NEWBERRY – Unlike in recent years, Newberry enters the 2017 Pilot/Flying J South Atlantic Conference Baseball Championship as a bit of an up-and-down team, prone to vacillating between lengthy winning streaks and weeks where the ball seemingly never bounces the right way.
According to head coach Russell Triplett, that’s the way he prefers it.
It’s a notion that seems, well, counterintuitive, to put it lightly. After all, Newberry once entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed, on a 14-game winning streak, with sweeps in four consecutive SAC series, after its highest-ever finish in the league two seasons ago.
So how could this year, with the Wolves’ modest three-game winning streak coming on the heels of a five-game skid and, before that, wins in 16 of 18, be a more desirable situation?
“It’s forced us to reevaluate ourselves as a team,” Triplett explained. “Because we’ve been so up and down, we’ve really tried to focus on our fundamentals and our execution. And I think that’s helped us to get better. It’s a blessing in disguise compared to being really hot.”
This year’s Wolves come into the tournament with a coveted top-four seed that allows them to avoid the two “play-in games” and receive a bye directly into the double-elimination portion of the event. Friday’s opener comes against No. 4 seed Mars Hill, a team the third-seeded Wolves defeated twice on the road to win the season series and begin an 11-game winning streak.
The series was closely contested throughout. The Lions took the series opener, handing first-team all-SAC starting pitcher Zack Kelly one of his three losses on the season and stranding the bases loaded in the ninth inning of the 4-2 win. Kelly went 6.0 innings in the loss, giving up four runs on eight hits, but struck out a career-high 13.
Newberry led 9-5 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Two, but a four-run outburst from Mars Hill forced extra innings. Jeff Sneed’s solo home run to left field in the 10th inning proved to be the difference in the 10-9 win.
Evan Estridge turned in the finest pitching performance of his young career in the series’ rubber game, earning AstroTurf SAC Pitcher of the Week accolades for his complete-game, three hit shutout that featured 11 strikeouts.
“It’s a tough matchup with Mars Hill,” Triplett said. “All three games were close and we play comparable styles. We both like to run to increase the pressure. And we both try to win with pitching and defense.”
Triplett says that Kelly will start Friday’s game against the Lions. There is no set plan for Saturday and beyond.
“We’re going to take a look at the matchups after we know who we’re playing and set our pitcher then.
“This whole tournament is about simplifying the game and taking things pitch by pitch. We’re treating it the same as every weekend: we’re going out trying to win the first game. We’ve got to play our game regardless of what’s at stake. We don’t take a different approach just because we’re playing in a tournament.”
Newberry could potentially match up with top-seeded Catawba in the second round, a team the Wolves did not face this season. The Catawba Indians have won 11 regular season championships, seven tournament titles, and are considered by many to be the prohibitive favorite in this year’s edition.
But Triplett isn’t worried about potential later-round matchups. “They’ve proven they’re the best team in this league year after year,” he says. “But this is about who’s playing the best on this particular weekend.
“I’m proud of this group of guys we’ve got,” the seventh-year head coach continued. “They’ve gone through some tough stretches where they could have folded. Instead, they’ve worked to get better every day. We can always live with the results when that happens.”