Cardinal Gibbons had loads of potential last season. The Crusaders won their first five games of the 2014 season before injuries and inexperience took a toll, leaving the team without a trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
“You hope the lumps you took last year kind of pay off,” coach Jim Liebler said. “We had a good team last year, but we had a couple of key injuries and were playing a lot of sophomores and mistakes get made at the varsity level.”
Senior outfielder Stephen Scott, a Vanderbilt recruit who hit .608 with eight home runs for the Crusaders last season, will once again play a big part in Gibbons’ success.
“He’s certainly one of the better players in the area,” Liebler said. “We’re kind of expecting him to do what he’s always done. He’s been on varsity since he was a freshman. He’s always contributed. He’s got a lot of power. He also hits for average. There’s not a lot he can’t do. We expect him to produce.”
Never miss a local story.
Scott is one of six seniors returning for the Crusaders, but the team’s core may lie in the host of juniors who had a chance to develop at the varsity level as sophomores last season when Gibbons finished the 13-8 and 7-7 in Big Eight play.
“We’re looking at a situation where there’s a lot of experience returning to the team,” Liebler said, adding that he believes the Crusaders’ young team could have made the playoffs last season if it weren’t for injuries. “The junior class is definitely the most experienced of the two teams.”
And then there’s sophomore Noah Campbell, who has verbally committed to South Carolina and made the USA national 15 and under team last summer.
“At this point you can’t blame it on inexperience,” Liebler said. “Last year we could.”
Teams to watch
Apex (12-13): Catcher Lane Olive, a Wingate recruit, outfielder Esteban Valencia and third baseman Ben Highfill are the returning starters.
Broughton (12-13): Shortstop Dom Ford has signed with Brunswick Community College. Catcher John Woods is a three-year starter and pitcher Thomas Walden was all-conference.
Bunn (21-4): The Wildcats started six sophomores last year, including versatile Spencer Brickhouse. He hit .548 in 2014 after posting a .551 mark as a freshman. Junior Nick Sander (7-1) is expected to be the ace of the staff. Senior Thomas Dean was 6-0 and hit .435.
Fuquay-Varina (13-10): Coach Milton Senter has led the Bengals for 38 years and is closing in on 600 wins (588-352). The team is young with only three returning starters. Fuquay will count on sophomore infielder Ryan Rizk and junior outfielder Justin Shelton.
Garner (14-10): Five starters return, including catcher Grayson Lee (UNC Pembroke) and third baseman Cody Jones.
Green Hope (21-4): The Falcons looked like the area’s best team for most of the year before being ousted by Millbrook in the second round. The pitching looks exceptional with Michael Merryman (9-2, 0.91, a Brevard recruit), Troy Maslowski (7-1, 2.14 ERA, Barton College) and Matt Duckworth (3-0, 0.58 ERA). Vincent Addona (.365) is a four-year starter at shortstop.
Middle Creek (13-12): The Mustangs return five players who have made college commitments – senior shortstop Diego Guerrero to Gardner Webb (hit .447), junior first baseman Trevor Heasley to Western Carolina (.395); junior pitcher Sammy Chapman to Richmond (2-0, 0-87 ERA), junior Zack Moore to East Carolina and senior second baseman Griffin Riley to Greensboro College.
Millbrook (20-10): The Wildcats used exceptional pitching to rush through the state 4A playoffs last year. They entered the playoffs with a 15-9 overall record to knocked off Northern Durham (7-4), Green Hope (4-2), Apex (2-1) and Panther Creek (5-0) before dropping a best-of-three series to Richmond County (5-6, 2-0, 2-1) in the state semifinals. Only two starters return – pitcher Alex Royalty (7-2, 0.65 ERA) and first baseman Spencer Williams (.328).
Orange (21-4): The Panthers return five starters, including outstanding juniors Brad Debo and Byrse Wilson. Debo, who is committed to South Carolina, hit .534 in 2014 with four home runs and 38 RBI. Wilson, a North Carolina recruit, hit .452 with eight doubles.
Sanderson (17-7): Left-handed High Point pitcher recruit Ray Roby (6-2, 1.49 ERA, 91 strikeouts) leads six returning starters. UNC Wilmington recruit Ryan Jeffers hit .425 in 2014 and junior shortstop and Coastal Carolina recruit Cory Wood hit .346. Right-hander Vance Lassiter had a 1.57 ERA in 35 innings.
South Johnston (17-11): The Trojans got hot at the end of the season and pushed through the playoffs before dropping two games to Topsail in the Eastern 3A finals. Junior Joseph Johnson hit .413 with nine home runs and posted a 6-4 pitching record.
Wakefield (9-12): Six starters are back for the Wolverines, including pitchers Jordan Ramos and Kyle Grewe.
Other players to watch
Cincinnati recruit hit .407
Struck out 85 in 49 innings; 1.00 ERA.
Penn State shortstop recruit has great speed
Gardner-Webb catcher recruit
Lefty is committed to Brunswick
Knights’ MVP in 2014 as freshman
NCISAA All-State after hitting .511