Area teams hope youth serves them well

by Aaron Burns

HUNTERSVILLE – One word was all Hopewell High baseball coach Chet Greeson needed to describe the key element to his team’s 2013 season.

“Consistency,” he said.

Hopewell High assistant baseball coach David Allison, far left, chats with Titans manager Spencer Stilwell as Hopewell players Mitchell Nowicki and Ivan Acuna prepare for the Titans’ game against West Mecklenburg High on Feb. 28. Hopewell won 8-3. (Aaron Burns/MI Monitor photo)

It’s no foreign concept to the area’s other two teams, West Mecklenburg and East Gaston, both of whom finished in the middle of MEGA-7 3A/4A conference standings last season.

“We’ve got some good players, but we’re low on experience,” said West Mecklenburg coach Mike Carpino, whose team has to replace nearly its entire pitching staff after a 10-14 season.

Catcher Nick Davis is expected to lead the Hawks in the batter’s box.

“Nick will be a big help for us this year,” Carpino said.

East Gaston advanced to the Class 4A state playoffs last season, but lost 12-1 to Watauga High in the first round.

The Warriors went 12-11 in 2012 and lost their 2013 season opener 11-1 to Gastonia Forestview on March 1.

“We expect to compete for the conference championship if we can stay healthy and our younger players accept the challenge of being on the varsity team,” East Gaston coach Randy Sellers said.

Hopewell was consistently in the middle of I-MECK 4A conference standings. Hopewell finished last season 16-15, graduated three seniors and had sophomore Tristan Baker penciled in as a top contributor for this year.

Baker isn’t expected see the field because he tore his left ACL in a December basketball game. He had surgery in mid-January.

“We’re still excited about the season and the kids we have back from last year,” Greeson said. “Of course, losing Tristan hurts. We were expecting big things from him, but you find somebody to fill the shoes and move on.”

Pitchers Alon Smith, Craig Zaluwa and Wayne Shaffer are the Titans’ strongest arms. Smith said the trio should see plenty of time on the mound and in the field, but that’s just what they wanted.

“We have a bunch of young guys from junior varsity coming in this year, so we’re going to have some depth but be young,” he said.

Greeson agreed.

“We’ve got a number of guys who can pitch, and pitch well, aside from Tristan,” he said.

The team split their first two games of the season, a 9-4 loss on Feb. 27 to Providence High and an 8-3 win over West Mecklenburg the next day.

Even without Baker, Hopewell aims to use good hitting and error-free fielding to close the gap between themselves and Mallard Creek High, last year’s league champions.

The team expects more than 16 wins this year, said Zaluwa, who has already spent time at pitcher, third base and center field for this young season.

Greeson put Zaluwa in more of a leadership role before the 2013 campaign began. Zaluwa, who batted .314 last year – second in terms of active returning players behind Shaffer’s .344 – is up to the challenge.

“It’s something I was kind of hoping for,” he said. “I’m just doing my thing. I spent the off-season preparing for leadership, but I’m still looking at other guys to step up. I can’t do it all myself, but we’ve got guys who will do a great job for us.”

One of them, leadoff hitter Ivan Acuna, wasn’t at Hopewell a year ago. He moved from Caracas, Venezuela, and joined the Titans. It’s the first prep baseball team he’s played on, but Acuna’s skills took center stage from the time he stepped on the diamond.

This year will be Hopewell’s last in the I-MECK 4A conference.

Zaluwa said a conference championship would be a nice send-off, but the first goal is to play good baseball.

“The rest will take care of itself,” he said. “We’ve got to be steady, hit the ball well, and not make mistakes.”

In other words: Be consistent.

“We have confidence in each other,” Zaluwa added. “I believe coach Greeson will put out the best players we have, and we’ll put it all together.”

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