Johnny Mac excelled in every game

Published 9:13 am Thursday, November 5, 2020

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Second in a two-part series on new Davie hall of famer John McDaniel.

It’s hard to overstate how truly good John McDaniel was on the mound as a Davie senior in 2006. His numbers were breathtaking. He pitched at a high level every … single … game.

His senior year did not start like he had hoped, however. He missed the first four games with an injury. Davie went 3-1 in his absence, but the one loss was 7-5 at home to Mt. Tabor in the Central Piedmont Conference opener. McDaniel made his senior debut in the fifth game at Freedom. Although Davie ultimately lost 3-2, McDaniel sizzled for five innings, Freedom’s only hit coming on a solo homer by the No. 9 batter. He tossed 63 pitches in six innings, but the lack of offensive support spoiled his effort.

Davie’s back was against the wall after a 4-1 loss at West Forsyth. Davie was seething over a 10th straight loss to the Titans and an 0-2 start in the CPC. West ace Greg Holt, a junior who had already committed to North Carolina, jammed gas down Davie’s throat.

This is when the War Eagles recalibrated and got rolling. They didn’t stop until the third round of the 4-A playoffs. They didn’t stop until they broke the program record for wins.

In a put-up-or-shut-up home game against South Rowan, Davie steamrolled 10-0 behind McDaniel’s pitching, Whit Merrifield’s three-run homer and Zach Howard’s three-hit night, which matched South’s total.

“This was definitely a must-win game,” Merrifield said.

McDaniel pitched a three-hitter. Several War Eagles displayed renewed unity by shaving their heads. This game was also noteworthy for junior catcher Chris Kinard’s Davie debut. He moved from Charlotte to the Merrifield home, but missed the first seven games after getting beaned in the eye in a scrimmage.

“I knew Johnny was ready when he shaved his head, because that’s uncharacteristic of him,” coach Mike Herndon said.

Davie got a payback win in a big way, 11-3, over Tabor and freshman pitcher Mat Batts. Kinard slammed two homers. Zach Vogler (4 for 5) and Howard also went deep. Merrifield went 3-4. McDaniel walked one and struck out eight.

At North Davidson, not even a 13-K, one-walk performance by North’s Zach White could slow Davie. That’s because McDaniel countered with a four-hit, no-walk shutout in a monster pitchers’ duel that ended 1-0 in Davie’s favor.

It was 0-0 in the fifth when Merrifield laced a two-out single. After he stole second, Brandon Stewart dumped a two-strike offering into shallow left-center, driving in the game’s only run. Stewart flashed his leather in the North sixth, racing back to the right-field warning track and making an over-the-shoulder, diving catch. That play loomed large when two North hits followed. “He kind of saved my butt that inning,” McDaniel said.

East Rowan at Davie was an anticipated matchup. East was 6-0 in the CPC, but Davie handed the Mustangs an emphatic beating, 9-1. Davie took control when Howard homered in the fourth. Trailing 1-0 against Craige Lyerly, a pitcher who would land at Catawba, Merrifield’s high fly landed on the right-field chalk for a triple. Cleanup man Brad Corriher coaxed a two-out walk. Then Howard blasted a monster homer to center. Suddenly, the War Eagles were ahead 3-1. They blew it open with five in the fifth. McDaniel walked one and fanned 11 in a four-hitter.

“This is huge,” Howard said. “If we don’t win this game, we’ve got a slim chance of winning the conference.”

A 10-0 verdict at South Rowan was a beautiful rerun for the War Eagles, who stole 10 bases and watched McDaniel hurl his third straight four-hitter. Merrifield, Stewart, Vogler, Kinard and Brent Beam stroked two hits each as Davie roughed up Zach Brown. McDaniel permitted two balls to leave the infield.

“Johnny Mac’s been incredible,” Herndon said.

The Freedom Easter Tournament featured eight teams. Davie destroyed East Burke 17-2. It was ruthless in every facet of the game in an 11-0 win over McDowell, which had won seven straight. McDaniel covered five innings in 42 pitches, with no runner reaching second base. In a seven-run third, Merrifield and Kinard homered and Corriher banged two hits.

“To be honest, the bus ride lasted twice as long as the dadgum game did,” Herndon said.

Davie dispatched East Lincoln 5-2 in the title game. Corriher was stellar (six innings, five hits) and Jonathan Hutchens earned the save. Merrifield, Howard and Kinard had two hits each.

