Not many sports figures, especially ones who have just reached the pinnacle of personal achievement, leave their respective games on their own terms.
But South Mecklenburg baseball standout Earl Oliver is doing just that, walking away from his sport after reaching the mountaintop of personal and team success and not looking back with an ounce of regret.
Oliver helped the Sabres to a school-record 27 wins, a share of their first Southwestern 4A title since 2004, a Class 4A Western Regional title and South Meck’s first state championship since 1989.
“Not many people can say they won their final game,” said Sabres coach Jon Tuscan. “Especially being such a huge part of our championship team, but Earl made his decision and I think he’s good with it.”
Oliver said despite his remarkable talent on the baseball diamond, he’s come to terms with his decision to hang up his spikes and simply enjoy all he and his Sabres’ teammates were able to accomplish this season.
Along the way, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior posted a 10-3 record on the mound, which included a 2.69 ERA and 63 strikeouts. He also led the Sabres with 26 RBIs while hitting .368 and collecting 31 base hits, four doubles and two home runs.
Along the way, Oliver’s strong play earned him conference Player of the Year honors and the state championship series MVP award. Now, Oliver can add Carolina Weekly Newspaper Group’s 2013 Southern Mecklenburg Baseball Player of the Year to the list.
“My thing this year was: Baseball is just a game,” Oliver said. “If we lose, of course I’m going to be upset and when we won I’d be happy, but it’s just a game.
“That’s what helped me with my attitude on the mound. I didn’t get rattled this year. If I wasn’t throwing strikes, I tried to correct it as quickly as possible. If I didn’t have it that day, I didn’t have it, and I tried to work as well as I could without it.”
Luckily for Oliver and his teammates, he had it more often than not, especially when it mattered most: Oliver took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of the Sabres’ sectional playoff win and twice saved the team from elimination, including Game 3 of the Regional finals and a five-hit gem in Game 2 of the state finals.
Even with the big-game success he experienced, Oliver said he’s excited to begin the post-baseball phase of his life, where he will be a student at East Carolina University next season.
Tuscan said he’s thankful for all Oliver gave to him and the Sabres program and didn’t want to try to sway his ace’s decision in any way.
“Earl said from the beginning that he liked ECU and wanted to go there as a student,” Tuscan said. “He seems to be good with his decision and I’m happy for him.
“But oh, yeah, there was definitely interest in him (from college coaches).”
Even with college recruiters intrigued by his proven track record and burgeoning potential – and with more accolades piling up seemingly every time he stepped on the mound – Oliver said he’s ready to move on.
“I don’t have the desire to play in college,” said Oliver, who owns a 21-7 career pitching record. “I met with (Tuscan) and he asked if I wanted to play in college, but I said and I wasn’t going to.
“It’s been so much fun. To know that your class was the team that was able to be Coach Tuscan’s first graduating class and was able to win a championship together, that’s really special.”
Equally as special was what Oliver was able to help the Sabres achieve in his four years in the program.
South Meck had been 16-10 in each of the previous three seasons, but jumped to 27-8 this season, including a 12-2 conference record.
Tuscan said a big reason for the jump in wins, which ultimately led to the Sabres’ state title, was the maturity and growth Oliver showed this season.
“He’s always had really good stuff on the mound but would oftentimes get frustrated and rattled when things didn’t go his way,” Tuscan said. “That’s the biggest thing, how he’s developed as a person.
“He was right in the middle of all our big games, whether he was on the mound or if he came up with a big hit for us. With all of that, he was also right in the middle of everything else, too, as far as being a leader in the dugout and being a team guy.”
Oliver said being a team leader was something that helped him relax this season, especially on the mound. Coming into this season, Oliver pointed to a pitching win over Providence during his sophomore season as his career highlight.
After a remarkable senior season, there are now too many high points to list, but Oliver is fine reveling in each of them. Although he will walk away on top of the high school baseball world, Oliver said he will remember this season, and his accomplishments, for a long time to come.
“This season is my lasting moment,” Oliver said. “Winning a state championship, going through all that we went through as a team, it’s something that’s really special for me. It was great for everyone, but it was a lot sweeter for me and for my senior class.
“It’s our moment as a team and it’s something that I’ll always have and we’ll always have together. It’s something that I will never forget, that’s for sure.”