After losing six players from its conference championship team to graduation, Midway baseball will rely on key returners for
SPIVEY’S CORNER — Nate Smith saw it coming last season.
There would be a time when he looked up in practice and didn’t see a core of upperclassmen showing him the ropes — manning the infield, getting key outs on the mound, providing clutch hits in playoff games.
When Midway baseball begins the new season next week, it will be without six players due to graduation and Smith realizes the burden he and the team’s other three seniors possess.
“I have to do more on this team … step up more, be more of a captain and lead the young guys,” he said following a recent preseason scrimmage.
“I got high expectations. My teammates think highly of me and people out there (fans) think highly of me, so I just got to do what I do.”
The reigning All-Record Offensive Player of the Year led Midway in nearly every hitting category, posting a .468 batting average with 18 RBI. Smith registered a hit in all but three games, helping the Raiders to a 13-2 overall record, their fourth East Central 2A Conference championships in five seasons while taking league player of the year honors.
In his second season as skipper, Justin Carroll is still tweaking the batting order to feature Smith — who mainly served as the cleanup man during his breakout junior campaign.
“Hopefully he swings it like he did last year. … We want Nate to be swinging the bat as much as possible,” Carroll said, even putting Smith in the leadoff spot during some of the preseason tune-ups.
“But right now, we’re just kind of moving some things around, trying to figure out one lineup that might work.”
Regardless of how the final order shakes out, Carroll won’t be short of options. Fellow seniors Caden Wilson and Grant Barefoot were reliable bats a year ago.
Wilson led the team in extra-base hits and was second in RBI and slugging behind Smith.
Barefoot had some key at-bats, averaging .324 at the plate with 12 RBI.
Meanwhile, Raiders junior Casey Culbreth came on late in the season and notched two of the team’s five hits during a tough 1-0 loss to Whiteville in the playoffs.
Culbreth is also expected to take a major role on defense following the losses of Dawson Wiggins and Sawyer Sutton, the team’s top two pitchers who signed with Ferrum College and The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, respectively.
“It sucks losing those guys … but we just got to have guys that can fill it up and do a good job of that,” Carroll said.
In three appearances, Culbreth tallied 14 strikeouts — nine of which came during his only start on June 10 where he went the distance and registered a 4-0 shutout win.
Smith is also expected to see some time on the mound, but his primary position will be a new adventure as he takes over for departed shortstop Collin Avery.
“I’ve played about every position but shortstop, so I just kind of have to learn on the fly,” he said.
“Just learn new things as time goes on and play as good as you can. That’s about all you can do.”
He added that taking reps at short behind Avery during practices last year gave him some much-needed confidence for an expanded stint in the hole.
Meanwhile, Smith will also be tasked with bringing along newcomers Hunter Tyndall and Gabe Dapyuan on the infield.
Despite various role changes and battling youth, the upperclassmen captain isn’t adjusting team goals.
“Conference championship, of course. That’s our main expectation,” Smith said.
Midway moves into the newly-formed Southeastern Athletic Conference where it faces old rival Clinton while picking up new competition from Robeson and Bladen counties.
Carroll hopes the preseason and nonconference slate against the likes Southern Lee, Triton and Whiteville will toughen his young group as the season progresses.
“We’re getting thrown into the fire,” he said. “We practice really hard and we got a lot of guys coming back that have been there before, so I think we’ll be fine.
“I know it’s a tough league and we got our work cut out for us … But we scheduled that real, real, brutal nonconference schedule, so we’re hoping we’ll be tested and figure out what we’re made of those first few weeks of the year.”
The Raiders open the 2022 slate on the road Tuesday at South Johnston.
Donnell Coley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-230-2040.