Charlotte Christian has built a rich championship tradition which has produced 16 conference championships – including this season’s – and 12 N.C. High School Athletic Association titles since Greg Simmons began coaching the Knights baseball team in 1992.
The one common ingredient to their overwhelming success has always been starting pitching. The Knights went 30-4 last season and did so with a balanced offense and a dominating pitching staff led by Bailey Ober, Patrick Haynes and Xander Gum, who combined to win 22 games and post a microscopic 0.88 ERA.
Simmons knew entering this season he could count on Gum, who has returned to lead this year’s staff, but the coach also knew the rest of the staff would need to uphold their end of the bargain if the Knights were to defend their consecutive state championships – which they’ve won while going 61-11 over the past two years.
“Coming into the year, one of the biggest things we were talking about was how we were going to replace some of the seniors,” Simmons said. “Obviously, one of the biggest things was how would we replace Ober?
“We knew we had some holes to fill offensively, but on the mound we knew we had some guys stepping into bigger and different roles; we knew we had good arms coming back and guys who’d really compete.”
And he was right. Gum has followed up an impressive junior season to go 7-2 this year with a save. Jackson Kowar, a Clemson recruit, has stepped into the starter’s role and gone 9-1 with a save, posting a microscopic 0.28 ERA, striking out 115 batters in 67.1 innings while allowing just two earned runs all year.
“Xander moved back into the starting role for us,” Simmons said. “He was the only guy coming back who was a starter, so we knew we could count on him. Jackson was our closer last year and we knew we’d have to put him into the starting rotation. We’ve gradually increased his pitch count and he’s done a great job.”
Simmons had penciled in Heath Hawkins as his third starter and Hawkins did well, going 4-0 over seven starts with a 1.56 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 27 innings.
But, following a Hawkins outing against Country Day on April 1, Simmons had to reshuffle his plans. Hawkins was lost for the season and underwent Tommy John surgery last week, a crushing blow to the Knights’ hopes at a title – at least at the time of the injury.
“The hard part was having Hawkins go down,” Simmons said. “He was lights-out, so that really hurt us.”
While it was hard on the coach, the players felt it, too, as they not only lost a teammate, but now had a gaping hole in the rotation.
“It was really tough to see him go down like that, especially for him,” Kowar said. “He loves to be out here and loves to compete and as a competitor it stinks for him to have to sit and watch.”
Simmons turned to senior Matthew Reitz, who had been the Knights’ No. 4 starter, meaning most of his work was coming in relief. Reitz flashed his potential in his first start against defending public school champion South Meck at the Jack Sink tournament, holding the Sabres to two hits over six innings while not allowing a run and striking out nine.
“Coach expects a lot out of me, whether it’s starting or coming out of the bullpen,” Reitz said. “My job is to throw strikes and I know the defense behind me is going to make the play.”
He’s since pitched a gem against Charlotte Latin and shut out previously undefeated Liberty Christian (Va.), earning the win while throwing seven innings of relief, in a game the Knights won, 9-8, in 12 innings.
“It’s one of those things where he works his butt off and he’s been patient,” Simmons said. “When we gave him the ball he said ‘It’s my turn’ and he did a great job. He knows how to pitch and doesn’t get rattled.
“These three guys compete and work hard. If I come up asking how they feel, they look at me like ‘I’m great. Why, do you think you’re taking me out of the game?’ They have that starters’ mentality that if it messes up they want it to be on them. When you have three guys that want to do that, that’s pretty special.”
So far, the Knights have very rarely messed up, going 27-4 overall and 11-1 in conference play. They’ve had great pitching to keep them in every game, but the Knights also can do plenty of damage at the plate. Reece Hampton leads the team with a .443 batting average, Bailey Lewis has hit .423 with two home runs and 22 RBIs, Nick Owens leads the team with 27 RBIs, Garrett Bradbury has a team-high four home runs and 22 RBIs and John Turley and Zach McIlroy have both driven in more than 20
Even with all of that firepower, the Knights know if they’re to win their third consecutive state title, it’ll come down to pitching.
The Knights will need all three starters to be sharp in the state tournament. But, like last year when Hawkins tossed a complete game shutout in the championship series after only throwing seven innings all year prior, someone else may need to step up as Simmons rarely will pitch a guy on three day’s
The fourth starter is Jonah Wylie, an Anderson (S.C.) College recruit, who is fresh off a complete game, five-hit, six-strikeout shutout of Providence Day. Ross Kemp is third on the team with 13 appearances, and he’ll certainly have a say in how the post season goes, but no matter who’s on the mound, the Knights have faith in them.
“Everyone we have on the mound is a bulldog and we expect everyone we put out there to go out there and get the job done,” Gum said. “As a team, it doesn’t matter who’s out there. We’re backing (Reitz) up, we have all of the confidence in the world in him. It was tough to lose Heath, but we’re still looking at a championship either way and we have the pitching to get it done.”
That’s the mindset Simmons has taught since he took over the program. Each of the three starters have waited their turn, starting in the bullpen and watching how the people before them have worked, and ultimately, won.
“Last year I got to watch Bailey pitch and you kind of got to see the mindset that once you get to be a starter, that’s kind of what’s expected of you,” Kowar said. “It’s kind of cool to pass the torch, but once you’re a starter, your mindset has to be you’re going to step up each time you get the ball. Coach Simmons never has to tell us that, it’s just passed down from guy to guy and it’s kind of the tradition here.”
That is music to Simmons’ ear.
“We try to foster that,” he said. “We tell our guys who are starters, it’s their job to go the complete game. Most of our guys in the bullpen now will eventually be starters and the starters now are all guys who have been in the bullpen before and they understand how it works.
“They’ve been around long enough and they understand how important the rest of the year is. If we’re going to win a state championship, when the playoffs start the pitching in the private schools is as good as I’ve ever seen it from teams 1 to 12, so we have to match that.”
With a confident and talented starting staff, a potent lineup and championship pedigree, the Knights are looking to be standing on top again when the playoffs end April
“I think man for man we line up against and can compete against any team in North Carolina,” Gum said. “For our pitchers, I know we’re going to keep us in the game. As far as the state championship goes, I’m very confident we can go deep and win this.”