Key helped build baseball dynasty

Published 8:58 am Thursday, August 18, 2016

Oddly enough, a change in Davie boys basketball coaches changed Davie baseball history.

Denny Key Sr., who was an assistant coach at North Davidson under Pete Jones, became the Davie varsity boys basketball coach in 1986. His son, Denny Key Jr., followed his daddy to Davie.

Little Denny was a stalwart of a young man when he enrolled at Davie for his sophomore year (Davie was a three-year school in those days.). Little Denny would play three sports in high school, including football and basketball, but he would carve out a legendary career on the mound in baseball.

As a freshman at North Davidson Junior High, Key averaged – gulp – 2.3 strikeouts per inning while tormenting North Davie, South Davie and the rest of the North Piedmont Conference. When he crossed to this side of the Yadkin River, the hot-shot sophomore quickly showed what the fuss was about.

He was an absolute menace to opposing batters, he oozed swagger every moment he was on the field and he was everything the War Eagles had anticipated, going 18-5 with 239 strikeouts and helping Davie win three Central Piedmont Conference championships while posting a combined record of 49-18.

Indeed, things changed in a big way for coach Dave Hunt and his baseball program. Before Key’s arrival, Davie had won three conference championships in 31 years (1963, 1965 and 1971) and none in 15 years.

Key (Class of ‘89), Billy Etchison (‘76) and Maria Newsome (‘95) represent the 16th class for the Davie Athletic Hall of Fame. They will be honored at Davie’s football game on Sept. 2 – before the game in the cafeteria and at midfield at halftime. Also, the 1961-62 boys and girls basketball teams will be inducted.

Key was a member of the varsity basketball team for three years, the first two as a player for his father. Big Denny left after the 1988 season to take the job at West Forsyth, and he led the arch-rival Titans to numerous CPC titles and deep playoff runs. The ‘88 season was something special. Davie had suffered seven losing seasons in nine years, and the two exceptions were 12-10 marks in 1981 and 1985. But with Greg Anderson (15.1 points, 7.6 rebounds) and Clifford Dulin (14.7 points, 9.3 rebounds) leading the way in ‘88, Davie went 18-7 to finish second in the CPC. It was the best league finish in 18 years and the most wins in 19 years.

Key played football his junior and senior years, and he was an all-conference punter in ‘88.

But he was a golden ticket in baseball, delivering three all-conference seasons for Hunt, who added conference titles in 1991, 1992 and 1993 to give him six in a seven-year span.

1987 Season

Key made his Davie baseball debut in relief against West Iredell, and the 6-foot-3 sophomore with the take-no-prisoners personality promptly retired nine straight batters to ice a 7-1 win. After starting 2-0 in relief duty, he got his first start in a home game against Statesville. He went all seven innings in a 12-3 romp. All Key did in a 3-1 win over Mt. Tabor was slug a two-run homer and improve his record to 4-0. Davie was 12-0 before its first loss.

In the regular-season finale, the War Eagles had to beat visiting Kannapolis to tie West Forsyth and North Davidson for first place. Davie rolled 7-1, giving Hunt his first championship in eight years as coach.

“There wasn’t any playoff pressure, but when was the last time we put something in that (trophy) case?” Hunt said then.

Davie trailed 1-0 before putting up a six-spot in the fourth. After an error and a walk, David Wilson doubled and Bob Richardson, Mike Beck, Robert Moore and Eric Naylor followed with singles.

In the drawing for playoff seeds, N. Davidson got the one, W. Forsyth the two and Davie the three. The bad draw sent Davie to East Gaston, but senior hurler Terry McClannon lifted Davie to a 1-0 win over the Tri-County Conference champs with his second no-hitter of the season. He struck out nine as Davie recorded its first-ever NCHSAA playoff win. The only run came in the fifth, when Danny Shore singled between short and third for Davie’s first hit of the game. After Beck walked, Moore put down a sac bunt. East Gaston pitcher John White, who struck out 14 in defeat, tried to pick off Beck at second, but his throw sailed into center field and Shore trotted home.

Grimsley, which entered the playoffs with a modest 12-9 record, stunned visiting Davie 4-2 in the second round after shocking N. Davidson 9-3 in the first round. After tossing a complete game against N. Davidson, Ethan Albright worked five relief innings against Davie, taking over with two on and no outs in the third and stifling the War Eagles from that point on.

“We’re a 1 1/2-pitcher team,” Grimsley coach Raymond Johnson said. “When our half (Tom O’Connell) didn’t do the job, we brought in Ethan.”

