Weddington baseball takes new path to state title game, seeks same result

For the second consecutive season, the Weddington baseball team is one of the final eight public school teams left standing in the state. And, like last year, the Warriors have a chance to cap their remarkable season with a Class 3A championship when they face Greenville Conley in a best-of-three series at Greensboro’s Newbridge Bank Park this weekend.

Players such as (from left) Chris Simpson, Daniel Calabretta, Sean Collins, Jeremy Schellhorn and Landon Kay give Weddington an excellent shot at repeating as 3A state champs this weekend.

Players such as (from left) Chris Simpson, Daniel Calabretta, Sean Collins, Jeremy Schellhorn and Landon Kay give Weddington an excellent shot at repeating as 3A state champs this weekend.

But the Warriors have taken a very different path to this year’s state title series.

Last season, the Warriors were one of the state’s most talented teams, a fact that shone through from the beginning, as they navigated a treacherous early schedule using a stifling balance of pitching, defense and timely hitting. It didn’t take long for the Warriors to assert themselves as a championship-caliber team, a label that held firm even in the toughest moments, as the Warriors made the game look easy while completing their 27-6 season. In 2012, they won four of their first six playoff games by at least nine runs per contest before sweeping Pikeville Aycock in the championship series.

While the Warriors would have to replace a handful of standouts from last year’s roster, stalwarts such as pitcher/outfielder Alex Bostic, a Clemson recruit, were back. The impressive list also includes pitcher/first baseman

Jeremy Schellhorn (Charlotte 49ers), junior hurler and outfielder Sean Collins (University of Virginia) and junior shortstop Daniel Calabretta (Duke). Logic said that between Weddington and rival Marvin Ridge, another of the state’s top 3A teams, Union County would have a heavy impact on the 2013 state title.

The Warriors’ 2013 season, however, didn’t start out that way.

After an opening-day win over South Mecklenburg, Weddington dropped its next four games by an average of eight runs per outing.

“Being the defending champs, it never feels good to come back and lose four of your  (first five) games,” said Calabretta. “We just weren’t focused, I don’t think. We were still kind of living off last season.”

Coach Travis Poole agreed.

“I think there was a realization that we had to play well to win, that it wasn’t a situation where we could show up to the ballpark and win just because we were the defending 3A state champion,” said Poole.

The Warriors rebounded to win their next 13 games but struggled in a pair of three-game series against Porter Ridge and Marvin Ridge. They lost two games in each series, which had them in third place in the Southern Carolina 3A/4A conference entering the final week of the regular season. In fact, it took a Sun Valley sweep of Porter Ridge at the end of the regular season to boost the Warriors into second place in the conference behind Marvin Ridge.

Behind the wins and conspicuous losses, the Warriors were undergoing some growing pains. The potent pitching staff of Bostic, Schellhorn and Collins never materialized. Bostic injured his elbow in the offseason and never returned to the form that had him penciled in as one of the top high school pitching prospects in the county. Also, Schellhorn was stifled by offseason Tommy John surgery, while Collins missed a few starts with shoulder tightness, meaning the Warriors were left breaking in a largely untested rotation of Charlotte Christian transfer Landon Kay and Josh Islam. In the field, Jake Ferry replaced the dependable Andrew Knight at catcher, while Davis Norred was learning his way at second base.

Despite the injuries, the three standouts still have had sizeable impacts. Bostic is batting .393 with 46 runs, 35 RBIs and 11 home runs. Schellhorn has a .333 batting average with 22 runs, 28 RBIs and six home runs. Collins is hitting .364 with 18 runs, 31 RBIs, and six home runs.

“That’s helped a lot, just keeping a positive outlook,” said Kay, who’s compiled a 7-0 record with 52 strikeouts in 59 innings pitched.

“We just all kept backing each other up. If somebody was down, we picked them up.”

Islam also adjusted well to his spot in the rotation with a 5-3 record, which included 37 strikeouts in 45 innings pitched. Despite being limited, Collins leads the team with a 2.71 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings of action.

Plus, Norred has emerged offensively (.296 average, 20 runs), and Ferry is now a strong presence behind the plate while adding a spark with his bat over the last few weeks, said Poole.

While many outside the program focused on the Warriors’ regular-season warts, Schellhorn said the players themselves were well aware of their progression.

“We knew it was just a matter of time before we clicked as a team,” he said. “I know I didn’t think (it wouldn’t happen), for sure. I don’t think the team really thought that. We have a bunch of people that believe in the team and believe in themselves. I think that helped us get through that.”

Now, the Warriors might be better equipped for a title run than last year, thanks to some of those early-season struggles, which certainly appear to have paid off thus far in the postseason.

In the third round of the playoffs, the Warriors held off a late surge from Charlotte Catholic to win a 3-2 nail-biter. In their next game, they overcame a 1-0 deficit to Marvin Ridge and scored a pair of sixth-inning runs to advance with a 2-1 victory. Then, in the Western Regional finals, they lost their first game to Hickory and fell behind, 6-0, in Game 2 before scrapping their way back and winning, 8-7, in extra innings.

For good measure, they withstood a late surge by Hickory in the following game to clinch the series, 8-5.

“I think (our experience) played a big role,” Collins said. “We’ve had a lot of tight games throughout the playoffs, and having that experience last year and knowing what it takes to win definitely has helped us pull out those games.”

Calabretta (.368 average, 41 runs scored, 12 doubles) said it also didn’t hurt that the team has learned how to fight when necessary.

“I think we’re pretty good at keeping our head cool and not magnifying the moment so much – just being ourselves,” Calabretta said.

And that kind of fight, especially while coming back from a 6-0 deficit in Game 2 of the previous matchup, is the best thing to enter a state title series with, said Poole.

“It shows we’re never out of it, the big lady hadn’t started singing yet, and the guys didn’t quit,” said Poole. “That says a lot for their character. It says a lot about their offseason conditioning and weight training because that built some mental toughness in them.

“As a coach, you could never ask for much more. All out, 100 percent until the final bell rings. If you can do that, then that tells me that not only do you have a chance to be successful (this weekend), you have a chance to be successful in life.”

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