Middle Creek's baseball team won the East regional series and will go for a state title this weekend. Nothing new for a school from the Tri-Nine Conference. Holly Springs won it all last year.
But aside from both being in the same league, there's not much else the Golden Hawks of 2011 and the Mustangs of 2012 have in common.
Holly Springs, armed with five Division I baseball players (including three who pitched and a fourth pitcher who had a sub-1.50 ERA), had a razor-sharp focus in their championship run, and even before the season started.
Carlos Rodon, now one of 30 finalist for NCAA player of the year as a freshman at N.C. State, headlined a group of six seniors who were three-year starters, and there were a couple juniors who had started for 2-3 years as well. Assembling a team with that talent -- and particularly that level of pitching -- wasn't going to happen often. And they made the most of it by going 27-2.
Now back to Middle Creek (24-7).
The majority of its senior class was on the bench last year. Its top player is committed to Brunswick Community College. The focus has never been to win a state title, even as the Mustangs are on the doorstep of just that.
"Going into the year, no one expected us to do that much, but our defense and pitching has been good all through the year, and we've been hitting the ball good in the playoffs," said junior pitcher/first baseman Graham Edwards. "We're clicking on all cylinders and we're playing good ball right now at the right time of year."
"I guess Holly Springs last year, they expected going into the year to win a championship with Rodon. They were more focused than us. We're just more loose and relaxed. It's like 'Hey, we weren't expected to make it this far, let's just go out there and have fun and play good.'"
It's hard to keep the Mustangs down for long. After losing 6-2 to Richmond County in Game 2 of the 4A East series, the team's bus back home was quiet -- for a few minutes. But soon enough they were back to cutting up and singing.
"We're just out here having a ball," said senior Jimmy Boyd. "We're a legit family."
A similar spark of optimism hit last year's Middle Creek team after a 3-10 start. Mustangs coach Jeremy Thompson got his team focused on just having fun again -- which is easier said than done when you're 3-10. Middle Creek won 12 straight games to close out the season and make the playoffs.
Seven starters graduated from that team, so it was no given that this year's team would quickly adopt the same mindset. But they have, and the Mustangs are two wins away from the school's first NCHSAA state championship.
"They love playing the game so much that they don't want to lose," Thompson said. "It's hard to say who is this team. It's just a bunch of guys who really care about each other who love having fun, who work hard doing what they're supposd to do."
NCHSAA BASEBALL FACTOIDS
- Current Tri-Nine teams have won four 4A baseball state championships in the last 12 years (Lee, '00; Apex '01; Fuquay-Varina '02; Holly Springs '11).
- Since 1996 the 4A state baseball champion has come from the current Tri-Nine Conference or the city of Greenville a whopping 11 out of 16 times.