On the mound, in the field, Thornton expected to lead Ardrey Kell this spring
Trent Thornton can remember the conversation with his grandfather, Jerry, clearly. It came a little more than a month ago, and the subject – the upcoming season – was something the two talked about regularly. In fact, they touched on it nearly every single day.
“He was extremely excited (about this season),” Thornton recalled.
And with good reason, as Jerry was the proud grandfather for one of the state’s most promising stars in Thornton, a hard-throwing Ardrey Kell senior pitcher who also has the potential to be one of the state’s top overall players in the outfield. Last season, Thornton batted .402 with a team-high 33 RBIs and tied for the team lead with eight home runs. On the mound, he had an 8-3 record with two saves and a 2.16 ERA while striking out 79 batters and issuing only 13 walks.
But this season is shaping up to be a little different for Thornton, as he’s one of the few returning starters to a team that went 24-5 last year and advanced all the way to the Class 4A sectional finals, making the Knights one of the final eight teams in the state’s largest division. This season, though, with former stars such as Logan Ratledge and Chris McCue having joined the programs at N.C. State and the University of North Carolina, respectively, Thornton will shoulder the responsibility of being the Knights’ go-to guy in every facet of the game.
And Knights coach Hal Bagwell has little doubt that Thornton will be ready for the challenge.
“We knew he was going to be a two-way guy his sophomore year,” said Bagwell.
The designation is vital to the Ardrey Kell lineup, as some of the most productive players in Knights history had earned their keep both on the mound and in the field. It’s a group that includes graduates such as Jordan Darnell, Alex Wood and McCue, who all cemented their reputations as some of the state’s top talents by producing wherever the Knights needed them.
It’s no easy task being talented enough to face the Southwestern 4A conference’s best pitchers and hitters. But in Thornton’s sophomore season, during a conference game against East Mecklenburg, he stepped into the starting lineup and went 2-for-3 with two doubles off one of the conference’s top hurlers, Olen Little.
“That sparked the team,” said Bagwell. “We just threw him in the lineup just searching for someone who could do something for us, and he stepped in.
“That really showed me a lot. The young guy coming in and doing that.”
From there, Bagwell’s trust in Thornton grew to the point that he became a regular contributor, and he carried an uncommon maturity not only to the plate but also the mound.
“He was ready the first time he toed (the pitcher’s mound),” said Bagwell. “He didn’t need any seasoning.”
But the game of baseball has a way of kicking over pedestals with players still on them, as Thornton learned the hard way. Last season, Thornton quickly emerged as one of the state’s top players. In the Knights’ regular-season finale against rival Providence, Thornton tied the game in the fifth inning with a three-run homer, then put the Knights ahead, 4-3, with a solo shot in the seventh.
Thornton then took the mound with a chance to earn the save but instead gave up two runs, including a homer to former Panther great Brett Austin. The Knights lost, 5-4.
“It was the highest I’ve ever been, and the lowest I’ve ever been,” Thornton said of the loss to Providence.
But Thornton’s demeanor, even after the heartbreaking loss, never faltered, said Bagwell. In fact, Bagwell refers to Thornton as a “calming influence,” even after such losses. As a result, the coach said his faith in his star never wavered. In fact, he noted, it’s only gotten stronger.
“He’s mean as a snake out there on the mound, and that’s what you want with your guys,” said Bagwell. “He doesn’t want to give in. He’s certainly not going to back down from anyone.”
The college scouts never backed off, either. Before his junior season, Thornton accepted a scholarship offer to play for the University of North Carolina. Thornton said the Heels plan to utilize his bat and his arm as a two-way player in the outfield, and his opportunity to perform every day this season should pay dividends down the road.
“Coach Bagwell told me I was going to be ‘that guy’ this year, and they’re going to call on me to be on the mound and at the plate – I’ve got to support runs and be able to pitch,” Thornton said.
Bagwell said he has no doubt Thornton can handle that role, both for his team and next year when he joins the Tar Heels.
“There aren’t that many two-way guys in the (Atlantic Coast Conference), not at that level,” Bagwell said. “But he’s one of them.
“He’s our go-to guy. I’d be crazy to deny that. Everybody knows that, and he accepts that challenge and that role, and he’s very good in that role. That’s what he wants, so he’s got it.”
But as if the weight of proving himself as the Knights’ headlining talent – both at the plate, in the field and on the mound – weren’t motivation enough, Thornton has found a new cause to play for in his grandfather, Jerry.
Jerry passed away from a heart attack on Jan. 16. It was an unexpected, abrupt loss for Thornton, who often stayed in hotel rooms with his grandfather while the family traversed the arduous summer-baseball circuit.
Thornton certainly gave his grandpa plenty to cheer about, especially as he went 11-0 as a pitcher during the showcase season.
During a recent preseason doubleheader, Thornton said he couldn’t help but look at the spot where Jerry usually sat at Knights’ home games: in a lawn chair, right behind home plate. Jerry’s was a constant and comforting presence, and Thornton said it would be difficult to adjust to his absence.
“It hit me pretty hard,” said Thornton.
After saying a few pre-game words to his grandfather, and with Jerry’s beloved St. Christopher medal around his neck, Thornton went out in the two practice games and reached base seven times (4-for-4, two walks and a hit by pitch) while also striking out seven of the 10 batters he faced.
Which proved that Jerry had plenty to be excited about this season.