Entering the season, Covenant Day baseball coach David Houseton knew his team was going to be a force to be reckoned with. After all, many of the key players that helped it win a school-record 23 games a season ago were back on the roster.
But Houseton also knew a very key piece was missing.
“I felt pretty good about the year,” Houseton said. “I knew we had some important parts coming back, but one of my biggest concerns was how we’d be able to replace Taylor Fisher.”
Fisher was a steadying presence in the outfield and the catalyst to the Lions’ offense from the lead-off spot, where he stole a team-high 22 bases last season. However, the two-time all-conference choice had since moved on to Gardner-Webb’s program.
This season, Houseton said he needed a spark plug to take Fisher’s spots both in the batting order and in the field. He had an idea that junior Spencer Hutchinson could fill those roles, even though he played the infield last season.
It turns out that Houseton was correct, but just how well Hutchinson has replaced Fisher in both areas has surprised the coach – and even Hutchinson himself.
“Overall it’s been a smooth transition,” Hutchinson said. “I’ve had to get used to the (throwing) arm slot going from catcher and third base (last year) to the outfield, where you have to get a full arm circle, (as) opposed to throwing from your ear.
“But yeah, it’s been smooth. Honestly, I’ve been a little surprised at how well it’s gone because I thought it would take longer, or be more difficult.”
While changing positions and moving to the top spot in the lineup was admittedly difficult at first, Hutchinson was up to the challenge. Hitchinson started the season strong, going 7-for-9 in an early-season series against Charlotte Latin, and hasn’t cooled much. In all, he has five-, six-, seven- and nine-game hit streaks to his credit and has been the most consistent offensive player on the Lions’ roster.
While he’s thriving in his new role this season, there was a time Hutchinson was merely hoping he’d to get on the field at all. He made the Lions’ varsity team in the ninth grade, but as the third-string catcher and backup third baseman, he said he was searching for ways to get regular playing time.
So when he got his chance to start last year as the Lions’ third baseman, he capitalized on his opportunity, hitting .356 and driving in 24 runs. This season, he’s further blossomed in his inherited lead-off spot and has more than made up for the loss of Fisher in center field.
On the year, he’s second on the team with a .433 batting average and leads the squad in hits (42), triples (three), RBIs (37), runs (32), walks (15), on-base percentage (.529) and stolen bases (22).
Hutchinson said he spent the early part of the season getting a feel for his new role but over time gained an understanding of what’s expected of him. And, as evidenced by his selection to the All-Metrolina Athletic Conference team – where he joined senior pitcher James Dillon and senior first baseman Garrett Vaughn as Lions on the squad – Hutchinson has transitioned just fine.
“At times I think I felt a lot of pressure to produce (during) each at-bat,” Hutchinson said. “But I’ve learned to relax and go to the plate with confidence and get on base. I run pretty well, and if I can get on (base) – either with a hit, reach on an error or draw a walk – I can help the team by stealing bases and starting the offense.”
And Hutchinson hasn’t just shined on offense.
In a 15-6 loss to Concord First Assembly on May 3 in the MAC tournament final, Hutchinson fielded a ball in center field and threw a dart to nab a runner at third base, saving a run.
The night before, against SouthLake Christian, Hutchinson gunned down a runner at home plate in the eighth inning, preserving a tie that Covenant Day would eventually break in the bottom of the inning to advance to the championship game with a 4-3 win.
“He saved the game for us,” Houseton said of the throw. “But I think Spencer has been doing that all year. He does whatever we ask of him and is certainly a big reason for our success.”
And even with its loss to First Assembly, Covenant Day definitely is a program on the rise. This season the Lions won 20 games for the second time in school history, took home the regular-season conference title, and reached the MAC tournament championship game for the third consecutive time. The Lions believe their success won’t end this season becasue they have Hutchinson and a group of talented underclassmen who are poised to carry on the Lions’ winning tradition.
Peter Englert, a private-school all-state selection last season, is batting .386 with 25 RBIs. Michael Henry (.308, 22 runs, 24 RBIs), Matt Cotton (.291, nine doubles) and Luke Barclay (.246, 20 RBIs, 25 runs), like Hutchinson and Englert, all are juniors.
And the Lions also have a talented nucleus of youngsters. Eighth-grader Satchel Jerzembeck is third on the team with a .400 average with 25 runs scored and 16 RBIs. Freshmen pitchers Colby Bruce (4-1 with a 2.51 ERA) and Chris Cotton (2-0, 2.84) have bright futures for the Lions.
And, with Hutchinson helping to set the example, Houseton believes his team is in good shape moving forward.
“Spencer is a big character guy,” Houseton said. “He’s been really good at leading the way for us, and it allows me to focus more on how we’re playing than wins and losses, because I know that will come.
“To have a guy like Spencer up there, playing hard and leading by example, that’s been huge for us.”
While Hutchinson is one of many Lions enjoying individual success this season, he’s excited about the future of the program that he’s helping take shape.
“We’ve developed as a team in a great way,” he said. “We had five or six guys that are constantly in the weight room and developing their skills by working on their swings, long-tossing or working on their games overall.
“I can see such an improvement in the team since we started this in early November to where we are now.”
While the Lions have emerged as a strong team over the past two seasons, Hutchinson said it’s apparent other programs are taking notice.
“As a freshman, it seemed like Charlotte Latin and the other (Class) 3A schools would throw their third- or fourth-best pitcher against us,” Hutchinson said. “But now they throw their ace.
“Coach Houseton always said we were the hunters trying to knock off the 3A teams, but now we’re the hunted. People are coming after us, and we have to be ready to see their best.”
Hutchinson is hoping the Lions are ready to make their mark in the state playoffs, which begin on Saturday, May 11, and said he relishes the chance to help the Lions rise as a program.
“I want to be known as a guy who was a leader on and off the field,” Hutchinson said. “I want to be a role model as a player but also as a
student-athlete. I want to set an example for the freshmen outfielders and teach the guys that will be taking my job in two years the right way to go about things.”
While Hutchinson is having a breakout season, he said he wants to achieve more than solid junior-year stats.
“I want to leave my mark on this team in a positive way,” he said. “I hope people will look at me and see my work ethic and want to emulate that.”