Veteran Tornados seeking second straight postseason bid

BREVARD, N.C. – Matt McCay’s optimism is apparent.

“We’re more veteran than maybe we’ve ever been,” McCay remarked, his slow, pensive drawl reflecting his Hillsborough, North Carolina roots. “For the first time in a long time we’ve got a strong senior class top to bottom. About a third of our team is fourth-year players. We think that can translate to success.”

The leader of Brevard’s baseball program fidgeted with his rings as he spoke. Now in his sixth season with the Tornados, McCay has four of them—championship rings from Orange High School and the Thomasville Hi-Toms displayed alongside those commemorating then-Assistant Coach McCay’s back-to-back trips to Omaha in 2008 and 2009 as a member of North Carolina’s staff. The pale, late-afternoon sunlight danced off the diamonds as McCay turned his attention to his senior leader.

“Hunter’s a great player. His baseball intelligence is off the charts. He’s an unbelievable, motivated student and he’s already got his real estate license. He’s so valuable to our program because he gives us a chance to win every day.”

Hunter Donaldson became the first Tornado named to a preseason all-conference team in three years with his second team selection as a first baseman. The Edneyville native earned a first team all-region nod as a utility pitcher last season after leading the team with a .338 batting average, fielding .985, and posting a 5-4 record with a 3.74 ERA on the mound.

“He’s our most consistent hitter and he shuts down some of the top teams in our league,” McCay said as he reflected on Donaldson’s pitching dominance in critical road wins at Anderson and Tusculum that helped the Tornados wrap up a postseason bid in 2015. “I’m proud for him to get some recognition. For people to see how good he really is.”

Despite Donaldson’s return, some would expect McCay to worry about his pitching rotation after losing seniors J.D. Chaplain and Zac Joyce, who ended the year starting Saturday doubleheaders, to graduation. They would be misguided. McCay's staff is in the capable hands of second-year assistant Avery Booker, who is developing eight players for starting roles this spring.

The competition, as expected, is tight, with Donaldson's slot atop the rotation the only defined role as the coaching staff seeks the niche best suited for each pitcher, including a host of newcomers jockeying for playing time. "Basically, anyone could play any role," said McCay, after indicating that last year's closer, Tyler Konzen, is penciled in as a starter to begin the season. "We've got to see if the young guys can handle coming out of the bullpen after starting for most of their lives.”

When opposing batters do make contact, they’ll be hitting into the teeth of an experienced defense. Brevard returns four players that saw significant time in last year’s outfield that combined to rack up 13 assists, seven of them by Brennan Allen. Considered by McCay to be the top defender in the unit, Allen will also see time on the mound. Sophomore Christian Dix is an all-conference caliber player after finishing second on the team with a .325 average a season ago.

McCay’s laser focus, the same attention to detail that helped him hit .356 in four collegiate seasons split evenly between North Carolina Wesleyan and the University of North Carolina, is on display as he weighs potential defensive alignments. He has stopped slipping the rings over his knuckles now, no longer replaying championship memories of years gone by, concentration squarely locked on what lies ahead in 2016.

“Solid infield defense is a big key to our success this season,” came the observation. “[Assistant coach Sean] Walsh has done a great job coaching the infield, and we’re always one of the best in the league in that area. Ryan Smith, by the stats and the eye test, is our best defensive infielder. The ball goes right in his glove and his throws are on the money. He could play at third or at second this year.

“Pat Quinn is back and did a great job for us at shortstop last season. Noah Poteat and Parker Hubbard have both had great springs. So has Schuyler Martire, who’s a juco guy. All of them could be in the mix when the season gets going. And we’ve got two experienced guys returning in Kody Spencer and Brayden Morris that will log some innings behind the plate.”

The Tornados were far from an offensive juggernaut in the conference last season, but Walsh, who has also served as the team’s hitting coach since 2011, returns plenty of promise. Seven of the top 10 hitters off a squad that scraped together enough runs to finish 13-16 and earn a postseason bid in a difficult league are back for 2016.

Donaldson and Dix provide legitimate firepower at the top of the lineup. Increased roles for players like Blaine Durham, who finished with a .263 average, 14 RBI, and a team-high .526 slugging percentage in just 21 games in 2015, could make the Tornados dangerous at the plate.

With a new conference scheduling policy giving teams two extra weeks before league play begins, McCay hopes to use the early portion of the season to tweak his lineup as players grow accustomed to altered roles and new positions. Brevard’s schedule is backloaded with difficult games, including a brutal three-weekend stretch of conference series against defending national runner-up Catawba, at defending SAC Championship winner Wingate, and at 2013 SAC Tournament champion Lincoln Memorial to close the regular season.

“April will tell us what kind of baseball team we are,” McCay stated. “We’ve got a lot of good programs in our league. Having so many of them stacked up like this certainly presents a challenge.

“I’m hesitant to say we’ll be good,” he stonewalled. “But outside of John Slade, we’re returning essentially all of our offense from a team that finished in the middle of a very tough league last year. Book, Walsh, and I really do trust these guys. They know what’s expected of them and what to do to get there.”

The veteran group has earned McCay’s trust by proving their maturity in the offseason. For the first time in his tenure, there have been no disciplinary issues with any of his student-athletes, his pride in his players evident in his smile as he delivered the news.

Asked to define success for his team this season, McCay took a moment to search the ceiling for an answer. “I think success is finishing well above where others perceive our program to be and having the opportunity to play in the postseason.”

Saturday will present the Tornados with their first opportunity to build toward a successful season, and second consecutive postseason bid, as Brevard hosts Emmanuel in a nonconference doubleheader at Gil Coan Field. First pitch is scheduled for noon.

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