Imperfect stadium has been field of dreams for Warriors baseball team
by Aaron Garcia
The baseball players at Metrolina Christian Academy have taken to naming those special little circumstances that come along with playing home games at Fred Kirby Park. The field, situated across from the school’s new athletic facility on Lake Park Drive, isn’t like other high school baseball fields. Other stadiums typically have at least a coach looking after it at all times: watering the infield, cutting the grass, pulling the weeds.
But Fred Kirby Park is a county park serving as the Warriors’ home as their new digs are being constructed. There’s no watchful eye to make sure the dirt stays even and rock-free. Tufts of grass pock the outfield and redirect ground balls like pin-ball bumpers before they ever get a chance to reach the fence, which is roughly just 300 feet from home plate, all the way around the field.
But the Metrolina players love it, nonetheless, much the way a dog lover is willing to overlook a little bit of mange.
“We take it as an advantage,” said junior center fielder Drew Matthews. “We call it ‘Lake Park magic’ here. If a bad hop comes around, it’s just Lake Park magic. If someone hits a home run by four or five feet, it’s Lake Park magic.”
But to those outside the program, the same term could have a much different meaning, referring instead to the breakout season the Warriors are enjoying.
After finishing the 2011 season with an 11-11 record, the Warriors enter this week’s N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 3A playoffs as one of the county’s biggest surprises. They wrapped up the Metrolina Athletic Conference’s regular-season title with an 11-1 league record and are 14-5 overall. As the Warriors prepared for the state playoff brackets to be released this week, coach Darren Adams hoped his team had done enough to earn at least a No. 8 seed, which would result in at least one home game.
“It feels awesome because I’ve played here since sixth grade,” said junior catcher Justin Kenley. “Just to know this is what we’ve been working toward the whole time and now, to finally be able to say we’ve accomplished that or we’re on the way to accomplishing that, feels pretty good.”
With only one senior gone from last year’s roster, which featured a bevy of underclassmen, the Warriors entered the season with some much-needed experience. After five games, however, the Warriors were 1-4 with a team batting average of just .190. Sure, they beat Central Academy of Technology & Arts, but the win was sandwiched by a 13-3 loss to Davidson Day and another to league rival Covenant Day, 7-4. The Warriors were then outscored 26-3 in their next two losses to Greensboro’s Caldwell Academy and Fayetteville Village Christian.
“Nobody was swinging the bat well,” Adams said. “Usually you have spurts where maybe two or three guys slump, but the whole team was just not hitting. It was frustrating, but I don’t believe our guys gave up, because we knew we were capable of so much more.”
It didn’t take long for the team to back up Adams’ assertion. Starting with a 7-3 win over MAC foe Huntersville SouthLake Christian, the Warriors’ offense exploded, pushing them to 13 consecutive wins. In that span, they topped double digits in runs scored seven times.
The spark, said Adams, came in the form of left-handed infielder/pitcher Ross Rushing, a Piedmont transfer who also starred on the Warriors’ football and basketball teams.
“I can’t say enough about how much Ross Rushing has meant to our team this year,” Adams said. “He’s been huge for us.”
After not playing last season to focus on football, Rushing joined the team late after the Warriors’ basketball season ended in the playoffs, giving him just two practices and one bullpen session to prepare for the season. It showed, as he began the season just 2-for-11 at the plate.
“OK, he’ll probably help us more on the mound than at the plate,” Adams recalled thinking at the time.
In his next 20 at-bats, however, Rushing shook off the rust and hit safely 14 times. Then, said Adams, the offensive flood gates opened.
“Once he started playing well,” Adams said, “it helped the other guys’ confidence level and the way they played the game. Hitting is contagious. As soon as one guy started hitting (the ball), the rest of the guys started hitting as well.”
Rushing’s .582 batting average borders on the absurd, as do his 41 RBIs. The senior also has added two grand slams (four homers total) and six stolen bases.
Added Drew Matthews: “He’s our sparkplug, he’s our big man. If we need somebody to get a hit in a key situation, he’ll come through.”
The other players have followed suit. Andrew Adamczyk is batting .415 with 15 RBIs and six stolen bases. Matthews (.380) is next, followed by Taylor Timmerman (.375), Kenley (.356) and Cody Poplin (.327). As a team, the Warriors are batting a robust .329 with seven home runs and 149 RBIs.
Rushing said it wasn’t just the hitting that became contagious; it was the wins as well.
“It really all came together,” said Rushing, who also sports a 7-1 record on the mound with a 1.72 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings pitched. “I was like, ‘OK, we’re first in the conference, there’s x-amount of games left, and we have a chance to win the conference.’ (We realized) we can pull this off. It’s nothing crazy, it’s nothing outside our borders.”
But there are still improvements to be made, and Adams’ team needs to look no further than its loss in the second round of the MAC tournament last week. After earning a bye as the league’s top seed, the Warriors fell to SouthLake Christian in the opening game.
“They beat us pretty good,” said Adams. “That caused us to wake up (and realize) that, ‘Hey, we’re not so good that we can just come out here and expect to win and not have to earn it.’ I definitely expect it to wake our guys up.”
“We need to play like we know we can: just relax, have fun and go back to the basics.”
If they do, they might just prove there’s no such thing as Lake Park magic.