College baseball: Catawba right fielder a driving force in run to World Series

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 2, 2024

By Mike London

SALISBURY — They start the Division II baseball season early, so Catawba was playing in Georgia at Columbus State on Feb. 9.

Dylan Driver lashed a rocket toward an outfield gap at Burger King Stadium in the seventh inning, his third hit of the game, but his joy turned to ashes as he rounded first base.

“It felt like my leg had caught on fire,” Driver said. “I’d never felt anything like it.”

He’d torn a quad muscle, and for a player whose game is built around his wheels, applying pressure on the base paths and chasing down balls in right field, a leg injury spelled potential disaster.

Driver sat out the next seven games, agonizing for Driver, even though the Indians were deep enough to win five of them without him. He hated missing the home opener at Newman Park. He hated missing the entire three-game series with Shippensburg because in 2023 Driver had personally destroyed Shippensburg.

Driver returned for one at-bat on Feb. 25 at Tusculum, although there’s not much doubt he tried to come back too soon.

He went 1-for-16 in the next four games.

“Part of that was the injury, but part of it was just baseball luck,” Driver said. “Sometimes you hit it hard, but the hits still don’t fall.”

Eventually he got healthy. The hits started falling again. With Driver that usually means multiple hits. He gets them two and three at a time.

Driver, one of eight Carson graduates on Catawba’s roster, can hit.

Who was Catawba’s leading hitter in 2022? Driver hit .338.

Who was Catawba’s leading hitter in 2023? Driver hit .364.

Who is Catawba’s leading hitter this season? Driver is currently at .369, although shortstop and lead-off man Levi Perrell will be right there with him at .368 when the Indians start play in the Division II World Series in Cary on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Seeded third, the Indians’ first opponent is sixth-seeded Southern New Hampshire.

Perrell and Driver are ideal table-setters for the husky bats in the middle of Catawba’s lineup. They have helped left sluggers Sam Hunter and Bo Rusher pile up super RBI numbers.

“Honestly, I don’t look at my stats at all, and I don’t think any of my teammates are concerned with any stats other than wins and losses, but if there’s a key start for me it would be runs scored,” Driver said. “My job is to get on base for the big guys.”

When Catawba gets off the bus in Cary, Driver won’t be noticed. At 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, he blends in with the crowd, but he’s a secret weapon for the Indians.

Defensively as well as offensively.

He was a Gold Glove winner for Division II outfielders in 2023, making zero errors.

He has not made an error this season, either. He’s handled 111 chances and has thrown out five guys on the bases — with no errors.

“My favorite defensive play this year came against Wingate,” Driver said. “It was twilight and our center fielder (Sam Hunter) never saw a pop fly off the bat, but I could see it and I could see that Sam didn’t see it. I took off right away and wound up making a diving catch in dead center field. It was an F9 in the scorebook, but I was in center field. That’s given me something to give Sam grief about since then.”

Driver’s favorite offensive moment of the season was a home run he hit against Lenoir-Rhyne in the South Atlantic Conference Tournament. It helped trigger a comeback. Catawba was down by as many as five runs, but rallied to win 8-7. Besides the homer, Driver had a two-run double during the comeback. Driver’s Carson and Catawba teammate Logan Rogers hit the walk-off homer that won it.

“We just needed some life, and when I hit that homer it gave us some,” Driver said.

Driver’s bio on Catawba’s website is the most modest one of all-time. The description of his high school career is three words: “Lettered in baseball.”

Unfortunately, Driver’s junior and senior seasons at Carson were the COVID-marred seasons. He was batting .632 as a junior when Carson’s season was halted after six games. As a senior, he batted .378 in a 14-game half-season. If Driver had been able to play those two full seasons, he would be a lot more famous now than he is.

But he’s working on that.

In Catawba’s recent victory in the Southeast Super Regional at Newman Park, the Indians swept Georgia College in two games. Driver scored three runs in the first game and drove in three with a bases-clearing triple in the second game.

His stats for the season now look really good. He’s recovered from that lull he had after the injury. His .369 batting average comes with some juice — 19 doubles, seven triples, six homers and 17-for-19 on steals. With an on-base percentage of .490, he gets on base on nearly half his trips to the plate. He has 73 hits, 65 runs and 49 RBIs.

It’s obvious that as long as Driver can stay healthy, he’s going to have a career that is going to put him on the all-time leaderboard for Catawba in just about everything except home runs. He already has 188 hits, 137 runs, 117 RBIs, 10 triples, 43 doubles and 57 steals. He is batting .359 for his career with a stellar .466 on-base percentage.

Four Catawba players made first team All-SAC. Driver was one of the four that made second team All-SAC.

He’s underrated, but he doesn’t lose sleep about that. His ego would fit easily into a can of Cheerwine.

“We’ve done a lot of things right as a team this year,” said Driver, who plans to swing a wood bat for the Asheboro Zookeepers of the Coastal Plain League this summer. “When you get to host the regional, you know you’ve done some things right. Now it’s just us and seven other teams for the entire country. We realize how special that is and how special this opportunity is.”

The Indians are where they want to be, back in the World Series for the fourth time and for the first time since 2019. While they’ve yet to win one, they have finished as high as second (2015).

Indian fans will try to transport some of that Newman Park energy 120 miles north. Catawba will have something of a home-field advantage in Cary where a tailgate party will get under way at 11 a.m. on Sunday.