Davie, which set a school record for wins at 17-5 (10-4 CPC), produced  five All-CPC players. The only sophomore among them was Key, who went 6-2 with two saves and a 2.43 ERA in 49 1/3 innings. The others were senior first baseman Johnny Riddle (.327, 18 walks), junior second baseman and leadoff man Chris Callison (17 runs), senior shortstop Naylor (team-best .350 average, 2 HRs) and senior third baseman and three-year starter Richardson (.316, team-high 18 RBIs).

1988 Season

Key came out blazing in his junior season, throwing a three-hitter and striking out 12 as Davie opened CPC play with a 9-1 thrashing of Parkland. Then he fanned 14 in a three-hitter as Davie beat Key’s his old teammates at North Davidson, 5-1.

When Davie hosted West Forsyth, both teams were 3-0 in the league and the CPC’s top two arms locked up. Key (10 Ks, three-hitter) got the better of West’s Jack Kimel (nine Ks, five-hitter), but errors cost Davie a 4-2 decision. Twice Davie loaded the bases, only to manage one run.

“They had a three-run inning where we had a misjudged fly ball, a couple of errors and a bad-hop hit,” Hunt said. “So you can’t blame Key for that.”

To win a share of the CPC title, Davie was in a must-win situation at Kannapolis – and it needed help from Parkland. The War Eagles pulled off a miracle in an 11-8, eight-inning victory. Coupled with Parkland’s 6-1 win over West Forsyth, Davie and West finished in a tie for first.

Davie trailed 7-0 before erupting for eight runs in the top of the sixth. Walks by Callison, Tim King and Matt Webb were blended with singles from J.C. Hendrix, Matt Marion, Key and Mike McDaniel. Hendrix’s two-run hit provided the 8-7 lead. After the Wonders tied it in the seventh, Davie put up three in the eighth. After Callison singled and stole second, Marion produced the tiebreaking hit. After Webb singled and Key walked, Win Welch stroked a two-run hit. Key picked up the win, striking out five in three relief innings.

Although West would enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, Davie grabbed the second and final berth and had a share of its second straight title.

“I know I haven’t changed, so it must be the players,” Hunt said. “I’m tickled for the boys.”

In the first round of the playoffs at West Mecklenburg, Davie scratched out a run in the seventh to win 4-3. McDaniel struck out nine in five innings before Key fanned four in two hitless frames. With the score 3-3 in the seventh, Hendrix, who provided a 3-2 lead in the third with a solo home run, reached on an error and later scored on a wild pitch.

Halfway through the second-round game at Olympic, the War Eagles were in position to move on, leading 1-0 on Hendrix’s fourth-inning solo homer. Key struck out the side in the third and had a one-hitter going. But disaster struck in the fourth and fifth as Olympic put up seven runs. Davie was held to five hits and lost 9-1.

“(In the fourth) one guy made his second error of the season (before Davie made a throwing error on a potential double-play ball),” Hunt said. “I never expected them to start hitting like that. Denny was throwing well, but they had a couple of seeing-eye hits that got them going.

“There are probably some people who think I’m disappointed, but I’m far from it. I’m as happy with this group as any I’ve ever coached. Nobody expected us to get this far.”

Davie finished 15-8 (10-4 CPC) and had six players named to the all-conference team. Key went 7-3 with a 1.37 ERA, striking out 109 in 69 innings. As if that weren’t enough, he hit .345 with a team-high five doubles and was third with 17 RBIs.

Hendrix starred offensively (.381, tied for first with five homers, 19 RBIs, first with 26 runs, 18 walks) and behind the plate. He was honorable mention on the Greensboro News & Record’s all-state team.

“We did not have much foot speed, but I’ll guarantee we stole more bases than any team,” Hunt said. “They absolutely wouldn’t run on (Hendrix).”

Also making All-CPC were senior center fielder and leadoff man Shore (.432 average), senior shortstop Callison (.348, 19 runs, 12 steals), junior second baseman Webb (.340) and sophomore DH Marion (.357, 22 RBIs, five homers). McDaniel wasn’t selected but he was certainly valuable with a 4-1 record and 1.51 ERA.

1989 Season

Hunt’s talent machine cranked out a 17-5, record-setting run in 1989.

In the CPC opener, the 6-4, 185-pound Key shoved a three-hitter with 11 Ks in a 4-0 win at North Davidson. He piled up 15 Ks in a 9-1 wipeout of South Rowan.

