Providence High School baseball coach Danny Hignight said it’s unfair to compare the talent that’s come through the Panthers program.
And there’s been a lot of talent. Hignight has coached seven draft picks in the last decade – two of which went in the first round – grabbed his 200th win at Providence, claimed six of the last 10 conference titles and turned what once was a losing program into one that’s gone 122-42 in six seasons, including his nationally-ranked squad in 2009.
And though Hignight is right when saying it’s hard to compare anyone to Richie Shaffer – the 2009 Providence High graduate who went on to play for Clemson University, batting .336 in his final year with 10 homers, 46 RBIs and a .573 slugging percentage, and was drafted in the first round by the Tampa Bay Rays – Hignight said that it’s hard not to see resemblances between Shaffer and current Providence senior Tommy Dejuneas.
The senior second baseman/pitcher, who committed to N.C State University in the fall, is something special. He hit .308 last season with 23 stolen bases, 16 RBIs and three home runs, led the Panthers to two conference titles in one of the toughest conferences in the state (2011, 2012) and has the work ethic and discipline that keeps him on the field and in the weight room every day.
“Tommy has been an incredible player for us,” Hignight said. “It’s really unfair to try and compare guys that I’ve coached because so many of them bring so many different intangibles. We’ve had some pretty special guys walk through these doors. Athletically, Tommy ranks up there with all of them. His work ethic, his discipline on the field and in the weight room, they remind me a lot of Richie Shaffer.
“From a talent standpoint, that’s always a hard thing to judge. He’s a really, really talented kid. But it would be a disservice to him to compare one of those guys to him, or compare him to one of those guys.”
Watch the future Wolfpack on the field, though, and it’s hard not to see that he’s got MLB potential just like Shaffer. But even with the hype behind Dejuneas’ talent – major Division 1 programs heavily recruited the infielder – the laidback senior said baseball is all about getting to do what he loves with some of his best friends. The accomplishments, the name recognition, the national attention – those are all secondary.
“I’m lucky,” he said. “I’ve been playing with these guys since I was little. We get to come out here every day and have fun. I get to do something I love every single day. All my best friends are baseball guys and every Monday night we get together and go out to get wings. That’s what makes it fun.”
Hignight sees that unity firsthand and said it’s good they’re having fun again, given last year’s disappointing season. He expects that unity to show on the field in a way that it hasn’t in several years.
After four seasons with only single digit losses, what had become known as a Panther baseball legacy hiccupped last year, when Hignight’s crew went 15-12 overall, 9-6 in Southwestern 4A conference play, and fell 2-1 to North Davidson in the first round of state tournament play.
“Those things aren’t supposed to happen around here and they did,” Hignight said. “Youth played a major part last season, but more importantly I think our guys weren’t working as one. Fortunately for us, I think those players are no longer with us. We’ve moved in a different direction and I think this club has a different focus than the group last year.”
“We weren’t mentally tough,” Dejuneas added. “We all had different ideas of what our team was supposed to look like. We were on different pages. This year is definitely different because ever since the beginning of the season, we’ve been talking about getting the right mindset and getting on the same page. We all get along really well and are good friends in a way that wasn’t there last year.”
With Dejuneas looking to spearhead the Panthers’ resurgence into baseball dominance – which won’t be easy in the same ranks as defending 4A state champion South Mecklenburg and perennial power Ardrey Kell – and Hignight having a bad taste in his mouth from last season, Dejuneas and his Panthers are ready to make this their best year yet.
And three games in, it’s looking like they’ve got the talent to do it on a squad that returns all but four from last year’s team. The Panthers have started off on fire, blowing past Hough (11-1), East Meck (16-1) and Olympic (16-0), but the true test will come next week when they travel to Ardrey Kell.
“We’re going to stack up good against them,” Dejuneas said. “Last year, we had a lot of young guys but now they have experience under their belt. They’re not going to feel as much pressure in their first AK game the way they did last year.”
Dejuneas said that he’s got his eye on a state championship but he knows anything could happen after last season. And with the winning tradition and high expectations for Providence baseball that appear every season, it’s going to take a lot of focus to tune out the murmurs around them and keep them headed in the right direction.
“We don’t let expectations outside of our locker room really affect us,” Hignight said. “In 2009 we were nationally ranked. You could just see that the pressure from that season really wore on our guys. Since then, it’s been a direction that I like to go in to enjoy the game and enjoy wins. When you’re very successful, winning sometimes doesn’t carry the weight that it’s supposed to and that isn’t fair.”
“I feel like we all want to win states but we know that we have to come out here everyday, work hard and not lose our focus,” Dejuneas said. “We hold each other accountable to the highest standard. If someone’s not performing up to their potential, we call them out and they start playing the way they’re supposed to. Everything that goes on is between us and the coaches.”
And though Dejuneas has the undeniable talent that will carry him through to the next level, his team-first attitude will be a difference maker on the Providence field. Whether he follows in Shaffer’s footsteps or not after high school and college isn’t his concern right now.
“I love playing here at Providence,” he said. “I’m excited about (N.C.) State but my mind is here still. This year is already turning out to be so much different than last year and we’re going to make the most of it because it’s our last shot.”