MYRTLE BEACH, SC — Any coach will tell you it’s different team every season.
Randleman baseball coach Jake Smith knew it would be this way when seven senior starters graduated from the record-shattering 2022 team that won the North Carolina 2-A state championship for the second year in a row.
In a sense, the Tigers had to start over.
One thing hasn't changed, though — the winning.
Randleman is 15-2 after sweeping four games in the Mingo Bay Classic at the beach. The Tigers are 8-0 in the PAC-7 Conference and could clinch that title next week.
The only two returning starters are senior Hunter Atkins and junior Seth Way. They're good ones. Both are Division I recruits.
A third key returnee from last year, pitcher Drake Purvis, has missed the season to date recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. The junior ace pitcher is one of the top pitchers in North Carolina. The Tigers expect him back near the end of the season.
That’s not a lot of holdovers, but here they are.
“It has been a work in progress,” Smith said. “We’ve got pretty much an entire new team. At the same time, we’ve got a few guys that have been there and they're providing leadership for us. They’re doing a good job.”
Some of it could be anticipated. Randleman has done this before. The program boasts three state championships and makes a deep playoff run almost every season.
And some of the key players who have emerged, such as pitcher Austin Lemons, have worn the Randleman uniform for a long time. They just haven't gotten on the field until now.
Lemons is making the most of it. His latest outing was a four-hitter with 11 strikeouts in the Tigers’ 8-1 romp over Buckhannon-Upshur (W.Va.).
“I think the biggest thing is letting guys find their roles,” Way said. “A lot of these guys are really talented. There were just a lot of guys in front of them who are really talented.”
In a sense, their time is just now coming.
“Guys who have been waiting are getting their opportunities this year,” Smith said. “It's exciting to see guys have success who have been putting in the work.”
It's work that never stops.
“Just working on stuff that people don't see outside the game,” Atkins said. “They don't see us when we’re at the facility, the time we spend every day, even on Saturdays. We work together, even outside of practice, trying to make each other better.”
This is a different team in a lot of ways, especially on offense. The Tigers aren’t going to hit 60 home runs like they did last year when they broke the state record. They are more of a small-ball team in terms of advancing runners and hitting for average.
The pitching last year was nearly perfect. But with the graduation of Ryan White and the injury to Purvis, who had a minuscule 0.25 earned run average last year, adjustments had to be made. Lemons became a frontline starter as did Way, who has four Division I offers already.
Atkins was moved to shortstop from third base, which is now occupied by Chesney Welch, one of the former reserves. In addition, Atkins, who had never been on the mound in a game, is now a pitcher Smith counts on for quality innings. Smith uses him in high leverage situations.
“All four years, I've been throwing bullpens,” said Atkins, who has signed with UNC-Greensboro. “This year I’m getting the chance to pitch a little. It’s not my normal position but I can do if I'm needed.”
It has given a boost to the team.
“Drake Purvis has actually helped him out a lot with off speed pitches,” Way said. “He’s doing really well.”
And it's not totally surprising to his coach. As a corner infielder, Atkins always made strong throws across the diamond.
“We’ve always known he can throw,” Smith said. “He’s going to do whatever it takes to be successful to pitch for us. He's one of the purest hitters I've ever coached and he’s showing senior leadership.”
Then there’s sophomore Braxton Walker, who made a splashy varsity debut by striking out the side in the seventh inning of Randleman’s 9-3 win over Robinson (Va.). Walker topped that by throwing a three-hitter over six innings in the Tigers’ 5-1 victory over University (W.Va.).
There are some growing pains.
Randleman isn't walloping teams like it did in the past. The Tigers were used to run-ruling teams. Many games have been a lot closer this year, such as the 4-3 nailbiter over Woodson, Virginia on Monday. Randleman led 4-0 in the first inning and had to hold on.
“We hit good for two innings and let them off the hook,” Smith said. “We’ve got to keep the hammer down. That’s part of learning.”
But to be 15-2, did they really expect that? Well, sort of.
“I knew we would compete each and every game,” Atkins said. “I figured we’d be in this spot.”
That comes, in part, from a quiet confidence.
“You don’t put pressure on yourself,” Way said. “You just go out and do your job. Me and Lemons have been playing for a long time.”
They would like to play long after the regular season, too.
“We've done a lot of good things this year,” Smith said. “Hopefully, we can continue them into the playoffs.”