In many ways the Charlotte Christian baseball season started as it began.
On opening day, the two-time defending state champion Knights trailed Metrolina Christian by two runs entering their last at bat, but rallied to win, 4-3, in walk-off fashion. In the season finale against High Point Christian, the Knights struck again in their last at bat as Josh Hall singled home Zach McIlroy to win the best-of-three championship series in an exhausting three-games-in-one-day championship finale.
“It was kind of the personality of this team, they were very resilient and they never gave up. They had that mentality ‘OK, they scored and now it’s our turn,’” said Knights coach Greg Simmons, who has guided his team to the past three N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association Class 3A finals and has led Charlotte Christian to 12 championships in his 24 seasons.
But for the Knights to end the season in their customary place atop the private-school landscape a lot had to go right – and a lot did.
The lineup was as balanced as ever, led by eight players with 80 or more at bats who all hit .300 or better. Reece Hampton led the way, with a .421 batting average. Garrett Bradbury belted eight home runs – including four in the two-day end to the NCISAA finals – and tied McIlroy and Nick Owens for the team lead in RBIs with 28.
And while the Knights had power in spades – they hit 17 home runs and 89 extra-base hits – they were aggressive on the base paths, stealing 102 bases, a charge that was led by Hampton’s 20.
And when the Knights, who averaged more than seven runs per game, weren’t getting it done with the bats, their pitching staff was more than capable. Jackson Kowar led the Knights with a 10-1 record and recorded a minuscule 0.80 ERA, giving up just nine earned runs in 79 innings.
Xander Gum went 8-2, Matthew Reitz won five of his six decisions after taking over for Heath Hawkins, who was 4-0 before suffering a season-ending arm injury.
With all of the talent and big-game performances, the Knights were never out of a game something they proved time and time again, but never more so with it all on the line.
“We tell our kids all the time to not compete against their opponent, compete against the game,” Simmons said. “And you could see them get a guy on, move him over and those kind of things and they’ve done that all year. The comeback wins have been all year, and they were never insurmountable.”
After getting a first-round bye, the top-seeded Knights faced Metrolina Christian in the second round of the playoffs on May 13. The Knights got down, 4-0, and were behind 4-3 entering their last at bat. Undeterred, McIlroy led off the seventh with a triple and Hampton singled him home before scoring the winning run on a Hall single.
On May 16, it was more heroics as the Knights trailed conference rival Charlotte Country Day, 5-0, after the first inning. However, Bradbury and Dillon Carpenter homered and McIlroy drove in three runs to spark a 6-5 comeback win, setting the table for the best-of-three series against High Point Christian.
In Game 1 on May 17, Bradbury hit a pair of home runs, Carpenter added a solo shot and Kowar went the distance on the mound for a 8-4 win. The second game later that day, the Knights fell 5-4 after rallying for three runs in the top of the seventh inning and having the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position.
The third game went into extra innings, but ended with the Knights in a familiar position, coming back to win a game and ending the season in their celebratory dogpile.
“It was emotional,” Simmons said. “One thing these guys impressed me with was how mentally tough they were. We had wins throughout the year against some really quality clubs and mentally they didn’t ever give in regardless of who the team
“Probably in 24 years this is the best example of team. We had 21 guys all pulling in the same direction and when that happens – it doesn’t matter how far you’re down – you always have a chance. This was the best example of that, they all knew their role and played it well. That’s pretty tough to beat sometimes.”