Northwestern baseball coach Mitch Walters resigned after the 2018 season.
The school had just hired a new principal and the timeline for a replacement search wasn’t ideal. The school’s administration asked him to return for at least one more year. Walters, Northwestern’s head baseball coach since the early 1990s, agreed.
Asked after Wednesday night’s 7-2 loss to Rock Hill if, because of his experience, he is the right coach for this 2019 Northwestern team, Walters shrugged and said, “we’ll see.”
The Trojans are as young as they’ve been in years. They have an eighth grader starting in centerfield and a ninth grader in the starting nine too. At least five underclassmen are getting regular playing time, and of the seven seniors, three are solely pitchers.
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The Trojans’ inexperience, their incomplete team dynamics, were evident in the loss to Rock Hill. The score was tied at 2 headed into the fourth when Rock Hill scored on a balk and a nearly-perfectly executed squeeze bunt. Northwestern players were agitated, and couldn’t clear their heads. Three runs pushed the Bearcats into a 5-2 advantage and that’s when Walters gathered the team for the pep talk. Which didn’t work.
He gave them a more animated version of the same speech later, after the game was over, in rightfield.
“You can’t let one mistake compound another mistake,” he said. “They’ve got to try to forget it. That’s what we just talked about there.”
The new guys are filling holes left by a large senior class that graduated, including four -- Jordan Starkes (Furman), Rob Hughes (Furman), Wesley Sweatt (South Carolina) and Cameron Reeves (The Citadel) -- that are already contributing in Division I college baseball. Starkes starts for the Paladins in centerfield, while Hughes has pitched in eight games, producing a 2-0 record. Sweatt has a 1.69 ERA in five appearances for the Gamecocks.
Counting John Gilreath, who graduated early from Northwestern and is pitching for South Carolina too, and it might have been one of the most individually talented senior classes in the school’s baseball history. All five were integral during the Trojans’ 2017 state title.
Rock Hill lost a D-I college baseball player too, R.J. Petit, who recently pitched for Charleston Southern against North Carolina, but the Bearcats still have plenty of solid upperclassmen back this spring. Coach Dell Corley praised his team’s execution during Wednesday night’s victory over the Trojans, especially two run-scoring squeeze bunts.
“If they’ll play together as a group, execute, then they’ve got a chance,” said Corley. “We don’t have anybody overpowering right now on the mound, but they’re throwing strikes. And I think it goes hand in hand with defense and offense. Even if it’s not getting the big hit, but getting the bunt down, that’s very important and it transfers back over to the defensive side of the ball.”
The second successful squeeze resulted in a wild play in the bottom of the fourth, the baseball bunted back to Northwestern pitcher Dustin Noller, who fired home. Both the Trojan catcher and Bearcat baserunner whiffed on their target at the first try, but Rock Hill’s Kobe Thurmond scrambled through the dust to smack the plate and score the run for a 4-2 lead.
There were multiple moments throughout the March night that left Walters shaking his head, including his guys losing track of how many outs were left in the inning, tossing pick-off throws into the outfield, or confusing the coaches’ signals. Only three of the five teams from Region 3-5A make the postseason, and Nation Ford and Fort Mill already look like solid bets to take two of those spots.
But Wednesday night’s game didn’t dim Corley’s opinion of Walters or the Trojans.
“Mitch Walters is a great coach, he’s done a great job,” said Corley. “I know it’s been 10-plus years that he’s had 20-plus-win seasons. Young or not young, they’re a good ball club.”
Or, they could be. Walters pointed out his team didn’t make the same mistakes during Monday night’s 7-2 win over Rock Hill. And they’ve got talent, especially with seniors Ryan Brown and Joel Haney, who knocked in two runs against Rock Hill. But it could be an unusual year for the Trojans, one that’ll test all of Walters’ coaching wisdom as he rides the roller coaster with this bunch.
“If they were older, I’d chew them,” said Walters. “If they were a veteran crowd like I had last year, I’d chew them some to get them going. I know they’re gonna crawl up under the benches, some of them, if I get on them now because they’re not ready for that.”