It’s been a fun offseason for the Northwestern Trojans baseball team. The purple and gold are accustomed to state titles in football, but this was their first in baseball.
“It was surreal, honestly,” Trojan senior Jordan Starkes said. “The feeling from football to baseball is totally different. I feel like we had to grind it out in baseball.”
They’ve enjoyed the spoils of winning their first state championship, and the first ever 5A state baseball title in South Carolina, and everybody has told them how great they did and how proud they are of them.
“It probably set in mid-summertime,” Trojan pitcher Rob Hughes said. “But by then we’ve already moved on to the next year. You get to step back and see what you did, but it’s definitely been harder.”
And of course they have the new state title rings to wear as tangible evidence of their accomplishment.
“We didn’t go quite as gaudy as Coach Richardson (former football coach Kyle, now an assistant at Clemson),” Northwestern coach Mitch Walters, who is also an assistant football coach, said.
It’s been validation for them and longtime excellent coach Walters of the hard work they put in, the talent they have, and the program they are a part of.
“We had a super senior class and they had been close,” Walters said. “Two years prior, they had made it to the Upper State Series. And now they’re reaping the rewards.”
But when the calendar flipped to a new year, it meant a new season.
Last year, the experienced Trojans, who have long been one of the best teams if not the best team in the area, were ranked No. 1 to start the season. That is not most coaches’ favorite thing.
Well, fast-forward a year, and here we are again. Northwestern is the preseason No. 1 team in 5A, with T.L. Hanna and their opponent in the state championship series, River Bluff, close behind.
“I’ve been trying to beat them down,” Walters said. “Everybody’s been telling them how great they are, from the dinner table to the newspaper. The media votes based on the capabilities, but you’ve still got to go out there and produce. You’ve got to do the little things.”
It doesn’t seem like the ranking will be a problem this year either, whether it be adding pressure or adding inflated egos and hat sizes.
“I can’t recall a conversation about it,” Hughes said. “I don’t think we’ve talked about it one time.”
But each team has to establish its own identity, and each year has new challenges.
Last year’s squad had nine or 10 seniors. One of the biggest losses was a junior. Southpaw pitcher John Gilreath, the Herald All-Area Player of the Year, decided to finish high school early and enroll at South Carolina this semester. Walters said it looks like a good decision for Gilreath, as he is already seeing some action and pitching well for the Gamecocks.
Gilreath would have been the Trojans’ only left-hander on the mound this year. And he was a big-game pitcher, as evidenced by his winning performance in the clinching game of the state title series.
“You hate losing John,” Walters said. “I think he averaged 10 wins a season for us for three years. But he wanted to move on to the next level.”
The Trojans still have some of the best pitchers in high school baseball. Thre already have committed to pitch at Division-I colleges. Wesley Sweatt will join Gilreath in Columbia, Reeves signed with The Citadel and Hughes is committed to Furman, where Starkes will be his roommate.
“Of course it’s big losing a pitcher,” Hughes said. “But I think it’s worse if it’s a position player and a pitcher. I think we’re locked and loaded again. And as far as having Starkes as my roommate, that’s going to be pretty cool. Having somebody I’ve bonded with the last three years to take on the new venture with college ball.”
So the cupboard is not bare.
“We think we’ve got eight pretty good arms,” Walters said. “We’ve got nine seniors and they’ve probably all been with us since the seventh grade. They know the expectations, and they’re not going to change.”
Early-season results have been uneven, as the defending champs have gone 2-2 in scrimmages.
“We haven’t had a very good spring so far,” Walters said. “Everybody says we’re No. 1, but we just lost another scrimmage. We’re still replacing a lot of people. We only have three returning starters. We’re replacing the catcher, first base, second, third, right field, and DH. So we’re trying to find all that in scrimmages.”
They opened with Eastside in the Baseball at the Beach tournament this week. Eastside defeated the Trojans 2-1 in the opener last year. Region 4-5A is also a tough baseball league and getting tougher with the ever-improving and competitive Clover squad, original crosstown rival Rock Hill, and of course Fort Mill and Nation Ford are always good.
“The whole team knows that we’ve got this target on our back,” Starkes said. “But we all know that we’re not the same team we were last year. That could be a good or a bad thing. But all the boys, we’re going to grind and we’re going to work hard to try to finish on top like we did last year.”