Davie eked out a 1-0 home win over North Davidson. The heart-stopper put a ribbon around Davie’s Senior Night for Corriher, McDaniel, Vogler, Brandon Johnson, Hutchens and Saxon Pratt. McDaniel escaped a bases-loaded jam in the sixth. He faced bases-loaded, one-out pressure in the seventh with the leadoff man up. Herndon walked to the mound.

“I talked to him and he just looked at me,” Herndon said. “He was as calm as ever.”

With everyone holding their breath, a Black Knight hit a short fly to right. Stewart raced in to make the catch. He threw to shortstop Merrifield at second for a game-ending double play. Andrew Hunt, the 2005 CPC Player of the Year, worked a complete game in defeat. McDaniel walked one and struck out eight.

The lone run came in the fourth. Corriher pulled a single between first and second. Howard legged out a swinging bunt. Then Kinard knocked in Corriher with a sharp grounder up the middle. Afterward, Herndon marveled at Stewart’s catch.

“I thought it was a flare hit,” he said. “Here comes Brandon and he throws a strike to second.”

The War Eagles were tired of coming up short against West Forsyth, so they did something about it – before a raucous packed house at Rich Park. They reached a new high in 2-1 victory, the 15th straight win eclipsing the record from 1993. By ending the 10-game skid to West and prevailing over Holt, Davie, West and E. Rowan were now tied for first.

“I’m proud of everybody on the team, one through 18,” Corriher said. “To win a game of this magnitude, it’s amazing. I’m on cloud nine.”

With two outs and nobody on in the third, Merrifield and Stewart drew walks and Vogler grounded to second. A hurried throw got past the first baseman and two runs scored.

Corriher used grit and determination to hold West to one run over five innings and win his fourth straight decision. Working in relief, McDaniel retired all six batters he faced.

“He’s as cool as he can be,” Herndon said of Johnny Mac. “It doesn’t matter what the situation is. I mean, I don’t think he has any nerves.”

CPC competition was electric. Another white-knuckle game was next at East Rowan. It was 8-1 McDaniel against 9-0 Cy Young with the regular-season title on the line. It was a spectacle setting in Granite Quarry as fans filled the grandstand and streamed down both sides of the foul lines. The War Eagles got it done 4-1, stopping a six-year title drought and celebrating their first outright championship since 1993 (Davie’s 10-2 mark was followed by East and West at 9-3).

“We ran up against some good pitchers and we found a way to gut it out every time,” Corriher said.

“To win 10 straight (in the CPC), that’s pretty dadgum satisfying,” Herndon said. “We did it the hard way. We weathered the storm.”

Beam was at second with two outs in the third. Merrifield deftly placed a bunt on the third-base side. Lyerly made a wild throw and Beam scored for a 1-0 lead. Stewart’s RBI hit made it 2-0. Kinard drove the nail in East’s coffin in the sixth, smoking a single past short to plate Vogler. When the ball rolled through the center fielder, Corriher came home for the 4-1 lead.

McDaniel’s economical 87-pitch effort was a ho-hummer. He had a streak of 26 consecutive scoreless innings broken by a fourth-inning double, but he retired the last seven batters.

“I love him,” a graceful East coach Brian Hightower said. “I love him because he’s a competitor. Guys come in here and want to light up the radar. McDaniel works ahead in the count and he locates – and that’s the art of pitching.”

Davie hosted the CPC Tournament and received a first-round bye. In a 3-0 win over No. 4 North Davidson in the semifinals, the War Eagles used a familiar formula: They scratched out a few runs and rode McDaniel, who blanked the Knights for the third time. Merrifield and Vogler blistered run-scoring hits in the third, and Corriher slapped a fifth-inning single to add insurance. McDaniel shoved an 83-pitch four-hitter in a game that lasted one hour, 16 minutes.

In the championship game against E. Rowan, Corriher was the hero in 1-0 victory. (This was Davie’s ninth game decided by one or two runs; it was 7-2 in those nailbiters.) Corriher’s third-inning hit set up the game’s only run by pushing Vogler into scoring position, and he was brilliant on the hill, walking one in a three-hitter.

Vogler made two spectacular catches in center – on back-to-back plays. Kinard had three of Davie’s six hits.

“We clawed back (from 0-2 in the CPC) and came out on top,” Corriher said. “It’s been an amazing ride.”

Corriher’s money pitch was a parachute changeup. “Now they call me The Professor and I’ve taken that to heart,” he said. “I change speeds and locate.”

