Baseball faces brutal schedule

Published 10:54 am Thursday, March 1, 2018

Stock up on Tums. In nonconference play, Davie’s varsity baseball team will face four teams that are ranked in the top 10 in 4-A and 3-A. On top of that, three Central Piedmont Conference rivals are ranked in the top 10 in 4-A.

The War Eagles fell on hard times last year, going 12-13 overall and 6-6 to finish fifth out of seven in the CPC. They struggled nonstop on offense, and it’s difficult to imagine noticeable advancement in the loaded CPC in 2018.

Davie opens against Lake Norman, ranked No. 1 in 4-A, on Feb. 28. It will face Carson (ranked No. 1 in 3-A) on March 2, Alexander Central (No. 5 in 3-A) on March 3 and Southeast Guilford (No. 9 in 3-A) on March 9. CPC rivals West Forsyth, Reagan and East Forsyth are ranked second, seventh and 10th in 4-A, respectively.

“The last three or four years we’ve been top five in strength of schedule in the state, so the hits just keep on coming,” sixth-year coach Bobby Byerly said. “Like Ric Flair used to say: ‘To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.’ If you’re not there, you need to know where you need to get. I might be regretting it in three weeks, but I like to see where we’re at, get a barometer of where we need to be. Yeah, we’re going to have to grow up in a hurry.”

Last year was defined by offensive ineptitude and Carson Whisenhunt becoming a rising star on the mound. The War Eagles hit .227 and averaged 3.2 runs. They were largely competitive because opponents only mustered 3.5 runs.

Whisenhunt, a junior lefty who has committed to East Carolina, looks like The Next Great Thing after going 6-5 with a 2.12 ERA as a sophomore. He had six complete games in 12 starts, two shutouts and one save while striking out 66 in 66 innings. Davie lost 1-0 at Lake Norman in the first round of the 4-A playoffs. Whisenhunt gave Davie a chance, pitching a complete-game five-hitter.

“By the end of the year, he really stepped up and showed maturity,” Byerly said. “The Lake Norman game was his best outing. He threw a gem against a really good team. We felt like we could depend on him three-quarters into the season.”

While there’s no question who Davie’s ace is, there are huge questions behind Whisenhunt in the rotation. Senior Landon Bandy (8 1/3 innings in five relief appearances) and junior Michael Shelton (two innings in one appearance) are the only returners with varsity mound experience. Between those two and sophomore Spencer Nifong, junior Jacob Campbell, junior Grayson Keaton and sophomore Troy Clary, others must deliver immediately for Davie to be competitive.

“Nifong has looked really good on the bump,” Byerly said. “He’s a tall, lanky lefthander. Campbell is sneaky fast. If he can just learn to work location a little better … he can throw a lot of ground balls if he’s on. Bandy is going to have to be on the bump. Keaton has looked good. Clary can fill some innings. He’s one of those guys who’s going to be around the plate, nothing spectacular.

“We don’t have many that are going to miss a whole lot of bats. We’re going to have to play defense behind them.”

With only four seniors (including Cody Smith, Cody Hendrix and Guy Brunelli), measurements for success are different for Davie these days. Hunter Bowles, Justin Chaffin, Victor Johnson, Will Cheek and Hite Merrifield are juniors. Garrett Chandler and Aaron Williams are sophomores to round out the 17-man roster.

“After (the four seniors), we get very young with little experience at the varsity level,” he said. “So it’s going to be a challenge. Maturity is going to have to show up early. I always say: ‘Do your best and give it everything you’ve got.’ That’s our motto this year.”

Only three returners hit .246 or better in 2017. Guy Brunelli played sporadically for half the season, then caught fire late to finish at .300 (9 for 30). The Surry Community College commitment tied Whisenhunt for first with 11 RBIs. Bandy hit .250 and Whisenhunt .246.

Brunelli, Nifong, Whisenhunt and Keaton are working at first base. Keaton can also play outfield. Campbell and Clary are battling at second. Clary is also an option in the outfield. Smith and Shelton are shortstops.

“Cody is going to have to be used everywhere,” he said. “He can play every position in the infield. Cody and Michael are going to have to be Swiss army knifes.”

Bandy is the likely starter at third. When he’s on the mound, Smith and Hendrix are options at the hot corner.

“Hendrix is another option if he needs a breather behind the plate,” he said. “Williams can step in behind the plate.”

Hendrix and Williams are the catchers. Merrifield, who has committed to Wake Forest, and Chandler (East Carolina) are all but locked in at left field and center field, respectively. Cheek, Clary, Keaton and Brunelli are looking to earn playing time in right.

“It’s going to be who’s got a hot stick,” he said. “We’re going to have to scratch and claw for runs, so whoever is swinging a hot bat and can do the little things with the stick, that’s who’s going to be there.”

Byerly is ecstatic about Williams’ potential. In fact, he would file adoption papers for the sophomore.

“Aaron can play all nine positions,” he said. “He’s young but he has the heart of a lion. I said today: ‘If everyone was like him, you’d coach until you’re 90.’”

Davie will try to manufacture runs, and Byerly hopes the defense he’s seen in practice carries over to games.

“We have worked on bunting and hit-and-runs until we’re blue in the face,” he said. “Our shining point so far – we’ve looked pretty darn good defensively.”

Danny Allard, Jamey Holt and Jess Cartner are back as assistants. Tim McKnight and Zack Wood are handling the JV.