Catawba Baseball: Indians are young

Published 12:38 am Wednesday, May 27, 2015

In the ninth inning of Catawba’s 5-1 D-II National Championship win against Henderson State on Monday in Cary, the Indians had five freshmen on the field.

Freshmen manned first base, second base, third base, left field and right field, and that wasn’t an unusual situation for the Indians.

Four freshmen are almost always on the field for Catawba, and if one of the freshmen is on the bump — Michael Elwell, Bryan Blanton and Connor Johnson have pitched in the postseason — then the Indians can play defense with a team that is two-thirds freshmen.

“We’re so young that we wondered at the start of the year if we should hold batting practice or just bring the coloring books,” Catawba coach Jim Gantt joked.

Gantt admits he’s a bit surprised at where the Indians are now. Catawba is 46-13, one win short of tying the school record, and is contending for a national title.

“We knew our freshmen had some ability and we’re happy that they’ve developed quickly,” Gantt said. “Most of our freshmen have baseball maturity beyond their years. They’ve accepted the mutual goal of doing their job. They understand what their role is and what our objectives are.”

The freshmen have been asked to assist extraordinary veteran players.

Senior pitcher/third baseman Craig Brooks was announced Monday as the Rawlings Gold Bat Award winner as National Player of the Year for Division II.

Brooks, who has closed Catawba’s two wins in Cary, also was named the top pitcher in Division II, while Catawba junior Will Albertson, a catcher/DH was named the top position player in D-II.

Catawba also has experienced standouts in senior catcher/designated hitter T.J. Wharton, senior reliever Ryan McClintock, senior leadoff man/center fielder Blake Houston, junior shortstop Dylan Richardson and sophomore starting pitcher Shaefer Shepard.

“The older guys have led in the right way,” Gantt said. “They’ve allowed the younger guys to fit in and play with confidence.”

First baseman Chance Bowden, a product of Salisbury High, has made the biggest impact of the freshmen. He’s batting .277 with five homers and his 50 RBIs rank third on the team behind Albertson and Wharton.

“I really believe Chance would’ve been SAC Freshman of the Year. He was on his way when he had a hamstring injury that set him back some,” Gantt said. “His defense has been even bigger than his offense. His glove has changed our infield defense.”

Right fielder Luke Setzer, from East Rowan, is batting .293 with four homers and 31 RBIs and has been terrific defensively, covering a lot of ground and rifling throws.

“He’s made the play of game more than a few times this year,” Gantt said. “He makes heads-up plays and good decisions.”

Kyle Smith, who usually mans second base, is a steady lefty hitter with four homers, 29 RBIs and a .256 batting average.

“He’s going to be a dynamic player, and he hit a huge homer at USC Aiken,” Gantt said. “He can run and he can play a lot of positions.”

Another freshman, left fielder Austin Stilley, has emerged in recent weeks as a potential star. Like Bowden, Stilley made the All-Southeast Regional team. Stilley drove in the first run of Catawba’s victory on Monday.

“Stilley plays football (linebacker), so we didn’t have him in the fall,” Gantt said. “It just took him a while to knock the rust off. He kept his mouth shut when he wasn’t playing and then when he did get an opportunity, he gave us quality at-bats. He kind of made us find a place for him.”

Freshman Emmitt Carden has helped as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement in left field. He scored the run in the 1-0 win in the Southeast Regional title game. Grayland Fowler is a fine defensive second baseman and his glove helped win a regional game.

As far as the freshmen pitchers, Johnson is 5-1 as a starter, while Blanton and Elwell have become key components to a deep bullpen.

“Elwell broke his foot or he would’ve been a big factor all season,” Gantt said. “Blanton was one of those point guard/quarterback guys in high school (Albemarle), and he’s got that competitive mentality. He doesn’t shy away from running the show.”

Gantt is excited about the future.

The present will get exciting on Thursday at 7 p.m. when Catawba returns to action in Cary against an opponent to be determined Wednesday.

No matter who the Indians play, the freshmen will play a vital role in the outcome.

“They bought into our system,” Gantt said. “Those freshmen helped us become a very good team.”