Reversal of Fortunes

While the roster is nearly identical to last year’s Independence baseball team that won less than a third of its games, missed the playoffs and struggled in the traditionally baseball-rich Southwestern 4A conference, this Patriot team couldn’t be more different than its predecessor.

This Independence baseball team has struggled the past several seasons, but this year with seniors (from left) James Hickes, Triston Glover, Jordan May and Jacob Fairfax the Patriots are in first place in the Southwestern 4A and poised for a big year.

This Independence baseball team has struggled the past several seasons, but this year with seniors (from left) James Hickes, Triston Glover, Jordan May and Jacob Fairfax the Patriots are in first place in the Southwestern 4A and poised for a big year.

After going 7-15 a season ago, there are many reasons the Patriots have begun the season 5-2 and currently sit atop the conference standings. But second-year coach Daniel Cooke points to a pair of decisive factors.

“We’ve had a huge imphasis in the weight room this offseason and you can tell – some of them have bulked up and gotten pretty big. That’s helped our bat speed and our offense as a whole,” he said. “Another thing is experience. We had all of these guys playing last year with limited experience and now they’re mostly all back with a full season under their belts, so that

The Patriots were vastly inexperienced last year, aside from three-time all-conference shortstop Nick Salisbury – and it showed. They struggled to score and, Cooke admitted, if a team jumped on them early and put some runs on the scoreboard, it was hard for the Patriots to come back and the players knew it.

But that’s no longer the case with this bunch of Patriots, and together they’re changing the recent fate of Independence baseball. Independence produced just one winning season (2012) and won just one playoff game in the past eight years while never finishing above fourth place in the conference.

But this year has a way different feel to it.

Independence has won shutouts (5-0 over Porter Ridge, 10-0 over East Meck), been in shootouts (11-8 win over Olympic, 12-11 loss to Hough) and have had games in between. And to them, it doesn’t matter how they’re going to have to play or who’s going to come up with the big plays as long as they’re winning.

“Last year is in the past,” senior outfielder Triston Glover said. “We have more chemistry this year, we play together as a team and if we play our game, we can beat any team in the

While that may seem like a bold statement, it’s not necessarily a stretch. The Mint Hill Army Juniors went 22-2 and won the American Legion state championships this summer with a roster of mostly these same Independence players.

“It was fun, but it made it even that much rewarding having basically our whole team together and playing for something,” senior Jordan May said. “That was the best part.”

“It was huge,” Cooke said of the camaraderie the Army championship brought his team. “The competition they faced wasn’t always the best, but having them all together has really helped – the team chemistry is so much better this go-around and it’s showing on the field.”

Another reason for the strong bonds on the diamond and in the clubhouse is the Patriots have eight seniors on the roster. Cooke says each embodies the role of what a senior leader should be. In fact, the top five batters in their lineup – Jacob Fairfax, May, RJ Merli, James Hickes and Glover – are all seniors who get the Patriot offense going.

“Those guy at the top (of the lineup) are big-time keys for us and we kind of go as they go,” Cooke said. “I don’t think they’re putting too much pressure on being seniors and I don’t think they care who’s in the spotlight. One guy might do it this day or pitching may be the key this day and hitting the next.”

And that’s exactly how the Patriots have played. Fairfax (.450 batting average, 11 runs, eight stolen bases), Merli (.313, seven RBIs, six runs and five stolen bases), May (.360), Glover (.389, six runs, five RBIs) and Hickes (.348) have been the catalysts which have led the Patriots to average eight runs per contest – and be in every game this

But they don’t have to overpower opponents at the plate, as Hickes (2-1, 1.86 ERA, 12 strikeouts) and Merli (2-0, 2.47, 10 strikeouts) have each pitched complete game shutouts and headline a staff that, even with so many guys swinging the bats well, is the Patriots’ strongest unit.

“That probably is our strength right now,” Cooke said. “We’re pitching well and hopefully we can keep teams under five runs and give us a chance to score six or seven and win the ball game.”

Hickes, the Independence ace the past three seasons, said the run support and confidence are noticeable differences this year.

“We have more experience, we’ve seen varsity pitching, we know what to expect and know how to get better,” Hickes said. “It takes some pressure off us (pitchers) knowing that we don’t have to throw up a goose egg every time. We can make some mistakes, give up a run here and there and have confidence that our offense can come pick us up.”

And the guys at the top of the lineup aren’t alone in making the Patriots’ potent offense run smoothly.

Cameron Allen (.353 batting average), Joe Guns (.471, six runs scored), Mark Milleman (.400) and Jarrett Thompson (.445, team-high nine RBIs, five runs scored) have each had big hits and are off to torrid starts in their own right. With a tight-knit group featuring so many capable bats, Cooke knows this Patriot team can be dangerous if they continue to play as they have.

“We have a bunch of guys who have a lot of confidence right now and feel like we’re playing pretty well,” Cooke said.

While the Patriots are clicking to start the year, the one knock could be that, even with all of the production, they lack a true middle-of-the-order power hitter. But that’s fine with Cooke, because they’re finding ways to work around the lack of power and still put runs on the

“We’re more of a gap-to-gap team,” Cooke said. “We have some of the guys that we play small-ball with, but we can kind of turn it off and on. We have some speed so I feel like we’re a well-balanced team. We’re probably not going to have any individual hit five home runs, but again we’ve got some guys that can knock it around, and I really like our makeup this year.”

So as the season wears on and conference play begins in earnest in the coming weeks, it’s suddenly the Patriots who are the cream of the crop and the team to beat in the Southwestern 4A.

And they’re more than OK with that.

“We need to play like we know how to, not make errors in the field and just keep doing what we’ve been doing,” May said.

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