When the South Carolina Baseball Coaches Association released its preseason rankings back in February there is no doubt that Northwestern coach Mitch Walters winced.
His team was ranked No. 1, in large part because of the massive potential its roster boasted. Four Division I commitments and a fifth already signed suggested this team had star power. Nine seniors suggested experience and final-year hunger, and the Trojans had been close in recent years, dominating locally only to fall in the Upper State or the state finals, in 2014.
Incredibly, Northwestern baseball ended the season Saturday night at No. 1.
“I don't know who is more happy,” said assistant Ryan Hunt, “Mitch, or the coaches around the school. That tells you everything you need to know.”
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The Trojans’ talent was obvious and, as pitching coach Tim Hager said, it eventually rose to the top. Future South Carolina Gamecock John Gilreath was dominant on the mound, mowing down the first 13 River Bluff batters to guide the Trojans to a 5-2 win and the first 5A championship in state history, and the first baseball title in Northwestern school history.
Afterward, Walters, normally a stoic proxy for the Marlboro Man in postgame interviews, was grinning like a Wall Street banker. He guided the Trojans through the quicksand hype to a win on the last day of the season with few hiccups. The sense of accomplishment was immense because it wasn’t an easy task.
“That's kind of one thing he does really well,” said Walters' son, Cam, who joined the Trojan coaching staff several years ago. “He approaches things outside, looking in. Like school, you start off the year with a 100 average. But it doesn't mean you earned it, it's just where you start at. You've still got to get the grades. That's what he's preached to them every day.”
One of Walters’ best attributes as a coach is treating everyone the same. That was crucial this season in fostering chemistry between nine seniors – many of whom played their final organized baseball game Saturday night at Blythewood – and four younger D-I commits who all expect to be professional ball players in the next five or six years.
Walters’ equal treatment extends to the coaching staff, Hunt, Hager, Rocky Dubard and Cam. Walters used to beat his son in anything they played when Cam was a child and Walters still tries to strike out everybody he faces when he throws batting practice.
“That’s just how he is,” Cam said Saturday night.
Underpinning all of the equal treatment and highly regarded ideals that Walters espouses as a coach is one thing: winning. Walters is incredibly competitive and all of his decisions are made toward that end.
Later in the season it meant moving one of the three Division I-committed pitchers to the bullpen because it would help the team.
According to Mitch and Cam Walters, Wesley Sweatt wasn’t overly thrilled with the idea initially, but his rippling velocity suited the role and he eventually embraced it, saving four games in the postseason and getting the final three outs Saturday night. He probably didn’t care what role he was in as he was speared by a teammate and submerged in a championship pile.
“It was awesome having juniors and sophomores step up,” said senior infielder Will Gardiner, one of the invaluable glue players keeping the team’s chemistry in order. “The thing was to keep them in control. Having big D-I commits, they kind of get out of place a little bit...”
Ever the attentive teammate, Gardiner corrected himself.
“Not to say... maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. But having sophomores and juniors step up, it was huge.”
Sweatt’s transition was emblematic of the 2017 Trojans. Every move was made for the betterment of the team. Walters and his assistants reshuffled the batting order after the Game 1 loss to River Bluff despite winning 25 of the previous 26 games, a decision that produced big-time in the second and third games of the finals, especially through the bats of seniors Andrew Shipman and Jeff Taylor. It was indicative of another Walters strength. He’s consistent and everyone – coaches, players and parents – knows what to expect from his decision-making.
“It's a program,” said Hager, who has helped coach seven district title teams in eight years with the program. “The mentality starts out with seventh and eighth graders and they do the exact same thing that we do. And time they get to us they know exactly what we expect of them and what he expects of them. He's made a great program over the years.”
As uncompromising as Walters is, he still manages a great relationship with his players.
“He just pushes those kids and somehow gets his point across,” said Cam Walters. “He doesn't have to yell, it's just his demeanor. He's really intense.”
The result: “Everybody bought into it,” said Hager, “because they knew we were gonna be a talented baseball team.” Northwestern started and ended the season at No. 1. As its taciturn head coach pointed out, “that doesn’t happen much.”