By Andrew Stark
While it might not have been evident in the win column, the 2013 high school baseball season was a bright beginning for the future of the Independence program. The Patriots turned over nearly their entire starting lineup from 2012 but still managed to remain in contention for a spot in the state playoffs until the season’s final games.
Although Independence posted a 7-15 overall record and finished in seventh place in the Southwestern 4A conference standings, the outlook is far from bleak for the Patriots.
“I actually think the season went well,” said Mark Milleman, who was second on the team during the regular season with a .314 batting average and nine RBIs.
“We lost a bunch of seniors (from 2012) and had a bunch of guys who came up from JV who either hadn’t played or hadn’t gotten many at-bats. So I thought it turned out well.”
Last season, a talented group of Patriots – mostly underclassmen who were getting their first varsity experience – emerged and relished their time to show what they could accomplish. And judging from the recent success many of those same players are enjoying to begin the American Legion season, Independence is very much a team on the rise.
“I think (Independence) coach (Daniel) Cooke would agree with me,” said Dan Kerr, who coaches the Mint Hill Army Juniors team. “They have a very good couple of years ahead of them. The players they have love to play baseball, they want to get better and I think they have a bright future. Most of their guys that we have (on the Legion team) will be in their starting lineup the next couple of years, and that’s a good thing for them.”
Of the Army’s top 11 leaders in batting average thus far, seven are Patriots’ players who will help form the nucleus of a team many believe could make some noise at the Class 4A level, especially after conference realignment takes effect next season. The reshuffling of conference boundaries will take Independence out of the league that will house new Class 4A state champ South Mecklenburg and longtime Southwestern 4A contenders Ardrey Kell and Providence.
And playing together this summer is something that will help give the Patriots a head start toward building on what they began this spring.
“(Playing together) really helps us with our chemistry,” said Triston Glover who was fourth on the Patriots with a .266 average in the spring. “The more we play together and the better that we get to know each other and everyone’s tendencies and get used to playing together, the better we’ll be.”
The Independence players on the Army roster also are feeling good these days for another reason: Mint Hill has begun the summer with a 4-0 record.
Quintin Alwran already has a five-hit game to his credit for the Army, but he’s not the only Patriot who has shown flashes of brilliance. Glover has begun the Legion season with a .500 batting average and has four RBIs and six runs scored.
Other Patriots who have stood out at the plate include Jacob Fairfax (.444), James Hickes (.333), Milleman (.333), Jordan May (.333) and Joe Guns (.300, team-leading six runs).
But this summer’s Army team is focused on much more than helping the Patriots ascend to new heights, as a number of other players are performing well.
Kerr praised Central Academy of Technology & Arts’ 6-foot-4, 240 pound Dillon Hardy, who has already hit two home runs and driven in a team-high seven RBIs for the Army. Charlotte Catholic’s Nick Olsen (.364 batting average), Porter Ridge’s Rodney Honeycutt (.286, six RBIs) also have had solid summers for the Army, which is looking to carry its early success deep into the July playoffs.
“I want to take it as far as we can,” Glover said. “I think that we have the team to make the playoffs, and I’m sure we can at the least do that. But I want to see how far we can carry it from there.”
The Army squad also has a strong leader in Kerr, who has made the Queen’s Grant High School program competitive after starting the team from scratch and helping the Stallions win a school-record 17 games in 2012.
With the Army’s undefeated start, Kerr said he feels the collection of talent on this team has a good shot of making the Legion playoffs and possibly challenging for the state title.
“I think the thing that we’re doing best is battling,” Kerr said. “I don’t think that we’ve played anywhere close to our potential as a team yet, and I think (the players) know how good they can be.
“Every team that we’ve played so far, we’ve been older and more experienced than and have been bigger than they were physically, but we haven’t gone into a game yet with the mentality that we want to put them away.”
Kerr thinks the team is ascending toward reaching its full potential, and he said he sees the improvement in practice every day. He also added that many of the players competed together on last season’s Legion team, where they began to develop a connection they share on and off the field.
“Every player wants to be out here,” Kerr said. “I think (the coaches) have to understand and form a happy medium between laying off them and making sure we’re having fun to making sure we’re working as hard as we can because we’re representing our city, our region, and possibly, if we make it that far, we could be representing our state.”
Kerr said that while the team’s offense has been effective in spurts, the Army’s pitching and defense have been steady, something that should help it maintain its strong start to the season.
“We have some guys who can really throw it, and our defense has been very good,” Kerr said. “I’ve been very pleased with both of those areas.”
On the mound, the Army has been spurred on by Hardy (3-0, 14 strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings, 0.84 ERA) and Porter Ridge’s Camron Mongan (1-0, 2.62 ERA). But Kerr said Hickes and Independence products Braden Roark and Cameron Allen will all have their chances to shine on the mound.
“Our pitching has done a tremendous job of stopping rallies,” Kerr said. “And our defense has picked us up in a variety of pressure situations that has been helped out by our hitting that seems to come when we need it.
“But other than one game so far (an 18-2 win over Lancaster on May 27), we haven’t played near as well as we could. It’s encouraging, but at the same time it’s kind of frustrating as a coach for the same reasons.”
As the Army goes deeper into its season this month, Kerr is expecting his team to take the next step and become the complete squad he envisions. Although he said the team hasn’t played a complete game yet, he noted that he feels its best performances are on the horizon.
“I think the ability is there,” Kerr said. “We, as coaches, have to put the responsibility on (the players) to get better. They know they’re good, and they know they could be really good, but we have to make sure they’re taking the steps to get better every day because we are a really talented team.”