When the War Eagles hosted Grimsley in the first round, it was their first playoff appearance in six years. The 4-1 win marked their first playoff win since 1993. The game was defined by dazzling defensive plays. Merrifield ranged to his right and threw out a runner at first from his knees. Later he speared a laser and doubled up the runner at third. Kinard hosed a runner trying to steal. He rifled a throw behind the runner at second and Merrifield tagged him out. Left fielder Beam nailed a runner at second. Corriher dug out two low throws at first. McDaniel achieved his 11th complete game in as many starts. It was his fifth complete game without issuing a walk as Davie held a 15th straight opponent to less than three runs.

The second round against visiting Northwest Guilford produced an epic 10-inning battle. Davie survived 6-5 because Howard cracked a three-run homer, because McDaniel disarmed the Vikings in the last three innings, because second baseman Heath Boyd made two sensational plays that saved at least three runs and because Merrifield atoned for two errors by making things happen on the bases, including a stolen base that led to his clinching run.

Davie was clinging to a 2-1 lead when Howard stepped up with two on and two outs in the fifth. He homered to right-center on a 3-2 pitch. Corriher was strong again on the mound, but the 5-1 lead slipped away as Davie made four errors, including a two-out throwing error in the seventh that plated two runs and tied the game at 5.

Reliever McDaniel faced the minimum in the eighth, ninth and 10th. In the bottom of the 10th, Merrifield led off with a walk and promptly stole second. Moments later, he broke for third and notched his 26th steal. The throw slammed off his helmet and ricocheted into dead-ball territory. Merrifield trotted home as teammates charged out of the dugout. Davie reveled in its 24th win, a record that still stands.

Davie hosted North Forsyth in the quarterfinals. With 1,500 tickets sold at the gate, fans had to fight for a seat. Davie had a 20-game winning streak, but the Vikings had an absolutely jam-packed roster of stars. They were 28-0 and nationally ranked. They entered with a .362 team batting average, 33 homers and had outscored opponents 253-35. Their lineup included Dustin Ackley (UNC, six years in the major leagues), Wes Hobson (Appalachian State), Addison Johnson (Clemson, drafted by Oakland), Stefan Morris (Gardner-Webb), Michael Wall (UNC Greensboro) and Jamie Serber (High Point).

North cuffed Davie 5-0. “We just ran into a better team,” Herndon said.

Merrifield went 2-3, but Vogler (1-3) had the only other Davie hit.

McDaniel gave it all he had in a no-walk effort. North’s 1-3 batters went 2 for 12, with Ackley going 0-4 with a strikeout. “McDaniel was tough,” North coach Jamie Lowe said. “He did a good job of battling. To keep (Ackley) hitless tells you what kind of pitcher was on the mound against us.”

When McDaniel got the first batter in the seventh to ground out, Herndon went out and took the ball. “We wanted to give him a standing ovation because of the year he’s had,” Herndon said.

While N. Forsyth lost two games to one in the semifinal series to Madison Bumgarner and South Caldwell, Davie’s electrifying run ended at 24-4.

“It all started when they all signed the Ingersoll-Rand sign (in right field),” Herndon said. “They made a commitment to one another.”

The all-conference selections from Davie were seniors McDaniel (pitcher of the year), Vogler and Corriher and juniors Merrifield, Howard and Kinard.

McDaniel signed with Division-II Pfeiffer and turned in a distinguished career. By going 9-3 with eight complete games, two walks and 62 Ks in 86.1 innings, the 6-2, 180-pounder won Carolinas-Virginia Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year in 2007. His name is in the Pfeiffer record book. In career rankings, he’s first in innings pitched (361.1), second in strikeouts (285) and seventh in wins (21).

His Davie stats are frozen in time. As a senior, he threw six shutouts in 12 starts. In each start, he walked one or none. In seven outings as the starter, he delivered a four-hitter or better. He went 12-2 with an 0.75 ERA, seven walks and 72 Ks in 84 innings. In his three-year varsity career, he went 22-9 with a 1.95 ERA, 25 walks and 182 Ks in 215.1 innings.

Two of the seven walks in 2006 were intentional. Five unintentional walks in 84 innings is just incredible. He was a quiet warrior. He never looked excited, nervous, scared, happy or sad. You could live another 100 years and never see another pitcher quite as calm and cool as Johnny Mac was.

Herndon: “You don’t know if you’ll ever see a year like he had.”

Vogler: “Johnny’s got the same look on his face 24/7.”

Assistant coach Tim Devericks: “On the bus ride (to E. Rowan  before the showdown for the regular-season title), he was sleeping.”

Merrifield: “Johnny Mac’s effective because he can throw it in a two-inch hole. He can hit his spots like nobody I’ve ever seen before.”