PEMBROKE — Standing in admiration as three of his players signed to continue their baseball careers at the college level, Purnell Swett coach Bryan McDonald couldn’t help but think about their contributions to his program.
“They were the core of what took this program to competing at the top,” McDonald said Monday inside the school’s media center. “They’ve allowed us (as a team) to go on the field and have a chance to win every night.”
Those players are Lucas Oxendine, Ethan Chavis and Ryan Graham. Surrounded by family, friends and faculty, the trio made their college choices official in a signing ceremony, with Oxendine signing to continue his baseball career at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Graham choosing USC Sumter and Chavis selecting North Carolina A&T University.
For Oxendine, the day was about seeing a childhood dream — one that seemed out of reach — come to fruition.
“I dreamed of (this day) as a kid and it seemed like something that wasn’t achievable,” said Oxendine, an all-county and all-conference pitcher for the Rams.
“It’s crazy that it’s really happening — being a Division I athlete. It seemed like something only the biggest, fastest and strongest (athletes) could do. It just takes a lot of hard work and preparation.”
Like Oxendine, Chavis and Graham were just as happy about the opportunity of playing baseball at the next level.
“Growing up as a kid, saying ‘I want to sign for a Division I scholarship’ — it’s just words,” Chavis said. “But when you put it into action it means a lot.”
Graham added: “I’ve been looking forward to this day my whole life.”
Known for their pitching, the rising seniors have helped the Rams win multiple championships, including the Robeson County Slugfest and Southeastern Conference title. Oxendine is the lone right-handed pitcher in the group, with Chavis and Graham providing a pair of lefty arms for the Rams.
McDonald said each player provides the qualities college coaches love to work with on the diamond.
“All three of them are quality arms, and that’s the name of the game in baseball,” he said. “You’re looking at two lefties that can pound the strike zone and that’s what college coaches are looking for. Then, you have a righty that can play multiple positions and sit in the mid-80s for you.”
The Rams’ leader in wins on the mound with seven victories last season, Oxendine finished his junior campaign one shy of the Southeastern Conference lead. He led the team with 81 strikeouts and batted .321 with 20 RBIs.
Chavis and Graham saw limited time on the mound last season, but both figure to be key contributors this spring — at the plate and in the field. Chavis, an all-county performer, will look to build on a .363 batting average.
Though each player will be going his separate way in May, the journey together has been memorable for each of them.
“I’ve enjoyed playing baseball with them all my life,” Graham said. “I’ll remember this day most, probably.”
Oxendine added: “Both of them have been my friends since I was little, growing up playing together. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
And with signing day behind them, the focus now turns to their final season with the Rams. With a slew of returners, the squad has a chance to build on its championship pedigree.
“I’m really excited for their senior years” McDonald said. “It’s an exciting day for Purnell Swett baseball. If we can stay out of our own way (this season), it can be real special. They have an opportunity to do something special here.”
But like the journey up to this point, Oxendine knows it won’t be an easy task.
“We have to work hard and play like we’re at the bottom,” he said. “I’m just looking to get better and not get complacent after reaching a goal.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached on Twitter @RoddBaxley.