Davie was on cruise control before stumbling 5-3 to North Davidson and 11-10 to Kannapolis, which overcame an 8-1, sixth-inning deficit.

Davie atoned with an unforgettable 3-2 home win over West Forsyth. If West would have won, there would have been a four-way tie for first between Davie, West, Reynolds and Parkland, and coin flip would have decided two playoff berths. Davie won it outright, thanks to an epic homer from Marion.

After four innings, Davie had just three singles against lefty Mike Lovelace, and the Titans held a 2-0 lead. But in the fifth, Alex Nail singled. Two strikeouts later, McDaniel was hit by a pitch. Marion was next. He barely fouled off a 3-2 curveball. He pounded the next pitch to left-center for his seventh home run. West’s lead was erased on one swing.

“I had come up in the second with two men on and popped up,” Marion said. “And I didn’t want to do that again. We were running out of time and Lovelace was pitching real well.”

Key took over in relief in the sixth and slammed the door. With a 9-5 record in the congested CPC standings, Davie celebrated its third straight title.

“I was really pumped,” Key said. “I threw as hard as I could.”

“It was a playoff atmosphere,” Hunt said.

Key, McDaniel and Richard Bowles did all the pitching that season. Bowles, who didn’t play as a junior in ‘88, got the ball in the first round against visiting Olympic and the result was spectacular: a no-hitter in an 8-0 win. He got 15 ground-ball outs. The closest Olympic came to a hit was a ball deep in the hole in the sixth. Shortstop Nail fielded the smash on his knees and fired to first baseman Jamey Reeves, who tagged the runner. After the final out, Bowles got a bucket of ice water dumped on his head on a chilly night.

“I didn’t know how I was going to pitch tonight,” Bowles said. “I went to the races Sunday and was real sunburned. But after a couple of innings, I felt like I could throw anything across. It was the best I’ve ever pitched.”

Davie would win three playoff games at home, including a 4-1 decision over East Forsyth. McDaniel threw one-hit ball for five innings and Key got the save, retiring all six batters, including four on strikes. Anslo Fowler went 3 for 3 with two RBIs, and Webb had two hits.

A third-round, state-quarterfinal date with Parkland belonged to Wes “Big Guy” Mecham, who blasted two of Davie’s four homers as the War Eagles steamrolled 13-3 over a CPC rival that split with Davie in the regular season. Davie took a 1-0 lead on Mecham’s first homer. After Jesse Dalton doubled, McDaniel and Marion connected for back-to-back homers in a three-run third. For good measure, Mecham cranked a three-run shot in the sixth, his seventh of the season and Davie’s 28th in 21 games.

Davie’s unprecedented run to the NCHSAA semifinals was stopped emphatically at South Mecklenburg, a 25-2 team that whipped Davie 11-1 and advanced to the best-of-three championship series.

Nobody saw a collapse coming when Dalton’s bloop hit and Bobby Bowers’ RBI double gave Davie a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. McDaniel followed with a hit as Davie was threatening to chase pitcher Sammy Shannon before he could get anybody out.

“I thought he was meat,” the cleanup man, Marion, said. “His fastball didn’t look that good and his curveball didn’t either.”

Although Shannon had only logged eight innings all year, South Meck coach Ron Hillier stuck with him. Shannon righted the ship with two strikeouts and a ground out. Davie only mustered two singles the rest of the way as Shannon struck out 12. Davie, by contrast, allowed a season-high 12 hits.

“If he’s only thrown eight innings, then they must be loaded,” Hunt said. “South clobbered the baseball. What else can I say?”

At 17-5, Davie matched the school record for wins, and a dynasty was built. Key, one of four War Eagles named to the All-CPC team, was brilliant with a 5-0 record, 1.02 ERA and 82 Ks in 48 innings. McDaniel was unbelievable, winning CPC Player of the Year while producing arguably the best offensive numbers ever (.547 average, six HRs, 30 RBIs). On top of that, he went 5-3 with a 3.76 ERA with 70 Ks in 44 2/3 innings.

“I can’t remember anybody I’ve coached having a season like that,” Hunt said. “He was the first player of the year we’ve had.”

The other All-CPC selections were Marion – a junior catcher who hit .409 with team highs in homers (eight) and RBIs (32) – and sophomore shortstop Nail, who hit .316. Although they weren’t selected, Davie got big contributions from Webb (.333, three HRs, 24 runs), Dalton (.328), Mecham (seven HRs, 25 RBIs) and Bowles (7-2 record, 1.91 ERA).

