College baseball: Colossal season for Connolly

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 9, 2024

By Mike London

DOBSON — Surry Community College ended a 38-10 baseball season on Monday, but Matthew Connolly accepted handsome hardware that will always remind him of his breakout spring.

Connolly, a freshman catcher from West Rowan, was named Division III Region 10 Player of the Year.

“It’s huge for me and it means a lot to be recognized, but it’s an award that reflects the season the team had,” Connolly said. “We played some really good baseball, won the regular season, made it to the tournament championship game. You don’t get individual awards unless you’ve got really good teammates to play with.”

Connolly normally batted fifth for the Surry Knights, so he owed some of his success to cleanup man Jalan Chambers, a talented sophomore from A.L. Brown. Chambers was on base frequently and he can run. He helped Connolly amass 44 RBIs.

Connolly has been a good player for a while. He was 3-for-27 at the plate as a West Rowan sophomore, but he blossomed into West’s top power hitter by his senior season. He batted .324 with two homers, 12 doubles and 16 RBIs in 2023 and walked often enough to post a .489 on-base percentage.

He was also dependable for the Rowan County American Legion team the last two summers. He batted .262 with a homer and 16 RBIs in 2023, while sharing catching duties with his buddy, Cameron Burleyson, who served as  a backup catcher for Catawba College this season.

After last summer’s Legion season was in the record books, Connolly made a commitment to make himself better than being pretty good. He loves baseball and knew he had to improve if he was going to keep playing the game past the college level.

“I tried to hit the weight room hard in the off-season, tried to eat right and I put on about 20 solid pounds,” Connolly said. “The extra strength made a big difference as far as being able to drive the baseball. And then I got off to a really good start at Surry.”

In a rural setting of farmland and vineyards not far from Mount Airy, Connolly found his stride as a ballplayer.

Surry’s season started on Feb. 3. On Feb. 17, Connolly smashed his first home run of the season — and his second.

There was also a day in March on which he belted two homers on the same day. There was a walk-off blast against New River Community College that he calls the best moment of the season.

Connolly finished the season with staggering stats — a .358 batting average, 44 runs, 44 RBIs, 12 doubles and seven homers. He walked 47 times — once a game — and had an on-base percentage over .500.

His most surprising statistic was 27 stolen bases.

“A lot of coaches use a courtesy runner for the catcher, but I was lucky to have high school and Legion coaches who let me run the bases,” Connolly said. “I learned a lot about base-running from those coaches and I know what to look for when I’m on base. I know which pitchers I can steal against.”

Connolly batted .438 in February. Pitchers started pitching around him as the word got out around the league, but he stayed patient and didn’t chase pitches out of the zone much. He had to cool off some, but he still hit well over. 300 in March and April.

Defensively, he was solid and showed off an arm that has gotten even stronger since his Legion days.

Off the field, Connolly had an enjoyable year, as the team had a large contingent of players from Rowan County.

“It’s a good group of guys,” Connolly said. “We’ve laughed a lot. We’ve played a lot of cards and we’ve talked a lot of baseball.”

Connolly is listed at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds now and passes the eye test. He looks the way pro catchers are supposed to look, scouts have been in the stands at Surry to assess his talent, including one from the Atlanta Braves.

Since he attends a two-year school, Connolly will be eligible for the upcoming MLB draft, but he’s not losing sleep over what might or might not happen in July.

That’s smart. That’s not something he has any control over.

“I have no way of knowing what will happen, but if I were to get drafted, then that would be something to talk over with my family,” Connolly said. “But it’s not something I’m worried about or focused on.”

He does have a full summer of baseball planned. It won’t be long before he’ll report to  the Asheboro Zookeepers of the Coastal Plain League, one of the tougher college wood bat leagues in the country, a league where a lot of the players will be from Division I schools. The Zookeepers play their home games at Asheboro’s McCrary Park, a venue familiar to every Rowan County American Legion fan.

“I was so excited when I got the phone call from Asheboro asking me to play for them,” Connolly said. “That’s going to be really good baseball. Playing there will let me know how I stack up with some of the best college players around.”