Wake Christian Academy will be changing its athletic affiliation for next season, and the folks they’re leaving behind might not be too sad to see the Bulldogs go.
They’re moving from the NCCSA (North Carolina Christian School Association) to the larger NCISAAA (North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association) after taking most of the spring’s hardware with them.
In the 3A state championships May 12 in Wilson, the Bulldogs took three of the four championships, winning the baseball, girls’ soccer and softball titles each for the third time in four seasons.
The soccer was the easiest one, as the Bulldogs blanked Walkertown Gospel Light 4-0. The baseball team topped Greensboro Vandalia Christian 7-3. And the softball team – taking on the only other 3A competitor in Wilson Christian – won the final two games of that best-of-3 series to claim that title.
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Growth Keyed Soccer Run
The soccer team, coached for the 14th season by school principal Wayne Helder, coasted to its victory behind a hat trick from Lauren Hitchings – who transferred from Green Hope after her junior season – with fellow senior Haley Sauls chipping in the other goal. Senior Brooke Buffaloe, who began the season watching from the sidelines after suffering a broken hand in the state basketball tournament, had 13 saves.
Helder said the biggest things the team had going for it were quick improvement and good chemistry during a season in which three key players missed time because of injuries and others had to learn new positions on the fly.
“I’ve been coaching since the 89-90 school year and I believe this may have been the most improved team I’ve ever coached,” Helder said. “We lost six seniors off of last year’s team that were some of the best we’d ever had.
“We had to take Haley out of the field and put her in goal because Brooke was out, and then Kristen Tan and Janie Langston both went down with ACLs. That put us back to the drawing board, and the first part of the year was trial and error against some tough opponents.”
The Bulldogs got inspiration from a big win at South Granville and a hard lesson from a loss at Wilmington Christian, Helder said.
“So we reshuffled our lineup,” Helder explained. “We moved midfielders to defense and forward and won 16 out of the next 17 games. Defensively we became very solid, and Haley did an outstanding job in goal until Brooke came back.
“And this group was tight and as much a family as any team I’ve coached. At the end of the year they were playing for each other and were pretty unselfish.”
Buffaloe – who will play college ball at Clearwater (Fla.) Christian, Tan, Jordan Lewis and Carli Combs were four-year starters, while fellow senior Jessica Holleman was a key reserve.
“When we had to move a lot of people around, we were playing different positions and I think we all meshed well and really played,” said the former forward Combs, who played both right and center midfield this season. “I think we had a lot of doubt when the season started, but as the season went on we got more confident about winning.”
Veteran baseball coach Randy Johnson, who is also the athletic director, said his team’s nucleus of five seniors as well as its hitting ability were the keys to victory.
“We batted .368 as a team and that takes a lot of pressure off your pitching,” he said.
Ronnie Hatfield, who is set to play at Methodist next season, was a four-year starter at shortstop for WCA. So was southpaw Dillon Garrison, who also played first base and left field and was 14-1 over his final two seasons. And Dillon’s twin brother David, a right-hander who pitched and played third and left.
Johnson said D.J. Carper, who played for WCA his final two seasons after transferring from Fuquay-Varina, was natural as a second baseman. Pitcher-center fielder Joseph Curry was a four-year starter who played through a shoulder injury all season.
Dillon Garrison was the winning pitcher in the title game.
“We hit the ball and had good pitching,” Hatfield said. “We just put good swings on the ball and good things happened. I’m going to miss the people here. They always try to preach family first, and it’s all been about winning for the team.”
Deep softball team survives title run
Softball coach John Willingham, a plumber by profession who volunteers as the softball coach in the spring and football defensive backs coach in the fall, said he thinks the Bulldogs could compete with just about anyone in the state.
“We had only 13 girls try out and didn’t cut anybody, but we have good players up and down the line,” Willingham said. “I think if you put us in a big 4A conference we’d probably be right there in the middle. Defensively we could play with anybody, and our top five could hit with anybody.”
The softball team lost the opener of its series 8-3 before recovering with a 5-2 victory – with Jordan Willingham going 2-for-3 with a homer – to set up the rubber match.
WCA rolled 12-2 in the deciding game with senior Courtney Saunders, who was the winning pitcher in both victories, going 2-for-3 with a triple, three RBIs and a steal.
“Courtney is not a natural pitcher, but she’s solid,” Willingham said. “Jordan led us in every category offensively. She was by far our best hitter. And Avery Mann was unbelievable at third base – she made 17 plays and had just one error.”
Saunders, a four-year varsity player who also played volleyball and basketball, said she wants to play outfield next season at Meredith and plans to major in exercise sports science and nutrition.
“Winning the state championship was so much fun,” Saunders said. “We played as a team and it just all came together after we started hitting. After losing that first game, I think that made us even more determined to win.”
Johnson, who has been the school’s AD since 1994, said that Saturday was a very special day.
“It was nice to win all those on one day,” he said. “And I’m really happy for the kids. It’s a lifetime memory they’ll never forget.”
New challenges to begin
But, he said, NCISAA competition isn’t going to be a cakewalk.
“We were already in it for football, and in other sports they’ll be in the largest of the three divisions. It’s definitely going to be an increase in competition. We’ve got strong baseball and soccer programs, but in basketball we might struggle at first.”
Helder said he agreed the Bulldogs will be fine in the diamond sports, but in some others it’s going to be a challenge. He added the school plans to add varsity tennis teams, and is considering track and field competition in the near future as well.
“The TISAC (Triangle Independent Schools Athletic Conference) is one of the best girls’ soccer conferences in the state, period,” he said. “We’re stepping into some of the best soccer in the country and there’ll be some growing pains. And we’ll have our work cut out for us in basketball.”