1989 Mocksville Legion

In the summer of ‘89, Key helped the Mocksville American Legion team enjoy its greatest season ever, going 37-15 and finishing second in the state. It won the only Area III championship in Mocksville’s 35-year history since 1982. To put that summer in perspective, Mocksville has won 34 games the past three years combined.

Coach Dale Ijames’ crew cranked 52 homers and attracted well over 1,000 fans on a nightly basis. Key went 9-4 with a 2.51 ERA, displaying extraordinary control for a power pitcher (115 Ks, 36 walks in 104 IP). The staff was bolstered by Lovelace (10-2, three saves, 3.17 ERA), Chad Triplett (7-2, 2.69 ERA) and McDaniel (5-1, 4.37, 76 Ks in 59 2/3 IP).

The talent-rich lineup included McDaniel (.415, 5 HR, 43 RBI), Nate Newsome (.345, 28 SB), Brock Walker (.344, 8 HR, 36 RBI), Freddie Transou (.339), Triplett (.329, 12 HR, 45 RBI), Marion (.329, 6 HR), Gray Bovender (.326), Fowler (.293, 4 HR, 30 RBI), Michael Shore (.289, 10 doubles) and Mecham (.268, 4 HR, 24 RBI).

College, Pro Baseball

During his senior season at Davie, Key signed a grant-in-aid with Wake Forest.  After pitching for Wake in ‘90, Key transferred to Spartanburg Methodist for the ‘91 season. After signing with North Carolina and having his sights set on being a Tar Heel in ‘92, he was picked in the 17th round of the 1991 draft by the Cleveland Indians.

“I had signed to go play at North Carolina,” Key said in August 2011. “We had just finished our season at Spartanburg. I got a call from (scout) Mark McKnight. We met, they made an offer, we counter-offered and there was a little bit of negotiation. I called Mike Roberts, who was the coach at Carolina, and told him I wouldn’t be coming.”

Key is among special company. John Parker (1965), Whit Merrifield (2010), Joe Watson (2014) and Jeremy Walker (2016) are the only other former Rebels/War Eagles to get drafted. “It was a pretty daggone awesome feeling,” he said.

Key received a $20,000 signing bonus and “they paid for me to finish school,” he said.

The 6-4, 230-pounder came out breathing fire in ‘91, posting a 2.67 ERA for Class A Watertown (N.Y.) He was moved to Watertown after a short stay with Burlington.

“I got named most valuable player on my team my first year,” he said. “I was consistently 88-90 (mph) with movement and location.”

Key spent his second year in the minor leagues between Columbus (Ga.) and Watertown. But after seeing everything go right in ‘91, things turned south in ‘92.

“I had a pitching coach (in Columbus who) tried to turn me into a sidearmer because I have long arms,” he said. “That was a brutally bad decision. It was a bad decision on his behalf to try to get me to do it, and it was a bad decision on my behalf to listen to him. That’s when I hurt my back.”

First he pulled a hamstring in a rundown. The downward spiral was accelerated by the back injury.

“We had other pitchers hurt, so I agreed to pitch one night,” he said. “But it had only been about a week since I pulled my hamstring. Then I threw my back out. The next morning I woke up and was paralyzed from the waist down. I couldn’t feel anything. I guess that was the beginning of the end of my professional baseball career.”

Key pitched for Watertown in ‘93, but things didn’t get any better.

“I had back surgery in March of ‘93,” he said. “I went back and played about two months after that. It got to the point where I went from being a rubber arm who could throw every day with no problem to pitching and then being stiff for two days. I couldn’t get loose.”

After 14 2/3 innings into the ‘93 season, Key called it a career. In three years in the Cleveland organization, he went 14-11 with a 3.71 ERA. Not too shabby. Though it didn’t end like Key had hoped, he has memories for a lifetime.

“I have a lot of great memories,” he said. “I don’t think about what I missed or what could have been. The fact of the matter is, you have to be pretty exceptional to get to the big leagues. In my opinion, there’s a secret out there. Everybody has a secret. It’s a different secret for every person. But there’s somebody along the way that you run into when you’re playing sports that tells you that secret. Sometimes you play sports and never run into that right person. But the flip side of it is, I don’t really regret the way it went.”

Key had stints as the varsity baseball coach at North Iredell and Forbush before going into administration. He is heading into his second year as an assistant principal at Forbush Middle. He is still involved in baseball as a coach for a showcase team (the Rockies).