By now, area sports fans probably know the story behind the magical run the South Meck baseball team embarked on last season. It began with a 2-4 start that the Sabres then turned around, winning a share of the conference championship for the first time in nearly a decade and ended with a dog-pile celebration at Zebulon’s Five Country Stadium – with many other bumps, bruises and twists along the way.
“It was an incredible ride,” Sabres’ senior shortstop Brooks Kennedy said. “It’s a life-long memory and it was a family thing. When you think about it, it brings feelings of love and of family and it’s something that I know I’ll never forget. I’ll take that because I get to think of it every day for the rest of my life.”
From the outside looking in, the Sabres seemingly had it all going right last year. But that’s not necessarily the case. Their coach, Jon Tuscan, was diagnosed with testicular cancer during the season and the players rallied around him and each other, forming a bond that carried them through the tough times.
South Meck trailed Fuquay Varina 1-0 in the best-of-three championship series and were down 1-0 in the seventh inning before a pair of gutsy suicide squeeze plays won Game 2 and carried the momentum for a Game 3 win and the Sabres’ first state championship in 24 years.
Senior Harris Yett, who recorded the final out last year as the first baseman, remembers it vividly.
“It was a crazy experience and it was the most fun that I’ve ever had,” he said. “We weren’t just a team, we were more than that, we were playing for ourselves, we were playing for coach and it was incredible. I’ll never forget it.”
With the memories of last season’s storybook run fresh on their minds, the Sabres have moved onto this year with a different roster, a mostly-new pitching staff and a number of key players to replace.
But they want to do it all over again.
“We found out the formula last year – the foundation of what it takes to be champions – and it’s not something that you can repeat exactly and it’s not something that you want to live in,” Kennedy said. “We don’t want to live in last year; we don’t want to be last year’s team. But there are also a lot of aspects to last year’s team that we need to carry on because that’s what it took to be champions.”
And there are many reasons for Kennedy’s optimism, a sentiment shared throughout the roster. It begins with Kennedy and Yett, two key contributors with bright futures.
Kennedy has signed to play with North Carolina next season after hitting .383 with 32 stolen bases, 22 RBIs and a .438 on-base percentage.
Yett, an N.C. State commit, was an all-state performer last season after hitting .421 with 23 RBIs, six home runs, a .684 slugging percentage and a .559 on-base percentage, while playing out of position at first base after spending his career after spending the majority of his career as a catcher.
The two teammates and good friends are united for now to return South Meck to state championship contenders, even if they know they’ll be rivals – albeit close ones – in years to come.
“We joke about it all the time and we take cracks at each other all the time about him going to State and me to Carolina,” Kennedy said. “But it’s one of those things where we’re genuinely happy for each other.
“I mean, going to State is an incredible thing and I don’t mean to brag, but going to Carolina is an incredible thing. We both are so happy and want nothing but the best for each other. It’s only 20 minutes away so it’s not difficult to stay in contact and I know that we will.”
But for now, the two are determined on keeping the bar raised high for Sabre baseball, something Tuscan sees as a huge strength.
“They’re high-energy guys, but in different ways,” Tuscan said. “Brooks is that intense guy and Yetty keeps it loose. They lead in different ways but they both want to win and that’s the bottom line. They do everything they can to win.
“One of the biggest things is the way they go about their work. They learned a lot about the leadership role last year and now it’s fun and exciting to see these guys now step into those roles. They saw it and now it’s their time to step in. They talk about what they can do to help the team. It’s not an individual thing where I think a lot of times you get guys who have committed to the big programs and it’s about themselves. It’s not like that, it’s how can we get better to help the team.”
With the two high-profile recruits leading the way, the Sabres have jumped to a 6-2 start through March 13 – including a 21-0 blanking of West Meck in their most recent game on March 11.
“I think the year has been great,” Kennedy said. “I’m actually really happy where we are as a team. We have a long way to go, no doubt, but a lot of guys are stepping up and finding their place on the team. It’s been a great run so far and I think we can be really special again.”
In order to do so, the Sabres have a core of players who team with Kennedy and Yett to make another run.
Junior Max Bazin is the team’s ace after posing a 9-2 record with a 1.69 ERA and 69 strikeouts a season ago, earning all-state honors. Michael Smith, a Johns Hopkins’ recruit, was an all-conference player last year after hitting .324 with 29 RBIs while stealing 12 bases and playing a sound third base defensively.
With those players, along with Lawson McArthur, Christian Umphlett and Providence Day transfer Eric Jones, Yett and the Sabres feel like they’ve started the season off on the right foot.
“We’ve been swinging the bats really well and our defense is always solid,” Yett said. “I think we just need to focus more on the games and not make those mental errors. If our pitchers throw strikes and get ground balls, we have the defense to back them up.”
Defensively, the Sabres have been good, allowing just 18 runs in their first eight games, and holding opponents to two runs or less in all but two games, which both resulted in losses.
Yett and Kennedy know that while the Sabres have started hot, there’s alot of baseball left to be played. They also maturely realize last season’s championship team is both a lifelong memory and also something they have to lean on when times get tough this year.
With the memory of their championship run still resonating, combined with the newness and excitement of a new year, this team would like to do nothing more than be back in another dogpile on the season’s final day.
“We had that bond and knew when you go up to the plate and there’s a man on second you’re not scared to sacrifice yourself to score the run – we were such a team and a family,” Kennedy said. “We found out the little things it took to get there, the hard work it took and I have no doubt we’ll get back to that.”