Since Jon Tuscan took over the South Mecklenburg baseball program four years ago, the Sabres have been building momentum in one of the toughest baseball conferences in the state.
The Sabres went 16-10 in Tuscan’s first season. They matched that record in each of the next two seasons and finished in either third or fourth place in the Southwestern 4A conference standings each year.
Since 2007, either Providence or Ardrey Kell held the league’s top spot, and neither seemed ready to relinquish its role. But all that changed this spring.
With a new-found focus, the Sabres (25-7) shared the regular-season conference championship with Ardrey Kell and have stormed through the Class 4A playoffs all the way to this weekend’s championship series in Zebulon, where they’ll face Fuquay-Varinia (26-4) for a chance to win their first state title since 1989.
Sabres catcher and University of South Carolina signee Logan Koch said the turnaround started this season when he and his senior teammates, including pitcher/first baseman Earl Oliver, set out to change their status as a middle-of-the-pack team.
“For me and Earl, as long as we’ve been here, (other teams) have been getting their (success),” Koch said. “We’ve always been that No. 3 or No. 4 team, and we watched as everyone got theirs. We knew now it was our turn.”
So they set out to boost the expectations surrounding Sabres baseball.
This season, however, began a little bumpy, as the Sabres started just 2-4, dropping games to Ardrey Kell, Marvin Ridge (twice) and defending Class 3A champion Weddington.
But Tuscan said the Sabres never panicked.
“I don’t like to say it, but those were productive losses,” Tuscan said. “Honestly, we weren’t good, and we saw what could happen when you try to do too much at the plate. In the grand scheme of things, those losses helped us, because they showed us what happens when you don’t play as a team.”
With lessons learned from the early-season losses, the Sabres became even more united. The wins soon followed, as they rattled off 12 wins in their next 13 games.
“We have a term we use as a team,” said junior second baseman and University of North Carolina signee Brooks Kennedy. “We say, ‘Let’s get ours.’ We go out as a team and we all have the same goal. It doesn’t matter who does the job, that’s how we continue to win because we want it as much for each one of our teammates as we do for ourselves.”
The shared conference title was the Sabres’ first since 2004, and entering this weekend’s championship series, they have gone 11-1 in their previous 12 games. Their only setback was a 6-4 loss to Asheville T.C. Roberson in Game 2 of the Western Regional finals last week.
Now, they’re enjoying the fact that they’re two wins from a state championship.
“They’re rolling with it,” Tuscan said. “The biggest thing I’ve been telling them is to enjoy it because not too many kids get to experience what they’re going through. That’s what makes it really special.
“They’re not getting too rattled in big situations, and they’re keeping positive and just playing their games.”
After taking a one-game lead in the best-of-three series against Roberson, that calmness was on display. The Sabres fell behind, 6-0, in Game 2 but fought back. And although their 10-game win streak was snapped, Tuscan was encouraged.
“Even though we lost, again, it seemed like a productive loss,” he said. “In the dugout, we weren’t down, we weren’t discouraged and we were able to come back.”
They showed that same mentality the next night in Game 3, with the loser heading home for the summer. Roberson jumped out to a 4-1 lead, but the undeterred Sabres scored three times in the fifth inning and added two more runs in the sixth to walk away with a West regional title.
While the Sabres have a star-studded lineup featuring Koch, Kennedy, N.C. State recruit Harris Yett and Oliver (9-3 on the mound), Tuscan’s team doesn’t rely on its stars to produce every game.
“That’s what’s been so big for us,” Tuscan said. “As a coach, you always try to preach the team thing, but our (No.) 1 through (No.) 4 hitters don’t need to carry the load for us. We’re going to get production from everyone … in our lineup.”
And judging from the season’s box scores, Tuscan’s correct. Michael Smith has been tremendous defensively at third base. Sophomore Max Bazin is 11-1 on the mound and provides a solid bat in the lineup. Senior McKay Wrenn has been productive all year and had a big hit against Roberson. Luke Miller has a pair of home runs to his credit, and Austin Wynn owns a 5-2 record as the Sabres’ No. 3 pitcher.
“I feel like we have lots of depth, and (in batting spots) one to nine, we have the best lineup in the state,” Oliver said. “As a pitcher, it’s hard going through a lineup knowing that everyone (you face) can hit. When I’m pitching, it’s like I know if we get down 1-0 or 3-0 or whatever, I know these guys are going to come back.”
Koch said one of the biggest keys has been Bazin, who has solidified the rotation and come up with timely hits all season. As a sophomore, Bazin will start a state championship game on the mound and, even with all the college-bound recruits and veteran leaders this team fields, Koch said he might be the key.
“Earl and I were talking yesterday, and the one guy who has stepped up the most is Max,” Koch said. “Me, Earl and Brooks have had good years, but we’re just meeting expectations for what we should be doing. To have Max come out here and go 11-1 on the mound as a sophomore is what’s got us where we are right now.”
Bazin said he’s happy to be a part of the success, but he credits the potent lineup with helping the pitching staff produce as well as it has.
“It’s been amazing,” Bazin said. “I didn’t know what to expect (this season), but to be able to do what I’ve been fortunate to do and be a part of this is awesome.”
For the players, the season-long trek has been tough. Not only did the season start slowly, their coach and leader was diagnosed with testicular cancer. But they believe that going through Tuscan’s health battle together has made their bond stronger.
“This is awesome,” Oliver said. “To see these guys come together, especially some of the underclassmen, is great. For the seniors, we’ve been playing together since we were 10 or 11 years old. It’s fun to see how far we’ve come, and now we’re one step closer to getting a ring.”
And with just two more wins, the Sabres can earn only the third state title in the Southwestern 4A’s baseball-rich history – Ardrey Kell won in 2009 and Providence in 1995 – since South Meck last won it 24 years ago.
“We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Tuscan said. “We got here for a reason. But at the end of the day, when we get (to Zebulon this week, our players will) probably be at least a little nervous. But we can’t let the situation change what we’ve done.
“And we’ve accomplished a lot along the way.”
But Koch said the Sabres are ready to finish what he, Tuscan and the other seniors started four years ago.
“Coming in as a freshman, South Meck baseball didn’t really mean anything,” Koch said. “You’d say it, and people would (respond), ‘Yeah, whatever. They’re not that good.’
“But my goal when I got here was to help put South Meck baseball back on the map. I feel that’s exactly what we’ve done. Now when you say, ‘South Meck baseball,’ it means something to people in this state, and that feels good.”
With the Sabres set to play their championship series on Friday, May 31 and Saturday, June 1 at Zebulon’s Five County Stadium, only Fuquay-Varina stands in the way of their dream.
Oliver said the team’s success is becoming a hot topic around school. The last few playoff games have been played in front of sold-out home crowds, and he said the school has chartered buses to transport South Meck students to the series.
But no matter who’s in the stands, the Sabres say they’ll be ready.
“We’re champing at the bit to play there,” Kennedy said. “A lot of people would say, ‘Wow, it’s a really big stage’ and ‘How many people are going to be there?’
“But we feel like as many people as we can get there, the better. It doesn’t matter if it’s our fans or (Fuquay-Varina) fans, we want to play in front of as many people as possible. That’s what we’re turning our focus to. We’ve been practicing hard for eight months for just this situation, and now it’s here.
“We can’t wait to get there and show what we can do.”