By Dennis Garcia
Every college baseball team hopes to have the necessary talent it takes to go deep into the postseason, but only a few actually possess the experience and the depth needed to reach that goal.
The Catawba College Indians were one of those teams this year who had a legitimate shot at a NCAA Division II national championship.
After a 2019 campaign which saw the Indians reach the World Series, Catawba, under legendary coach Jim Gantt, returned a wealth of players in an attempt to not only qualify for the World Series, but win it all.
But that all came crashing down when the NCAA shut down the college baseball season due to the coronavirus. The Indians, at the time, were 19-3, including a victory over No. 1 ranked North Greenville. Instead of a run for a national title, the players packed their bags, went home and are now awaiting summer ball.
"The World Series was a great experience and winning the Super Regional was awesome," said Catawba infieder Joe Butts, one of four Indians who are signed to play for the Asheboro Copperheads this summer. "It was great to get that experience as a younger player and with the older guys getting that experience. We had a ton of returners and we felt we had the team to go back and be more successful. We did have a team that could carry us far. It's about getting hot at the right time."
The Indians were enjoying an incredible start to the season before it was shut down. Catawba, which lost its first two games of the season, then ran off a 15-game winning streak. After a loss to Lenoir-Rhyne in the first game of a three-game series, the Indians regrouped and won four in a row before the season ended.
"What we had this year was really special," said Brown, who became the No. 1 pitcher for the Indians this season. "We were going to do a lot. We were all really disappointed. Heartbroken."
"You really can't put into words how disappointing it was," he said. "You can't say how the season would finish, but the way we were playing… There was no fear after a loss. Last year, we'd lose a game and then we'd lose a couple more. This year was different. There is no doubt in my mind we would have gone back and in my mind, we would have won it. It was easily the best team I have been on. Everyone was together and everyone could adapt."
Butts, a junior who prepped at North Davidson, got off to a slow start, but was hitting his stride when the season ended. He was 10 of 19 with six runs scored and four RBIs in his last six games, which raised his batting average to .279. He scored 20 runs and knocked in 14.
"Coach Gantt simplified my swing and I have more confidence at the plate," said Butts, who hit .325 in 54 games as a freshman and .271 in 54 games last year. "I'm seeing the ball a lot better and getting into better counts."
Now Butts, who played in the Florida Collegiate League last year with the Winter Park Diamond Dogs, is anxiously awaiting the start of the CPL season.
"I played Asheboro a few times and I love the field, I'm really looking forward to it," Butts said. "All the (Catawba) teammates are great guys and we'll have good chemistry and I can't wait to meet the guys coming in.
Brown returns to the Copperheads for a second summer with a lot more confidence and a lot more success under his belt. This year, the 6-2, 210-pounder who went to Central Davidson, was 2-2 with a 1.72 ERA. In 31 ⅓ innings pitched, he gave up 25 hits, six earned runs, walked 10 and fanned 32. He started a team-leading six games on the mound.
"I think that role opened up for me there and I had to take it," Brown said of becoming the ace of the Catawba staff. "I had to step in, take that role and do the things I needed to do. Now I'm throwing daily, working out daily and doing the things I need to do for summer ball."
Brown said he learned a lot last year during the summer and hopes to use that experience this summer.
"I think it was understanding the competition level in the CPL last summer," Brown said. "There are a lot of great players in the league. I think it's great to come back for a second year with those guys and build on relationships."
Brown, who is working on his change up and hopes to improve on his velocity, said this summer should be very competitive.
"Guys are frustrated not playing this season," Brown said. "I think the guys will come out and be ready to play just like in college. Everyone will be fresh and ready to go and there should be a lot of exciting moments."
Cowie, a Lincolnton native who played for the Cherryville Post 100 American Legion team last summer, won the closer role for the Indians this season. He was 1-0 with four saves in 10 appearances with a 2.13 ERA. He walked one and struck out 17 in 12 ⅓ innings of work.
"It was one of those things that was there for the taking," Cowie said of earning the closer role, while still playing some in the outfield. "Going into the winter and Christmas, the coaches said they didn't know who the closer was going to be. It was as much mine as anyone else's. I worked hard and went out and did the best I can do."
Cowie, who said he's been hiking and running while waiting for summer ball to begin, said he has realized what it takes to be a successful closer at a high level.
"You have to be mentally tough and be ready for any situation at any time," he said. "Getting the first out and getting ahead is important."
Like most, Cowie said he is anxious to come to Asheboro.
"I am definitely excited to get back at it because of the abrupt ending of our season," Cowie said. "We were practicing and playing and then in 36 hours our life changed dramatically. I'm excited to get back in action."
Wilhelm has been used out of the bullpen for the Indians this year. He has surrendered just one run in 3 ⅔ innings in five appearances. Last year, he appeared in eight games with one start.
He said he's approaching the summer the same way as if the collegiate season had been completed.
"It's the same just because I was going to go the same way into the season, 110 percent," said Wilhelm, who graduated from West Rowan. "I wasn't going to take it easy. It's all about winning. For me, it's never been about my stuff. I know what I can do. I want to have a good summer and compete every time
I go out there. I want to go out there and be consistent and confident. If I have a bad outing, then go out the next day and do it."
Wilhelm played in Canada last summer.
"Growing up around here, you hear about Asheboro and baseball, so I was coming in extremely excited," Wilhelm said. "I think everyone is itching to get back on the field."
The four Catawba players certainly are.