This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Ardrey Kell baseball team.
With a star-studded roster that may have made some college programs envious, Ardrey Kell went 23-5 last year and claimed its second Southwestern 4A conference championship. But when this season began, most of the players from that team had graduated, including the majority of last year’s starting lineup and pitching staff, a potentially crippling blow for most programs.
But Ardrey Kell isn’t most programs.
“We replaced every single starter we had except for Doug (Norman),” Knights coach Hal Bagwell said. “And with that said, Doug only pitched (6 2/3) innings for us last year. We (lost) our top three pitchers who are all playing college baseball right now.
“So yeah, it was a rebuilding year.”
Former Knights’ standout Trent Thornton now pitches at the University of North Carolina, Justin French joined Army’s program and Brad Stone, who was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 35th round last year, signed with N.C. State.
But in Knights’ Country, the term “rebuilding” takes on a different meaning than most places, and Bagwell and Co. still had high expectations entering this season. There wasn’t time to think about who wasn’t on the team, so the Knights regrouped, and quickly.
Bagwell said he had a plan to get the most out of each remaining player and compete for another conference title – something outsiders may have deemed an impossibility.
And it’s worked, as this season has been business as usual for Bagwell’s program. The Knights are 21-4 overall and earned a share of their second consecutive conference title with South Mecklenburg.
“I’m very, very proud of the conference championship,” Bagwell said. “The reality is that we have tremendous kids and we have a plan for them to get them to compete in the Southwestern 4A.
“They’ve been unbelievable because we have willing kids who want to listen and want to do well for the program. We have good coaches and the kids buy into what we’re teaching. That’s what it comes down to.”
And it also comes down to talent and tradition, two qualities the Knights have in spades despite losing the majority of last year’s contributors.
Since Ardrey Kell opened in 2006, the Knights have now won three conference and district titles, two sectional championships, two western regional championships and won the 2009 Class 4A state title.
And they have enough talent on this year’s roster to add to those gaudy accomplishments.
Norman, a Georgia recruit, has blossomed into one the pitching staff’s aces after seeing spot duty last season. On the year he has a record of 7-3 with a 1.86 ERA while striking out 74 batters in 60 1/3 innings. He also doubles as a third baseman and has hit .280 with 19 RBIs.
With all of his success, Norman also has become a team leader – something Bagwell said has been vital for the Knights.
“I think coming into the year, (Bagwell) and the other coaches expected for me to take over Trent Thornton’s role,” Norman said. “But I didn’t see it as pressure because the thing with us is that no matter who (Bagwell) puts out there, it’s someone who is deserving and who is going to get the job done.”
Another integral piece to the Knights’ puzzle is Winthrop commit Brandon Donahue, one of four seniors on the squad. Donahue owns an 8-0 record on the mound and, while his record is outstanding, he’s recorded a dazzling 0.80 ERA with 62 strikeouts in just 39 innings of work. He doubles as the Knights’ designated hitter, batting .254 with 11 RBIs.
Donahue said that, although the Knights were inexperienced entering the year, he didn’t see a regular-season title as much of a stretch.
“All of my teammates are pretty skilled,” Donahue said. “To play on the Ardrey Kell baseball team is a privilege, and it wasn’t a hard step up for the guys who had never played varsity before.
“It’s wasn’t supposed to be a great year for us, and we only have four seniors, so it was supposed to be a rebuilding year. I obviously want to close my career with a state championship – that’s the goal – but it’s been a very fun and rewarding year.”
And, if the Knights are to accomplish that goal, they’ll need big contributions from two transfers who have been as responsible as anyone for their strong season: junior Zach Featherstone (Providence Day) and senior Thomas Nantz (Charlotte Christian).
“Thomas and Zach have been really good,” Bagwell said. “They’re our two leading hitters, and Thomas kind of gets us going offensively. Zach has been limited innings-wise on the mound, but the times he’s pitched he’s done extremely well in the role we’ve given him.”
Featherstone, a Duke commit, is 2-1 on the season with two saves and a 0.64 ERA on the mound.
As good as he’s been as a pitcher, Featherstone has shined in his first season at the plate in the baseball-rich Southwestern 4A conference – the outfielder leads the team in hits (32), home runs (three), RBIs (33) and total bases (48) and is second in batting average (.416).
“I think I’ve played well,” Featherstone said. “Everyone has competed, and my teammates have been very supportive and have helped me adjust. Plus, it’s great playing for a great team and a great coach. You come in here and you see the enthusiasm and the way things are and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow.’
“Baseball is the main sport here, and it’s been fun to be a part of.”
Nantz spent his freshman and sophomore years at Ardrey Kell before transferring to Charlotte Christian for his junior season, when he won a private-school state title and earned all-state honors. That seasoning has proven beneficial in his return to Ardrey Kell’s inexperienced roster.
This year, Nantz – who said he’s planning to try to walk on to the program at N.C. State, which he called a “dream school” academically – picked up where he left off and leads the team with a .423 batting average. Now, he wants to guide Ardrey Kell to its second state title.
“That would be amazing,” Nantz said. “The best part of winning it last year was the dog pile (celebration) when we won. It would be so cool to close your career with a win. Most people’s last high school game ends in misery a little because you’re thinking (about) what more you could have done.
“To close out a career with joy and a win in your final game, that would be absolutely amazing.”
While Norman, Donahue, Featherstone and Nantz have been steady all year, the Knights are loaded with other players poised to make an impact when the state playoffs begin this week.
Guys such as Cole Smith (.342 batting average, 13 RBIs), Foster
Machicote (.342, 12 RBIs, seven steals), Logan Beehler (.308, one home run and 16 RBIs) and Max Garner (.296, 15 RBIs) have all been key contributors to the Knights’ quick turnaround.
With their collection of talent the Knights have earned a No. 2 seed in the playoffs and will host Davie County on Friday, May 10.
And this group of Knights, who have united to rise from relative anonymity to league champs, has only one goal left to accomplish – and it involves walking off the field on June 1 with a state title.
“We want to make sure we know each opponent we’re playing, but it’s more about us than anything,” Bagwell said. “We need to do the things that we can to be successful. How do we do that? We’re going to win every pitch as a hitter, as a pitcher or a fielder.
“That’s it: We want to dominate every pitch.”
Which, Bagwell hopes, is the perfect recipe for the 2013 state championship – a goal few thought this edition of the Ardrey Kell Knights could strive for.
“We know there are a lot of good teams left,” Nantz said. “It’s not an easy ride going through the West part of the state in the playoffs, but we know we can get hot and stay hot.
“Since no one returned from last year, I don’t think people around here were expecting too much from us. I think … that’s made us more determined to prove people wrong, and so far we’ve done that. Now, we have to keep it