl and his approach change. Fatherhood, experience and age will often change the style of a coach. I have enjoyed the challenge of competing against Mervyl, but to a greater extent, watching him grow as a coach.”


Melendez and pitching coach Joel Sanchez (now a pitching coach in the Washington Nationals organization) began a run of six straight MEAC titles. After North Carolina A&T stopped the streak in 2005, the Wildcats started another run and will go for their fifth straight in 2010.


The steadily improving MEAC has made it a bit more difficult on the Wildcats, but they have continued to lead the way.   


“Recruiting is the word,” Norfolk State coach Claudell Clark said. “A lot of coaches in the conference know the game. He’s been able to successfully recruit the top players in the conference each year.”


Melendez has followed the example of his mentor Rhees. While he has focused on talent-rich Florida, he’s also mined talent from his native Puerto Rico and beyond.


And when players arrive at Bethune-Cookman, Melendez instills a “no-excuses” attitude, where accountability and hard work blend perfectly with discipline and passion. He believes that better prepares the Wildcats for meeting some of the biggest names in college baseball.


“We are going to play the best teams who will play us,” Melendez said. “You name it, and we’ll go to your place. It will never be an issue…I want to play the toughest teams in the toughest environments. That’s only going to make us better.”


All of it together is how Melendez has helped rewrite Bethune-Cookman baseball history. A secret no more to the college baseball world, Melendez expects to author a few more chapters.


“Pursuing a Regional title and a Super Regional title is what we have in mind,” he said. “It’s easier said than done.”


(photo courtesy of B-CU Media Relations Office)