College baseball: A.L. Brown grad Butler trusted the process

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 5, 2024


By Mike London

ROCKY MOUNT — On Thursday, N.C. Wesleyan senior Cordarius Butler, USA South Pitcher of the Year, beat Southern Virginia to boost his record for the season to 10-0.

On Saturday, he graduated with a degree in business administration.

Two major moments in what has been a huge year in his life.

“Graduation is the bigger one of the two for me and for my family,” Butler said. “Graduating college with a degree was always the plan, was always the biggest goal. Baseball just helped me get there.”

Butler was almost too good of an athlete growing up in Kannapolis. “Too good” in the sense that he was being tugged in a lot of directions year-round by three different sports.

Strong, fast and tough at 6-foot-2, he could hoop, he could play on either side of the ball in football, and he was a two-way baseball player who could swing as well as fling.

When you’re growing up in Kannapolis, a football town, the gridiron frequently becomes the priority, and Butler put in the time, study and sweat needed to become A.L. Brown’s starting quarterback.

Unfortunately, after earning that coveted role, his junior football season lasted about 20 minutes. The Wonders opened with an August “Bell Game: against rival Concord. Butler threw a touchdown pass that put the Wonders ahead in a game they eventually won 31-19, but Butler suffered a traumatic leg injury in the second quarter.

“I tore the ACL and two more ligaments in my knee,” Butler said. “There was nerve damage in the leg. It was devastating.”

It was a season-ending injury that would change the trajectory of his athletic career.

The biggest influence on Butler always was Empsy Thompson, who coached Butler not only on the A.L. Brown baseball team, but with the area’s elite travel team, the South Charlotte Panthers, who took on a regional and national schedule.

“I talked to Coach T a lot and had started taking baseball seriously even before the football injury,” Butler explained. “In the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I began to realize that baseball might be the sport I played in college.”

That turned out to be the case. Butler actually committed verbally to UNC Pembroke’s baseball program, although by the summer of 2018, when he was playing for the Kannapolis American Legion team, he’d changed his mind and decided to go instead to Southeastern Community College in Whiteville.

He stuck with baseball through the challenges and the down time provided by COVID before he got a chance to continue his career and education at N.C. Wesleyan.

He arrived at the Division II school in Rocky Mount for the 2022 season still labeled as a pitcher/outfielder. He made four relief appearances and got about 75 at-bats that season that were mostly unsuccessful.

But in the summer between the 2022 and 2023 seasons, he played in the Coastal Plain League, a tough wood bat league for advanced college players, he made the decision to drop hitting and focus on becoming the best pitcher that he could be.

For the first time since he’d been old enough to pick up a ball, Butler was totally focused on one aspect of athletics for the 2023 baseball season. He was able to make a meaningful contribution to N.C. Wesleyan’s strong year. Payne Stolsworth, the former West Rowan quarterback who had made the same football-to-baseball transition as Butler, was the league’s dominant pitcher and went 12-0 as the Battling Bishops of N.C. Wesleyan won their first conference championship in 14 years.

Butler showed a live fastball, struck out 31 batters in 25 innings and had a record of 3-3.

Stolsworth transferred to Catawba College to play his graduate season close to home and has dominated in Division II this season.

Butler learned a lot from watching Stolsworth pitch for N.C. Wesleyan and after a solid summer with a new Coastal Plain League franchise, the Boone Bigfoots, he has taken a giant leap as a college hurler in 2024. Basically, he has been able to replace Stolsworth as N.C. Wesleyan’s ace. He has been able to make that sweet transition from thrower to pitcher.

“I can throw the fastball low 90s, but an improved changeup has been the key to my season,” Butler said. “On opening day, back in early February, I was in the bullpen and came in and pitched five innings and struck out 11, and I’ve just gone on from there.”

He became a starter after that breakout game, and his coaches and teammates learned they could count on him for at least five innings every time he took the ball. He’s had only one shaky start all season. He struck out a career-best 12 against William Peace. In four of his starts, he’s allowed zero earned runs.

“I haven’t always pitched great, but we’ve usually gotten the wins as a team,” Butler said. “The thing I’m proudest of is that I’ve been consistent. Baseball is a grind, it’s a very tough process and you have to trust that process. Everyone wants to see great results right away, but it takes time to see those results. I’ve stayed with it, kept improving a little bit every day. and now things are working out for me.”

On the day that Stolsworth was named South Atlantic Conference Pitcher of the Year, Butler found out he’d received the same award from the USA South Conference.

“My teammates made me feel really special about getting that award,” Butler said. “And I’m very happy for Payne’s success. We’re good friends.”

After the USA South Tournament, NC Wesleyan (29-11) will look to make a run in the D-III national playoffs.

After the season, Butler, will be exploring his options in the transfer portal. He still has a year of baseball eligibility left and plans to use it as he works on a graduate degree.