Zach Featherstone knew when he transferred to Ardrey Kell after his sophomore year of high school to play baseball that things were about to get a lot tougher. He knew he was in store for harder practices, higher expectations, more intense competition and a new level of perennial standards that have developed the Knights’ baseball program into one of the most respected and winningest programs in the sate. He knew that Coach Hal Bagwell would show no mercy on the up-and-coming star and he knew he’d have to fight for a spot on the renowned Knight team.
And that’s something he was ready for.
The Knights have gone 170-39 since the 2008 season with no more than single digit losses each season since. Knight baseball quickly became synonymous with a winning tradition under Bagwell, who’s catapulted the Knights to their continuous success. It’s something that Featherstone admired, and knew he wanted to be a part of, no matter what it took.
Leaving behind his baseball career at Providence Day, as well as his football and basketball careers, Featherstone made the decision to switch schools and join Bagwell and the Knights and focus solely on baseball.
“I liked Coach Bagwell,” Featherstone said. “I liked what he had to say about me coming to AK and playing in a program that would get me ready for college. I did it for that aspect – to get to the next level and improve my game.”
Featherstone secured a spot on the Knights’ roster and his contributions last season were immediate. In his first game as a Knight, he helped lead his team to a 12-2 win over Weddington – a team that would become the 3A state champions. On the mound, the lefty pitcher boasted a 0.64 ERA but he shined even more at the plate where he led his new team in hits, home runs, RBIs, and had a second-highest team batting average of .416.
Featherstone said that after just a few practices last season, he knew he’d made the right decision and was ready to make the most of his two years as a Knight knowing that Bagwell would help him reach his ultimate goal – playing at the collegiate level.
“I really like playing here,” he said. “I like the intensity that Coach Bagwell brings to the entire program. Our practices are just like college practices and what he takes us through is getting us ready to play at that level. So many athletes have come through here and played in college and I think that’s because of what he does in practice and how he manages the team.”
As last season started to wrap up, Featherstone had grabbed the attention of top Division-I baseball programs from around the country. By March 2013, he decided to become a Blue Devil and committed to Duke University – but it wasn’t long before he started to become unnerved by his decision.
“With Duke, I just didn’t know if it would be a good fit for me,” he explained. “Academically I was confident that I could do it but I didn’t know if I would have a lot of fun there. I knew it would be more stressful just because of the workload and I talked to some people that went there and I just started to think that it might not have been the right decision.”
Unable to become fully confident in his choice to play at Duke, Featherstone decided to decommit. Three days later, he committed to play 20 miles down the road at N.C. State University.
“When I went to State, I fell in love with every aspect of it,” he said. “I knew it was the perfect fit for me. I love the coaches there and I feel like they’re going to help me get farther in my baseball career. Right when I visited, I knew I wanted to be there and be a part of their program and that’s something I never fully felt with Duke.”
Featherstone’s plan to commit before his senior year began was strategic; he knew that once that weight was lifted, he’d be able to fully focus on his last season at Ardrey Kell with hopes of not only upping his contributions from last season but lofty goals like beating arch-nemesis Providence and – if all goes as planned – bringing home a state title for the first time since 2009.
And if Featherstone and the Knights keep playing the way that have of late, it’s a goal that’s entirely reachable. They’re 21-1 so far on the season and are ranked 20th in Maxpreps.com Xcellent 25 ranking. Their one loss on the season came from Providence on March 14 but when the two rivals met again on April 8, the Knights won 3-2 as Featherstone hammered two home runs and drove in all three runs.
“There’s definitely an expectation that we have, that the school has and that Coach Bagwell holds us to – an expectation of winning,” he said. “Everyone expects us to beat Providence. If we don’t, they’re not disappointed but they expect more from us. Coach Bagwell expects us to win every game and not just win, but get strong wins. There’s a standard and this season, I think we’re living up to that.”
Featherstone is undoubtedly living up to the standard, batting .475 this season with five home runs, seven doubles and 20 RBIs. But he’s not doing it alone. The Knights are batting .321 as a team and have strength in every aspect of the game, with capable pitchers in LSU commit Doug Norman (0.93 ERA, .310 BA) and UNC commit Henry Ryan (0.86 ERA) alongside big hitters in Aaron Pilkington (.317 BA, 14 RBIs) and Kollin Schrenk (.381 BA).
Even with all of the individual talent, the Knights are a team that’s struggled recently in the playoffs, going 0-2 the last two seasons, but Featherstone said that he expects this year to end differently.
“I definitely want to go out on top by winning a state championship,” he said. “That’s definitely a high expectation of everyone on the team. We want to win and as seniors, we want to win our last high school baseball game. Coach Bagwell doesn’t really talk about it but he knows that we don’t want to underachieve this year and he doesn’t want that either.
“We want to go as far as we can, as far as our talent will take us and we’re really talented this year so it’s something we think we can do.”
With just over six weeks left in his high school career, Featherstone is ready to make the most of his time left at Ardrey Kell, especially on the diamond, but he’s confident that his transition to the Wolfpack family will be smooth, thanks to the leadership and discipline of Bagwell and the Knight baseball
“I’m so excited to get up there,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a great experience, especially with all I’ve learned here. I definitely want to play baseball as long as possible and as long as the game will let me play, I want to play. That’s the
By Hannah Dockery