There were times this season when Millbrook did not look like a team that would play for the state 4A championship.
The Wildcats (20-10) started the season 0-3, losing the games by a total of 18 runs. Even at the end of the season, Cap 8 Conference champion Leesville blasted Millbrook 16-0 in the regular season finale.
Nevertheless, Millbrook will make the school’s first appearance in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state baseball championship series Friday night at 8 p.m. at Five County Stadium.
The Wildcats will face 29-3 Charlotte Providence in the best-of-three series. Game 2 is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday. A third game, if needed, would be at 5 p.m. or 8 p.m. Saturday.
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All of this is happening a year after the Wildcats reached the Eastern Regional championship series in 2014, losing to Richmond County. Millbrook defeated Fuquay-Varina in the Eastern finals.
“We lost eight key contributors from last year’s team,” said Millbrook third-year head coach Austin James. “I felt good about these guys, and knew we could be good, but I didn’t see this coming.”
The defense has been strong all season, and senior Alex Royalty is one of the better pitchers in the state. He is 9-2 with a 2.20 earned run average and 108 strikeouts. He is a UNC-Wilmington recruit.
The development of Reid Herring, a junior who is an East Carolina football commit, and junior Andrew Strickland as the second and third pitchers has been crucial to the late-season run.
Hitters up and down the lineup have gotten better as the year went on.
“Alex has been our ace all year,” James said. “He got hit pretty hard in his first game, but after that he has been dominating. He’s also made huge contributions with his experience. He’s been there before, and he’s been getting our guys ready emotionally.”
Royalty, who also plays third base, is hitting over .300.
“We’ve really bonded as a team. We’re more of a fist than just the fingers,” Royalty said. “We may not have the stats that other teams have, but we find ways to win. “
He knows Providence is a big challenge.
“It’s going to be a battle every inning with Providence because they have pitchers with Division I offers and a lot of D-I position players, too,” he said.
Senior catcher Basil Rodts leads the Millbrook attack and is hitting .350. Junior left fielder Bryce Carnevale has been a consistent hitter all season while senior center fielder Zach Abdou and junior shortstop Scott McKeon have led the second half offensive surge.
“Really every game it’s something different, somebody different coming through, especially in the playoffs,” James said. “It just shows the guys are practicing and are ready every night. I’ve got nine guys who could be the guy making the big play on any given night. This team has had some highs and some lows. But this team has definitely shown the ability to bounce back when things have gotten ugly.”
Austin said it is a little overwhelming to be the first Wildcat baseball team to play for a state baseball title.
“Being the first Millbrook team to reach the finals is pretty amazing,” James said. “It’s a big honor for this group of guys. A lot of good coaches and good players have come through this school.”