The resurgence of the Independence baseball team has come full circle for second-year coach Daniel Cooke.
As a player, Cooke was a junior on the 2004 Patriot team that played for a state championship. But as the coach went on to successful baseball and football careers at Gardner-Webb University, his alma mater fell on tough times on the diamond in the Southwestern 4A conference, one of the state’s toughest.
Cooke took over the team last year and the Patriots went 7-15 with a young but talented team.
“Last year we were looking for leaders,” said senior pitcher/second baseman RJ Merli. “We weren’t having everyone step up and do their part. This year we have eight seniors and everyone is accountable. There’s a lot more camaraderie between the guys.”
Most of the togetherness began to develop over the summer when a host of the Patriots played together for the Mint Hill Army Juniors, an American Legion team that went 20-2 and won the state championship. That success has carried over in a big way.
The Patriots (17-8, 13-1 in conference) are in the midst of their finest season since Cooke’s 2004 team and are off to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
But this is just the beginning.
“After last year this has been a huge success, but there’s more to do,” Merli said. “We said we wanted to win conference and we came out and did it. We said we wanted to win the conference tournament and we (did it). States is the final step and what we’re playing for. We need to come out and play and keep it rolling.”
The Patriots certainly have it rolling, wrapping up their first regular season conference title in a decade and topping it off with their first conference tournament title in at least as long with a well-played 3-2 win over Porter Ridge – the only team to beat Independence in the conference – on May 9.
At the center of the Patriot success is a dynamic group of eight seniors who have carried the torch, bringing the Patriots back to the pinnacle of conference baseball.
“It’s huge to have these guys and they’ve taken the challenge,” Cooke said. “I told them that 10 years ago Independence used to be state title contenders year-in and year-out and I told them they can kind of be the group to solidify us back at the top. They want to be the group that gets us back there and they’ve taken it to heart.
“We’ve had a three-part goal to win the conference, win the tournament and go as far as we can in the states. A lot of these guys don’t even know what playoff baseball is, so they’re excited for this. It’s exciting to watch them experience it.”
As the Patriots have gotten help from a number of key contributors, it’s been senior pitchers Merli and James Hickes who have kept them in most games and led the turnaround of the long-time successful program.
Hickes, a 2012 all-conference pick as a sophomore, has rebounded beautifully from a down year by his standards. Last year, the Patriots’ offense generated just over four runs per game, a number that has risen to nearly seven per game this year.
“You can see the confidence he has in himself and the confidence we have behind him when he’s on the rubber,” Cooke said. “We know he’s going to give us his best stuff and us getting a little more run production has helped, too. He doesn’t think he has to win each game 2-1 and he can just go out and throw.
“He’s stepped up and come into his own, especially vocally. There have been some times when he’s come in and rallied the troops and been that captain voice that we may not have had in the past.”
While Hickes has come into his own in the clubhouse, he’s had a dominant season on the diamond as well. The senior pitcher has posted a 7-2 record on the mound with a 2.32 ERA and as a shortstop leads the team with a pair of home runs and has contributed 19 RBIs, four doubles and a triple.
And his steady hand is having a team-wide effect, especially on his pitching and double play counterpart.
“I’m not sure if (Merli has) learned from Hickes, but the two are very comparable,” Cooke said. “They’re not going to bump it up into the 80’s, but RJ can use both sides of the plate and has three pitches. If you can do that in high school you can be successful. And RJ comes in and competes, he’s not the tallest guy, but he has a big heart, keeps the ball down and gives us everything he has.”
That’s helped turned Merli into the perfect sidekick on the mound and in the field, as he’s gone 6-1 with a 1.94 ERA on the mound, and has come up with timely hits, batting .323 with 24 runs scored and 16 RBIs.
As the aces of one of the state’s best teams – as the Southwestern 4A’s No. 1 seed, the Patriots host wild card Ragsdale, a 13-9 team that started the year 11-2, on Wednesday, May 15 – the pitchers clearly know what their job entails.
“We know we have to keep us in the game and keep our composure,” Hickes said. “It doesn’t matter if there are errors behind us or with whatever going on, we have to keep throwing and keep us in the game.”
Hickes’ advice was on display against rival Butler in the second round of the conference tournament. Three errors led to a six-run Butler first inning – a lead that ballooned to 11-1 after the top half of the third. The Patriots didn’t relent, however, and ended up tying the game in the fifth before winning 15-14 in a wild, confidence-boosting affair.
“I think we realized ‘Hey we’re better than this’ and started playing the way that we can,” Merli said. “It was a sweet win. We know the pitching is going to be there and the fielding is something we can improve, but if we get our bats going like they have been recently, we can do anything and that game kind of showed that.”
The Patriot bats have awoken at the right time for a team loaded with pitching and confidence. During their current five-game win streak, Independence has scored 12 or more runs three times and is averaging 10 runs per game while getting contributions up and down the lineup.
Senior quad-captains Hickes, Jordan May (.325, 17 runs scored, nine RBIs), Montreat College commit Triston Glover (.429, team-high 27 RBIs, 22 runs) and Jacob Fairfax (.311, 33 runs, 17 stolen bases, nine RBIs) have helped catapult the offense.
“I’ve told some people if we can get Triston to keep it up with James getting hot and Jordan May and Jacob Fairfax to get hot at the same time, this can get exciting,” Cooke said.
But in the end, as baseball always does, the success of a team, especially making many players’ first post-season outing, will ride on pitching.
“I just realize – and I think a lot of us seniors realize – that this is my last high school year and I want to end it with some success. This is probably the last time I’ll get to play with these guys so we want to make it count and end it with a bang,” Merli said.
“Going in as a one seed, we can’t overlook anybody, but we can realize that we’re a good team. As long as we play together, we have a chance to go really far.”