by Aaron Garcia
As Randy Belk trudged toward the team bus on April 4, beaten down by his Charlotte Catholic baseball squad’s latest loss, the current state of the Cougars seemed like an improbability. At that point, Belk couldn’t see past his team’s relative ineptitude. And who could blame him?
The Cougars had just suffered the latest in a string of will-crushing losses, this time in East Mecklenburg’s Spring Break Showcase tournament to North Meck, over whom the Cougars had held a 6-0 lead before falling apart in the late innings to lose, 8-6. The night before, the Cougars fell to Independence, 5-2 after holding a 2-0 lead. The night before that? A 9-4 loss to East Meck after racing to a 4-0 lead after six innings.
To make matters worse, the tournament came on the heels of perhaps the Cougars’ worst loss all season, a 14-2 thrashing from Olympic in late March that dropped Catholic to second place in the ME-GA 7 3A/4A conference standings.
“After that game (against North Meck), I kind of looked at them and said, ‘Go on spring break,’” recalled Belk, who’s in his 32nd year coaching the Cougars. “I didn’t have anything to say. I went straight to the bus. I didn’t want to talk to anybody, I didn’t want to see anybody.
“I was as frustrated at coaching as I’ve been in a long, long, long time.”
Fast-forward roughly a month, and Charlotte Catholic has sewn up its fourth consecutive regular-season league title and blanked Olympic, 8-0 in the ME-GA 7 3A/4A tournament championship game on May 4 to improve to 15-7 on the season and 11-1 in conference play.
The key to the Cougars regaining their spot atop the ME-GA 7 standings and entering the Class 3A state playoffs with momentum yet again this season?
Time, said Belk.
Entering this season, the Cougars were faced with replacing eight of last year’s starters who led the team to a 19-5 record and a fourth-round playoff appearance. Gone was the majority of the pitching staff and position players. Even the one remaining starter, Eddie Hull, was in an unfamiliar position; before the season, Belk moved the senior to second base from his previous home at third in an effort to shore up the middle of the infield.
To compound things, Belk scheduled one of the toughest slates in recent memory for the Cougars. After the North Meck loss, the Cougars were 8-6 overall with losses to not only their three East Meck tournament opponents but south Charlotte stalwarts South Mecklenburg and Charlotte Christian. A late date with Ardrey Kell on April 26 (a 4-0 loss) meant the Cougars were scheduled to play nearly every good team from the vaunted Southwestern 4A conference aside from Providence and Butler.
It was a tall order for a roster full of varsity neophytes, Belk acknowledged.
“It was scary at first,” Belk said. “I knew they were talented. The funny thing is I knew they would hit – I just didn’t know how well they’d play defense because they all hit (while they were on) the JV team.”
Added Hull: “Coming into it, we had some young talent, but we didn’t really know how we were going to fare.”
The gains came slowly, a fact that justified Belk’s frustrated trek to the team bus following the North Meck loss.
“I spent a week thinking, ‘All right, what do you do?’” said Belk. “But at the same time I kept thinking, ‘We just played three really good teams and probably saw (each team’s) No. 1 pitcher.’ We were in all of those games, and I was thinking, ‘All right, they were three good teams, and we were in (the games).’”
As it turned out, the week off was just what the doctor ordered for the Cougars’ ailing bats. Belk took the team to a two-game tournament in Roanoke, Va., the following week, and the Cougars exploded for 25 hits, winning their two games by a combined score of 30-4. Finally the offense was showing the potential Belk knew was there.
“It was contagious,” Belk said. “One guy starts hitting, and the other guys hit.”
Since then, the Cougars have settled into their roles both at the plate and in the field. First-year starting third baseman Tyler Jensen is hitting .390 and leads the team with 20 RBIs and seven doubles. Belk said Hull has thrived at his new position, and his offensive numbers suggest a high comfort level, as the Wingate University commit leads the team with a .475 average and 28 hits. Chris Clare, another new starter at first base, is hitting .349 with 19 RBIs. Jack Brodowicz is perhaps the league’s best defensive center fielder, and Michael Crowley, formerly an infielder, has filled in as the team’s catcher and done a solid job.
The Cougars haven’t just outscored teams, however. Perhaps Belk’s tallest obstacle came in replacing a pitching staff that combined for a 1.85 ERA and eight shutouts in 2011. After a brief adjustment period, first-year starting juniors Jacob Bonen-Clark (7-2 record) and Jordan Accetta (7-3) have settled into their roles and currently lead a staff with a 2.64 ERA that hasn’t surrendered a home run all season.
The season, which basically equaled a baptism by fire, said Bonen-Clark, has paid off, and should continue to do so.
“It’s good now because we’ve gotten that experience and gotten it out of the way so now, going into the playoffs, we’re ready for the tough teams that we’re going to face.”
The Cougars begin their postseason run on Friday, May 11. And while the team’s inexperience worries Belk, he said coaching this young group has him feeling rejuvenated.
“It does keep you on your toes a little bit,” said Belk. “I’ve had as much fun this year coaching this bunch as I’ve had in a long time.”
And while the improvement has reenergized their coach, it has also helped the Cougars realize just how far they’ve come, and how far they want to keep going.
“We’re starting to roll right now,” said Crowley. “We’re playing real well together and everything is falling into place.”
Added Bonen-Clark: “We feel really confident right now, especially after that win against Olympic (in the conference tournament championship game). We feel ready for whatever anyone else can throw at us.”