For all they knew, they were preparing for a big game.
But what Northwestern baseball coach Mitch Walters didn’t tell his team a week ago was that he was preparing them for the next three weeks.
As the season has gone on for the 22-2 Trojans, who begin the Class AAAA district playoffs Thursday night against J.L. Mann, the expectations have increased. That was never more evident than a week ago, when Walters knew the following day’s game against Rock Hill was canceled but never bothered telling his team.
“It was weird,” senior Michael Patrick said. “Usually the day before the game, it’s a lot easier than that. But it might have been our hardest practice of the year.”
Walters was just pushing buttons, trying to keep a talented team focused. After all, the cancellation of the Rock Hill game because of a scheduling issue meant they’d go into tonight’s playoffs with a week between real games. No amount of practice or intrasquad games can match the intensity, and Walters admits worry.
“I’m wary, just because you miss the routine of playing in a game,” Walters said. “We want to stay in game mode for what’s coming up, so I wasn’t going to tell them they had the next day off. But they show up, and they work hard, and hopefully we give our best effort the next few weeks.
“They think I’m a little bit crazy, but I think they’ve got a lot more in them.”
At the moment, the Trojans are an impressive run. They swept through the region season, and haven’t lost a game since a March 21 game at Nation Ford. There was a stray loss at Fort Mill on March 8, but otherwise, the Trojans have been perfect.
They know that makes them a marked team entering the playoffs, but Walters thinks there’s something about this team that has them ready for the playoffs.
Last year’s team won the district before losing its first two in the Upper State playoffs when bats went silent in a 1-0 loss to Blythewood and a 3-1 loss to Easley. That was the last game for then-senior sparkplug Stewart Hunt, the player everyone looked to in difficult spots.
That’s the biggest difference in this year’s team. There’s not one guy. There are nine.
“Stewart was a guy who always kept the intensity up, and he was a big loss for us,” senior pitcher Shane Myers said. “That was a struggle for us for a while, because we didn’t know how to respond to it at first.
“This year, we as a senior class had to adjust to that. We knew we had to do things differently, because we’re different people.”
The leadership of their senior class will be crucial, but the familiarity bred by years of playing for and against each other has made it an easy mix.
“He was on my team when I was 7, I played with him when I was 8, I played against him in travel ball when I was 9 ” shortstop Sammy Taormina said as he surveyed a practice this week, continuing around the field to many long-time teammates. “We’re just a team that’s always together. Even on the weekends, when we’re doing something, we’re always together, whether we’re playing Xbox or out looking at girls, we’re always in a group.
“I think that helps us, because we all know what we’re capable of.”
Yet another senior, Kyle James, said it was mostly a laid-back group, with an easy familiarity built over the years.
“We all know each others talents and non-talents,” James joked. “We’ve just been playing together so long, we know everything about each other.”
Walters is happy to let that group take the lead, as Walters knows that peer leadership’s often more effective than anything he can tell them.
“At this age, they’re going to respond to peer pressure a lot more than anything I can tell them,” the veteran coach said. “They’re going to do everything they can to not let their buddies down.
“I’m willing to let them take care of the problems, and let us just coach and fill out the lineup card.”
That lineup is a talented one, headed by Taormina (who’s going to Liberty on a baseball scholarship next year) and Patrick (who’ll play at Winthrop).
That talent has gotten them this far, with very few setbacks. But thanks to the lessons Walters has been drilling in their heads lately, they know that none of that matters anymore.
“People have been talking since last year about how good we’re supposed to be,” James said. “That’s a huge expectation, because a lot of people are saying we’re supposed to win the state. That’s a lot of pressure, but the reality is, the playoffs are all that matters.
“When we lost to Nation Ford, we had a lot of guys playing at 50 percent. We found out then we had to go 100 percent every day, that we’ve got to keep working every day, or we’re not going to win anything.”