Nick Salisbury is one of those players who seems to have been playing high school baseball forever, or at least far longer than he’s been the catalyst for the Independence offense and a human vacuum in the Patriots’ infield, making spectacular plays look routine.
After making another extraordinary defensive play seem ordinary during the East Mecklenburg spring break tournament earlier this month, the public address announcer relayed those sentiments.
“Nick Salisbury has been making plays like that for 10 years, folks,” the announcer said, marveling at a play where the senior Patriots star ranged for a ball from deep in the hole at shortstop, crossed second base with his momentum carrying him toward right field and fired a strike to the first baseman to nab the runner just in time.
While it seems as if Salisbury has been a key to the Patriots’ attack for a decade, he’s actually in his third season at Independence after beginning his varsity career at Butler as a freshman.
Ever since he’s been at Independence, where he’s starred at shortstop for the better part of the last two seasons after moving from second base, Salisbury has been the focal point of opposing coaches’ game plans. To stop the
Patriots, other teams figured, they had to try to not let Salisbury beat them.
That’s easier said than done, however.
Last year, the 5-foot-6 Salisbury led the Patriots to 20 wins and their first top-four conference finish in six seasons. He did so by hitting .407, scoring 23 runs and collecting 10 doubles, four triples and a .616 slugging percentage. Salisbury also drew 11 walks, drove in 11 runs, stole 10 bases and struck out just eight times in 86 at-bats, all the while locking down the middle of the infield defensively.
This year’s team makeup has been different, as the Patriots have had to replace seven starters from last season, and many of the newcomers are on the pitcher’s mound. But Salisbury has been the one constant, something that first-year Independence coach Daniel Cooke knows is a foundation upon which he can build an entire team.
“Nick’s not a ‘rah-rah,’ vocal type of guy,” Cooke said. “But he’s one that comes every day and does everything the right way. If the younger guys could just watch him, that will let them know how to play the game the right way. He’s all business on the field, and he’s a great example out there.”
When Cooke moved Salisbury, who was primarily a lead-off man for much of his career, to the third spot in the lineup, the transition was seamless, Cooke said, because of Salisbury’s willingness to do whatever the team needs.
“He’s been getting a few more off-speed pitches this year, but he probably sees it as a challenge and something he can overcome,” Cooke said. “He hit (third) a little bit last year, and he’s a prototypical lead-off guy, but we’ve needed him to pick guys up. He’ll do whatever he can and go all out for us, which is great (for me) as a coach. He’s not seen (the move) as too much pressure; he’s doing the same thing he’s always done.
“The scouting report (against) us going into these games is to ‘not let Nick Salisbury beat you,’ and he gets a lot of walks because of that. We know that wherever he’s hitting, if you get him on base, good things are going to happen. And he knows that, too.”
Salisbury said his change to the third spot in the order and his ascension to, if possible, even more of a leadership role this season has been an easy adjustment to make.
“It hasn’t been different,” Salisbury said. “I just come out and play like I normally do.”
And this season, in a microcosm of his career, Salisbury has continued to produce at a high level. He leads the team in nearly every offensive category, including batting average (.372), hits (16), singles (12), doubles (four), RBIs (10), runs (13), walks (13), on-base percentage (.509), slugging percentage (.465) and stolen bases (five). Meanwhile, he’s struck out just three times in 43 at-bats and played his usual standout defense.
With Salisbury leading the way, the Patriots are a surprising story, especially with their inexperience, as they currently have a 7-11 overall record. Their 3-7 mark in Southwestern 4A conference play has them one game out of fifth place in the league, a spot which would automatically qualify them for a state playoff birth.
“This season has gone pretty well for us,” Salisbury said. “I felt we’d be pretty good because everyone came out and competes and wants to win. I know having a young team would be a little different, based on experience, but all of our pitchers are playing well, and I think we’re getting back on track.
“We’ve seen everything. We’ve seen all of the best pitchers, and we know we can have success against them, so it’s a confidence booster. We just have to play like we know we can play.”
While Salisbury is the Patriots’ heart and soul, there have been a number of players who have taken his lead and are having good individual seasons.
Junior James Hickes was an all-conference selection as a sophomore and has been a steadying force on the mound and at the plate this season. The Patriots also have received solid play from Braden Roark, Triston Glover, Jacob Fairfax and Jeffrey Cannella.
But for the Patriots to make some noise in the second half of the conference schedule, their senior shortstop will have to be in the middle of the action.
“I feel like I have a responsibility to try to lead by example,” Salisbury said. “I figure if I go out there and play hard, then everyone else is going to play hard, too.”
Salisbury’s strong play has helped him draw the interest of college coaches. After considering Winthrop University and the Naval Academy, Salisbury decided to sign a National Letter of Intent with Liberty University (Va.).
“I felt like Liberty was the best option for me,” he said. “I like the coaching staff a lot, and I like the direction that the program is headed. After I got their (scholarship) offer, I didn’t want to leave them waiting because I liked everything they had going on. I thought it was a good fit.”
Cooke, who himself starred at Independence before playing football and baseball at Gardner-Webb University, said he’s confident that Salisbury is going to continue to shine at the next level.
“He’s a guy that’s going to rake out 100 hits in his (college) career,” Cooke said of Salisbury. “Whether it’s (batting ninth), leadoff or at the two-spot, wherever you put him (in the lineup), he’s going to be successful. He has that great attitude that coaches are going to want to be around. I think he’ll be very successful.”
Salisbury might be moved back to second base in college, but it’s a position he’s played in high school, so he’d be fine with the switch. Wherever he plays in the field, Cooke believes his star won’t be defined by that position and will make a lasting impact on his college team – much the same way he’s impacted the Patriots’ program.
“I could see him playing second, but he could be a really good college shortstop,” Cooke said. “If you put him behind the plate, I’m sure he’d be a really good catcher, too. You can put him anywhere on the field and he’ll go out and compete for you. He’s such a competitor, and he brings it out of everyone.
“Any coach would like to have him on their team because he brings so much.”