Atwell gets last laugh
By Mike London
Short jokes. Old jokes.
Patrick Atwell has heard them all ó at least twice.
The fifth-year senior has hung in there long enough to get the last laugh. The 5-foot-7 pest will be in right field when Belmont Abbey plays at the Division II World Series in Cary this weekend. Plenty of taller, younger players would love to be in his cleats.
“It’s been pretty nuts, actually,” said Atwell, a 2004 South Rowan graduate. “Not long ago we were sitting at 14-16. Now we’re in the World Series. Now we’re one of eight teams with a chance to be national champions.”
Belmont Abbey wasn’t supposed to be here. Neither was Atwell.
He’s been a good player for a while. His senior season at South he batted .408. In his final summer of American Legion ball in 2004, he hit .348, scored 47 runs and stole a program-record 34 bases in 34 games.
He could fly in high school. His 100-yard interception return against West Charlotte in the 2003 playoffs would make South’s all-time highlight film. His 45-yard pick return ó same game ó was almost as good.
He’s been a starter in college from the get-go ó he hit .308 with 18 steals as a freshman ó but missed the 2006 season when he wrecked a hamstring.
The fateful day was Feb. 8, 2006. It was freezing, miserable, the second week of his sophomore season. Belmont Abbey was embarrassed 17-2 at home by Catawba, and coach Kermit Smith deemed his team’s effort unacceptable. He practiced the Crusaders after the lopsided loss.
It was only intrasquad, but Atwell never lets up. He made a dive for a ball in the outfield. He felt his right leg pop, staggered up with a slight limp and kept going.
When he got a chance to bat, he slapped a single to left, sprinted to first base and made the turn.
“Next thing I know I’m on the ground screaming,” Atwell said. “The worst feeling I’ve ever had.”
His torn right hamstring swelled his leg so much the only trousers he could fit into for a long time were sweatpants. He was on crutches a month. His season was lost, and he redshirted.
“As bad as that year was, I’m very thankful for that injury now,” Atwell said. “If I don’t get hurt, then I’m not still playing and I’m not going to the World Series. They say things happen for a reason, and I believe that.”
Atwell didn’t steal bases after the injury like he did before, and he’s just a fast right fielder now instead of a speeding bullet in center.
But he is the symbol of Belmont Abbey’s offensive philosophy. Smith doesn’t care about homers or batting averages. What he demands is for every hitter to fight the pitcher to get on base, and that’s pretty much what Atwell’s been doing since he was 8 years old.
Atwell will be the first to admit he isn’t a great hitter, but he gets on. He scores runs. He’s crossed the plate 183 times as a Crusader.
Atwell has drawn 135 walks in his four full seasons, an extraordinary amount for someone pitchers desperately try not to walk. He’s also been struck by pitches 62 times, each of them a free ride to first.
“In our intrasquad games, if you get out of the way of a pitch that would’ve hit you, that means 10 pushups,” Atwell said.
Practice makes perfect.
Atwell’s maintained an on-base percentage above .400 every year, peaking with a .453 mark in 2008. This season, even with his batting average hovering at a career-low .250, he’s managed to get on base 41 percent of the time.
In mid-March, it appeared Atwell’s fifth year at “The Abbey” wouldn’t be anything special. The Crusaders stood 14-16 after losing a slugfest with Charlotte, but then they won 10 of their next 12. They haven’t stopped surging.
Belmont Abbey won the Conference Carolinas regular-season title.
Then the Crusaders won the league tournament, winning five games in 48 hours. They likely had to win the event just to get a bid to the Southeast Regional.
“The conference tournament was no-holds-barred, but everything clicked for us,” Atwell said. “We played the kind of knowledgeable baseball the coaches have taught us to play.”
Belmont Abbey was the lowest ranked of the six teams that gathered for the regional and was seeded last. The Crusaders promptly won four straight games against highly regarded Peach Belt Conference teams to win the event. They beat top-seeded host USC Aiken twice.
“We never got any respect from the Peach Belt guys,” Atwell said. “They kept looking down on us like we were high school kids. We just kept playing our game and kept beating them.”
Belmont Abbey was 12-42 in 2004 when Smith and assistant coach Chris Anderson, a Catawba graduate, recruited Atwell.
“Back then, there were only a few guys in this program who could play,” Atwell said. “I give our coaches credit. They went all over looking for talent. They talked to everyone about winning championships. It sounded crazy back then, but crazy in a good kind of way. Now it doesn’t seem crazy at all.”
Atwell does his part. He had just one hit in four regional games, but he walked every game. He scored seven runs and made the all-regional team.
“That kinda shocked me,” Atwell said. “But I did get on base, and I had a good tournament on defense.”
Former North Davidson talents Daniel Kassouf (29 homers, 90 RBIs) and Tyler McKenzie (.377) are the stars for Belmont Abbey. Andrew Morton, a Lexington lefty who gave up eight runs in a hurry to Catawba on the same day that Atwell got hurt, has developed into an exceptional pitcher.
Atwell’s no star, but he’ll work to get on base in the World Series. That’s what he’s been doing forever.
“Guys see me coming, and they can’t believe it,” Atwell said with a laugh. “They say, ‘Man you’ve been in college forever.’ ”
Atwell does feel a little ancient sometimes. This summer, he’ll help coach the South Rowan Legion team. One of his players will be Belmont Abbey freshman outfielder Caleb Shore.
Atwell is an official college graduate now, although he missed the long-awaited ceremony. He was busy running around the bases at the regional when diplomas were handed out.
He didn’t mind. He would’ve had to listen to short jokes and old jokes, and he’s heard them all.